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Alexis de Tocqueville on Liberty - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 388
Liberty/society/Tocqueville/Plant: It is in the writings of Tocqueville(1,2) that we encounter a more developed set of ideas about the values that underpin liberty. Tocqueville's position falls somewhere between Constant's highly practical account of freedom and a more metaphysically based one, or in modern parlance one based upon a comprehensive doctrine. Cf. >Society/Constant.
Religion/Tocqueville: Tocqueville had a strong commitment to the necessary link as he saw it between religion and the maintenance of liberty, and within religion he approved of the idea of natural law. It is certainly true, as we have already seen, that Tocqueville approves of the role of intermediate institutions in society as a guarantee of liberty, since they stand between the individual and a state whose power grows in a democratic era, and to that extent community life and what falls under what he calls mores or customs are part of what sustains liberty. Religion, however, comes into this because he wants to distinguish between arbitrary mores, conventions and the institutions on which they depend, and those that grow up from religiously and natural law sanctioned habits and forms of character. For Tocqueville, these include the innate idea of freedom and its importance in human life, the recognition of the soul and that the human person is more than a body and mind, and sentiments of honesty and common sense. When these things pervade character they can sustain the 'habits of the heart' that are essential to freedom and a free society.
Constitution/society/Tocqueville: Constitutional arrangements and legislation have to be sustained by these mores for, as he argues in his Conversations with Nassau Senior: 'Liberty depends on the manners and beliefs of the people who are to enjoy it.' These manners and beliefs are more sustaining to liberty if they are held to be true and not just arbitrary or convenient inventions or historical accretions. So what Tocqueville argues for is a regulated liberty held in check by religion, custom and law. He is however certain that constitutions and legislation have to be rooted in ideas of this sort that are pervasive in the population and cannot be brought into being by legislation.


1. Tocqueville, A. de (1945) Democracy in America. New York: Knopf.
2. Tocqueville, A. de (1955) The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Plant, Raymond 2004. „European Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Tocqueville, Alexis de
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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