This interview was conducted with Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University by Tao Wang, who teaches modern Chinese history at Fudan University, and Chris Barker, who teaches political science at Southwestern College.[1] Through a series of questions about Alexis de Tocqueville’s interpretation of American formal institutions and American public and private life, the interviewers intended to capture Professor Mansfield’s understanding of what it is like to see democracy and America from the perspective of Tocqueville–to “see by doing,” which is to see democracy “in” America, and therefore to see America conservatively, in light of the existing facts of democratic life. Below, Professor Mansfield calls what is seen “the fact of freedom.” Tocqueville’s understanding of this fact is explored and compared with the understanding of other liberal thinkers.


Eds.: What is the theme of Democracy in America?


HM: Democracy in America[2] especially is a book on political education. He says right at the beginning that it’s necessary to instruct democracy (DA 1 “Introduction,” 7). So democracy has its own instincts and he approves of them and indeed takes his cue from them rather than from theorists or intellectuals or thinkers. But, nonetheless, democracy needs to be thought through and the people who practice it need to be instructed in it. This implies that although Americans practice self-government in a way that has something to teach the rest of the world, they themselves need to be taught just what they are doing, perhaps better than they know.

You could connect that to what Tocqueville says, in a comical way, about the influence of Descartes, a French philosopher, in America. He says Descartes is better known in America even though nobody has read him (Mansfield 2000, xvii-xviii; DA 2.1.1, 403). You could say that Tocqueville tries to make Americans more aware of what they are doing and, actually, in the example of Descartes, he shows that there is a connection between the coming of democracy and the coming of skepticism about religion. Skepticism about religion starts from the standpoint that human beings have the right to inquire and shouldn’t be forced to accept what they hear and that was a great principle of Descartes; and Tocqueville shows that this applies, or will be taken to apply, not only to philosophers but also to ordinary people.[3] So, in America everyone has become his own Descartes. That tells you something about Descartes and it also tells you about America.[4] Tocqueville is instructing democratic peoples at the same time that he is instructing thinkers or intellectuals about how to appreciate democracy.


Eds.: In discussing Descartes’ influence on Americans, Tocqueville mentions skepticism and also the rise of abstract or general ideas (DA 2.1.3, 411-3). One thing that I like about your presentation of Tocqueville is the emphasis on the “in”—the preposition “in” of Democracy “in” America—and, I don’t know if you agree with this, but it seems that you have to care about democracy as a form of government and America as an actual place to achieve Tocqueville’s balance.[5]


HM: In that, Tocqueville seems, without saying so ever, to be following Aristotle—that the forms are in matter.[6] America is the matter and democracy is the form and the matter has certain characteristics that constrain the form, give it a certain character, just as the nature of wood constrains the making of the table. But the form is more important. As you read through that book, you see that he is sometimes talking about democracy, as the form, and sometimes about America, as the matter in which you see the form. Sometimes it’s more universal about democracy and sometimes it’s more particular about America. But the two are joined. And that’s his main point: one mustn’t look at what he calls the image of democracy as a theoretical abstraction,[7] but rather you must take it from the actual practice of democracy in order to begin in the right way.


Eds.: When I read Democracy in America on the Federal Constitution (DA 1.1.8, 105-64), I noticed that he used the American experience of founding to reveal some mistakes in the French Revolution, especially in their effort to remake society in the light of a law of reason and natural law. I noticed several places where Tocqueville compares the American founding with the experience of the French Revolution (e.g., DA 1.1.5, 92; 1.1.8, 106; Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxiv-v, li). I think that his art of writing has some relation to his intention [to criticize French politics].


HM: Yes, I’m sure that’s right. I’m not sure he uses the phrase “art of writing,” but he certainly practices it and that’s his beautiful style of French—long sentences and short paragraphs.[8] The wonderful formulations and paradoxes…and his insights are always quotable, so you can remember them and other people can pick them out of context and use them, so that he is perhaps more quoted than he is read. His art of writing also builds up an argument throughout the book. It isn’t arranged systematically in the sense of a treatise, but it has a certain movement, which indicates that rhetoric is present together with the thought, and the thought is expressed in rhetoric. He begins with the beginning of America, something like the social contract idea, but he doesn’t emphasize the notion of contract. And if you go to an American history course, the teacher will often cite the Mayflower compact of the Puritans as an anticipation, or even as the practice, of the social contract. But for Tocqueville, no, it’s actually the direct practice of democracy that he thinks the Puritans contribute (DA 1.1.2, 32-6; 1.2.9, 266-7). And then, in time, the Puritan beginning needs to be corrected, which I think takes place at the time of the American Revolution when the separation of church and state is established in America. He doesn’t really call attention to this in his account of things, but it does seem that Tocqueville has, as James Ceaser has said, two foundings: One at the time of the Puritans, and another at the time of the Revolution and the Constitution (Ceaser 2011). And the second one takes America out of the category of theocracy−the Puritan democracy was based on God and man was an instrument of God’s will. This is the way Americans thought of their practice of self-government, but that’s an example of how America corrected itself and needed to find a beginning principle, namely the sovereignty of the people as opposed to the sovereignty of God.


Eds.: Going back to the question of art of writing treatises versus the Tocquevillian approach: in a recent book on Tocqueville, we find an attempt to extract “exportable causal mechanisms” (Elster 2009, 9, 186-191), which seems very much in keeping with value-free social science.


HM: Yes, which book is this?


Eds.: This is Jon Elster’s book, Alexis de Tocqueville, the First Social Scientist.[9] The idea seems to be that what Tocqueville does most of all is to further social science as a discipline, and not to care about democracy as a form of government and America as a concrete place. What are your feelings about this attempt to reconfigure the Tocquevillian approach as value-free social science? Is this a peculiarly democratic way of dealing with Tocqueville?


HM: Yes, you could say it’s an example of a kind of understanding of democracy that Tocqueville tried to oppose. That is, on the one hand it thinks of democracy as equality without special attention to liberty, especially political liberty, and on the other hand it brings intellectuals, or social scientists, to the fore, whereas Tocqueville tries to keep men of intellect, and especially the democratic theorists, in the background. It’s as if he wanted to shut them up. This is what you were speaking of before, the way in which he opposes the French Revolution, which he does think was based on the writings of “literary men” (as opposed to political men), people who wrote about politics without ever having any experience with it.[10] Now, value-free political science is just that, because the only person who would be value-free is someone who is not practicing politics. But if you think that the practice of politics teaches you something about politics and the value of political liberty, then you would have to see by doing, which Tocqueville himself did; for most of his mature life he ran for office and was a member of the constituent assembly in 1848, and earlier too. This practice of politics is the proper beginning point of Tocqueville’s understanding. If you’re in practice, you can’t be value-free, because you’re doing something and you have some aim in view and that means you’re either doing something to change what is established or to maintain it. So you must have an opinion as to whether what is, is worth maintaining or not. So, his value-laden, if you wish, political science goes with the importance of—you might even say the sovereignty of—practice over theory.


Eds.: Sometimes, people who practice politics are more moderate and prudent than people who do not practice politics. I confess to being puzzled about Tocqueville’s definition of “providential fact.” In the preface to Democracy in America, he suggested that the providential fact is universal and enduring (DA 1 “Introduction,” 6; Mansfield 2000, xxxiii-iv, xlviii). It’s kind of like the will of God. People can accept it and adapt themselves to the will of God. It seems that this providentialism is different from modern man’s notion of history. In modern thought, you can discern a law of history, a law of social change; you can grasp the law and use it to change society, but you can’t grasp the will of God, you can’t make it come true.


HM: So that’s the problem, you see.


Eds.: Another thing is Tocqueville’s definition of providence in the Introduction is a little different from his observation of the causes tending to maintain a democratic republic in the US (DA 1.2.9, 264-302). There he says that providence is particular and accidental. The former providence is universal. America as a democratic republic is particular. So I am puzzled. The question is: How do you understand the providential fact?


HM: Well, that is a good thing to notice, the discrepancy between the Introduction and the later chapter on the causes maintaining a democratic republic. I would say that his notion of providence is not simply God’s mysterious will. As he presents religion and God, it isn’t so much mysterious as it is above us: above the capacity of our reason. But God has a mind, which Tocqueville is able to some extent himself to understand, perhaps more than most people. Most of us just see part of God’s mind, which is to say that God’s mind is both democratic and aristocratic. He sees the advantages of both. And we men are biased toward one or the other, apparently necessarily. But that means then that God doesn’t—it isn’t simply an imposition on us, his providence. And the way you see his will is not by looking into the Bible or reading scripture, but by looking at the trend of events. And the trend of events is so powerful and so universal, that it could not have been accomplished—this democratic trend could not have been accomplished—by one person or one country in one time. So it spans the usual limitations of human choice and intention and, therefore, you can see the reason—that it’s reasonable, it has a slow beginning, and gradually comes to flower in full public expression in America for the first time. And you can see that it’s not in that sense an accident, because it’s a trend, which is intelligible. But from the standpoint of someone, an American statesman, it is an accident because it could have been otherwise and it’s not something that you can control. Therefore, it can be both universal and particular in the sense that you, having to live in a country at a certain time and having to act, have to deal with this fact and you are unable to change it—it is only that you can give it one direction or another. So in the causes maintaining republics, he starts with those which are not under human control,[11] the particular and the accidents of that time, or as they appear at that time, and then the things that Americans do to maintain the republic on their own.


Eds.: And from your point of view, what difference is there between providence and the modern notion of history?


HM: The modern notion of history is either imposed on us and is a kind of chance, fate, and that’s if history has no direction, and no development toward an end. Or, as with Marx and Nietzsche, history does have a development toward the end, but it’s still imposed on us and keeps us from acting against it and this is very much a part of today’s rhetoric of statesmen. As Hillary Clinton said recently, China was against history and that’s a losing proposition (Goldberg 2011). You can never beat or defeat history. Now, Tocqueville would say some kind of democracy is inevitable, but there can be a good kind and a bad kind, and maybe different good kinds and different bad kinds. So he doesn’t use providence as a way of avoiding or preventing or forestalling human action as do the causal mechanisms of social science.


Eds.: In other words, when he criticizes the democratic historian for latching onto generalities, he avoids that himself−even though he invokes a 700 year span of historical development−because he refuses to disregard human agency (DA 1 “Introduction,” 3-4).


HM: Yes, that’s right. Human agency is always particular. It’s in a particular country, in a particular time.


Eds.: It seems Tocqueville has a very ambiguous attitude towards restiveness. In his book, he describes the minds of democratic man as restive. In Pascal, restiveness is a basic condition of humans, not just an exclusive characteristic of democratic man.[12] Tocqueville has narrowed the restiveness to democratic men and replaced the religious ground of restiveness in Pascal with another ground: the democratic social state or the condition of equality. That is my first puzzle. My second is that he said that democratic man has a restive mind, and he said in his Letters that he himself has a restive mind.[13] Does that mean that Tocqueville is not different from a democratic man?


HM: Yes, that’s what Peter Lawler means to say in his book The Restless Mind (Lawler 1993, 78-84). Although he would say that Tocqueville was not getting away from Pascal. And that there is a kind of religious basis to his thinking. I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know. I see two kinds of restiveness. In the first place, restiveness is my translation of the French inquiétude, and more usually, it is translated “restlessness.” And I made it “restiveness” because I think there is a kind of thumos behind it, or anger, and hence a certain reason.[14] You’re restive because you’re dissatisfied and you have a reason for your dissatisfaction. And inquiétude, I would say, in Pascal; he would say that people are restive or restless because they can’t find a reason, because the universe is ultimately mysterious. And when they find a reason, this is a kind of distraction or diversion from the mysteriousness of things and from the awfulness of death. I would say that in Tocqueville, reason can be the characteristic of the democratic state as a social state and, in that way, not so respectable or so interesting because it indicates the character of the materialistic life of democratic Americans—that they are interested in material enjoyments because they can’t think of anything more substantial, more enduring, than the goods which are right before them. But the trouble is that there are so many material goods and their economy is always making new things.


Eds.: Without any clear hierarchy…


HM: And today, we travel everywhere, and there are so many attractive places to go it’s hard to fasten on any one. So you end up making a more or less arbitrary choice of where you choose to go. Your life is limited, and you do have that sense of it; you want to try as many new things as you can, and democracy is in line with the desire for what’s new. That’s a special characteristic, which is not as appreciable as the other one. Now the other is that democracy can be angry or restive or dissatisfied. That can be the basis of liberty because it tells you that you need to change or govern yourself instead of accepting what others tell you.


Eds.: That’s a very interesting point; I haven’t thought of that. For Pascal, it seems that both reason and faith are weak. He talks about being suspended between two infinities or over an infinite abyss (Pascal 1670/2008, 52, 66-72, 161). In your interpretation of Lawler’s argument, you’re suggesting that Lawler should translate inquiétude as having too few reasons, but for you, having too many reasons…


HM: Yes, you could say that, too many desires.


Eds.: …and not being able to choose between them all. We also see this criticism of a certain man that suffers from inquiétude in Lucretius, who is pre-Christian and materialistic.[15] My follow up question is: Is the inquiétude of having too many reasons materialistic?


HM: No, that is why I was distinguishing between the materialistic uneasiness or restlessness and the one that has reason behind it.


Eds.: But couldn’t you say for a materialist that there’s no hierarchy of goods and the choices that they make are arbitrary, and therefore they have this certain restiveness where they see all sorts of things that are interesting and delightful but—


HM: —But nothing is really intelligible.


Eds.: Well, yes, exactly. It’s the red gold that doesn’t delight in Faust (Goethe 1949, 51).


HM: Yes, so I mean that democracy has good restlessness that leads it to self-government and a bad one that leads it to the endless search for material enjoyment.


Eds.: In your introduction to Democracy in America, you said that restiveness “is for him the normal, and perhaps the highest, condition of the human soul” (Mansfield 2000, xxiv). I don’t understand this.


HM: (laughter) Tocqueville likes to speak of first causes, but perhaps the main first cause for him is human liberty or political liberty. He seems to substitute that for the highest good that you would get in Plato and Aristotle or in the Socratic tradition generally (Plato 1991, 505a, 508e). And that means that you’re a bit unsettled as to what the good is or what the highest good is. The highest good in a way becomes the unsettled character of the free mind. It’s a shift from the quality of the object of the mind to the quality of the mind itself.


Eds.: So Tocqueville has a restive mind in the sense of his having reasons. Not for material—


HM: —But it isn’t such a reason that he would surrender his freedom for it.


Eds.: I mean, could we call this “searching” or “zetetic” in the sense that he is searching for the…you say, not the best way of life, not the best regime (Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxx), but a modification of a liberal and equal regime so that one lives as well as one can? Is that the sort of idea?


HM: Hmm. It’s one which supports political practice rather than separates us from it, or abstracts us from it.


Eds.: A related question is this: What can be done with restiveness and can people’s restive energy be channeled through political forms?


HM: Yes, I think it can. That’s the good part of restlessness, or the good aspect of it as opposed to the material part, which just gives one an unending—an infinite—desire for what is new. If you have to govern yourself, then you make yourself responsible and you see that you cannot govern yourself with a plan for making yourself always anew. To govern means to adopt and see to the practice of some principle of ruling. It’s to give your life direction, and you might have to change course in order to keep to a particular direction in different circumstances. But there is consistency to it that could be described and stated to which a person or a people can devote itself.


Eds.: Because of individualism and materialism, a democratic man may be petty or weak. Is “democratic man” the same as the “last man” in Nietzsche (1883/1995, 17-9)? Or is there any similarity between the democratic man and the last man?


HM: Well, sure there’s a similarity. They both use the same word “herd”—troupeau—“herd morality” (Nietzsche 1887/1989, 13, 21, 104-4, 113-4; Mansfield 2000, lxiii-vi, lxx; DA 2.4.6, 663). I think that Tocqueville’s democratic man is not yet the last man and the difference is the practice of political liberty and of self-government. That’s what keeps people from losing all their desire to do anything or to be active, and from turning themselves over to Big Government. Tocqueville’s statement is much more directly political than Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche is already in the trend of thinking that culture has a kind of inherent movement of its own and is not under political control, so that the last man is a kind of cultural product and not so much a democratic product. In fact, democracy will be a consequence of the last man rather than a cause of it, I think, for Nietzsche.


Eds.: So, to a cultural problem, we are offered a cultural and creative solution?


HM: Yes, that right in general. I mean, there is obviously some politics in Nietzsche too, but that is not his main focus.


Eds.: Does Tocqueville’s emphasis on human greatness anticipate Nietzsche’s criticism of the Last Man? Tocqueville and Nietzsche both have aristocratic ideals.


HM: Well, but Nietzsche has too much contempt for democracy, I’m sure Tocqueville would say. Yes, there is a similarity. They’re both interested in human greatness. Human beings are not human unless they’re great, and Nietzsche thinks that tells against democracy, and Tocqueville agrees but only up to a point, because democracy is capable of self-government and that is a kind of greatness. It brings within the reach of the average person the same sort of accomplishment that a great man might have and that is to set a course, a certain course, a certain direction to follow and then to do it despite difficulties and opposition.


Eds.: That brings up a related question about pride and honor, which are contested goods in our modern democracy. We democrats—to use that phrase again—look at honor killings in India and Africa and see what we think are improper uses of pride and honor, oriented by our pride or by our gender at the expense of others’ freedom and equality (DA 2.3.18, 590-1). We were hoping that you could distinguish, on Tocquevillian grounds, bad pride from good pride: the good pride that he wants to foster and that he thinks is really required for a liberal democratic republic, and the bad pride that must be rejected.


HM: Well first, as you suggested, he wants to establish the need for pride as against the opposition to the very idea of pride that one finds in democracy. Somehow, both science and democracy are hostile to honor and pride. Science is hostile to it because it seeks the most general causes, so it always wants to abstract from the power or causal force of individual human beings (Mansfield 2013). That leads it to want to abstract from human causes as compared to natural causes that are more general, and democracy wants to do the same thing because it wants to see to it that the people rule, that they are the cause. They are the sovereigns. If people are sovereign, this they can only do through great leaders or institutions that qualify their equality and enable them to rule themselves under a certain principle for a certain direction. So democracy tends to cancel out the influence of human intention because human intention is always inherently aristocratic in character. It requires that we stand out—that great men stand out from most men and that most men are guided by institutions that were originally made by great men and that call for greatness. Democracy sort of cancels itself out because it insists on so much equality that the only possible cause is one that determines the whole of mankind, but this cause would have to come from outside mankind. If it doesn’t, if it comes from within mankind, the first cause is in some sense aristocratic because it sets the cause over the effect in a kind of a hierarchy.


Eds.: Does this mean that a liberal democracy is self-contradictory, in the sense that when it moves from status to contract (Maine 1861/2005, 100) by attacking pride and honor it undermines the conditions that would enable a contractual society?


HM: That’s right. Hence, for Tocqueville, status and contract are not opposed. Contract requires status; it requires honor. That’s because it’s about self-government, it’s not about making a bargain between buyer and seller.


Eds.: Looking back from the present day on voluntary associations—literary and scientific associations, the press, political associations, and parties—Tocqueville says that we democrats can compose aristocratic bodies and he elsewhere says that an aristocratic body is a “firm and enlightened man who does not die” (DA 1.2.4, 183-4; 1.2.5, 220). What are the prospects of association in his day and today?


HM: Oh, they’re still here. The voluntary associations are the informal side of democratic practice. The formal side is still needed. Those are the more directly political institutions, constitutions, and institutions of self-government. But the two obviously feed each other. There wouldn’t be much point in voluntary association if you couldn’t affect politics by doing so. On the other hand, politics—democratic politics—naturally opens itself to movements from the people from the outside, and though it’s true Tocqueville makes a distinction between civil associations and political associations, which is interesting, one of the examples that he gives is of both, and that is the temperance movement, which is civil, because it wasn’t directed by any legislator or the consequence of some law, and political, because it wanted to make a law prohibiting or restricting the use of alcohol (DA 1.2.6, 232). He calls that temperance movement both a civil association in one place and political in another place.


Eds.: We’re hardly talking about Volume I, Part I, and I wonder if it’s because we think that the formal side of politics is more robust and we’ve been influenced to think that the possibilities of voluntary associations are less robust today. Do you think that’s the case today?


HM: No, I would say that no, it’s the character of our political science. It thinks that informal institutions are more powerful than formal ones. The workings of formal institutions owe everything to the informal groupings or conspiracies [laughter] behind them, so that our political science, again, shows one of the features of decayed democracy in that it doesn’t pay sufficient attention to forms.


Eds.: So we focus on what we can change and control rather than the forms we have to abide by for the sake of liberty. Is that the idea?


HM: No, we focus on working from behind the scenes rather than directly intending something. Politics is presented as a kind of manipulation instead of a kind of action. Campaigns, pressure groups, parties: this is where the focus of democratic political science is. Not on constitutions or on great leaders.


Eds.: A related question is about mild despotism and rational control. I’m very interested in rational control.


HM: So am I! [laughter]


Eds.: Tocqueville brought up two kinds of tyranny, or despotism: one is majority tyranny and another is mild despotism. The mechanisms of these two kinds of tyranny or despotism are different. The second, mild despotism, was built up on corrupted society—fragmented and individualized society, where people just care about themselves or their small circle and family and don’t want to care about things beyond themselves…


[The lights in the office automatically go out.]


HM: This is an example of rational control that doesn’t work.[16]


Eds.: …on the other hand, the expansion or the invasion of bureaucratic state agencies into human life, people’s lives, seems to contribute to the people’s submission to the state. So, it’s kind of like, how can I say, mild despotism created democratic man.


HM: Uh huh, not the other way around.


Eds.: We just questioned the priority of politics or culture [in talking of Nietzsche]. In a sense, we’re now revisiting that question. Is this account roughly correct: Democracy, involving a belief in materialism, gives rise to the desire for comfortable satisfaction or self-preservation, which can be achieved in private life and in the family. This results in the atomization of society, and that atomized society can be directed benevolently and effectively—this is not to say that rational administration or the administrative state is a wicked despotism—but it’s benevolent yet somehow sapping of something that is important, namely political life and participation, and it leads, as an unintended consequence, to a diminution of soul?


HM: Rational control is a defective and crippled politics. It tries to do what politics does, but it replaces political liberty with administrative science so it can be effective or efficient. Though it isn’t so necessarily, as we just saw in the example of the lights that turn on by themselves, and also turn off when you don’t want them to turn off. Rational control is the political side of individualism (DA 2.2.2-4, 482-8). It’s the kind of government that you would have in a society characterized by individualism, that is, a society in which individuals consider themselves wholes by themselves, and try to live a life of self-contained satisfaction together with their friends and family, somewhat inconsistently. [laughter]


Eds.: So the problem with that wholeness is that what you see when you see yourself—the individual as a whole—is only the satisfactions, the desires that are right in front of you? Nothing higher than yourself?


HM: Yes.


Eds.: Including politics, but also religion?


HM: Obviously; you aren’t everything. [laughter] But you act as if you were. Anything that is outside of yourself, you give over to the outside. So, to external forces, and that would include the regulations of bureaucratic government, of Big Government as he calls it, “the immense being.” He used that phrase earlier in his book to refer to God (Mansfield 2000, xviii, lxx; DA 2.1.7, 426; 2.4.3, 644). God becomes the rational control of administration in his picture of late, corrupted democracy. And this is the mild despotism that he speaks of. In the first volume of Democracy in America, he speaks of majority tyranny, but never of mild despotism, and in the second volume it’s the reverse: he speaks of mild despotism and never of majority tyranny. This leads to a big question among Tocqueville scholars as to whether this amounts to a change of mind and if so, how much of one? Some think he’s changed his whole orientation. I rather think that no, he hasn’t, and he’s just developing one point and leading to that point through the first volume. The first volume speaks of an angry majority that actively imposes its will and it ends with the example of the races, in which Americans impose their will on Indians and Blacks, depriving them, in one case, of their freedom—the Blacks of their freedom—and the Indians of their homes (DA 1.2.10, 302-96). Tocqueville looks at those two things differently (Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, lix). The Indians, he thinks, led a life that was just incompatible with the white man’s civilization (DA 1.2.10, 312-3), whereas the slavery of blacks he blames very much on the whites (DA 1.2.10, 326-9). And majority tyranny in this case is based on prejudice of the white race over the blacks. It’s today what we call racism, whereas mild despotism is benevolent and rational. It’s not angry, but it’s intended for your own good. The government wants to teach you how to farm, and so it requires you to adopt certain rational methods of farming and those may be an improvement and may not. They put you in mind of the control of nature, the conquering of nature by science for the benefit of people who don’t understand science and just simply profit from it without being able either to understand it or control it themselves.


Eds.: Like you have said in many places, one of the peculiarities of Tocqueville is that he combines religion with liberty, contrary to many other liberal thinkers. He wrote that religion is the “most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries” (DA 2.2.15, 519; Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, lxxxiii). He hopes to use religion to counteract individualism and materialism. If we push his arguments to the extreme to see what role religion can play in democracy, he seems to suggest that democracy will be doomed without religion. This is not my point; I read Leo Strauss’s short piece on Tocqueville and it is Strauss who says that anti-religious or a-religious democracy will be doomed.[17] That is a very condensed opinion. I’m very curious about the kind of religion that counteracts individualism and materialism and gives people a taste for the infinite sentiment of grandeur and for the love of immaterial pleasure.


HM: Well, you have to think what the alternative to religion is. The alternative to religion is philosophy. Philosophy is based on inquiry, skeptical inquiry. Skeptical inquiry never produces conviction because you can always find something to object to in whatever view you’ve found, and if you study the philosophers who have written, you see that they disagree and that they themselves have established very little, so you end by doubting. And doubt, he says, produces a kind of paralysis—it’s not a positive doubt that leads you to find something better, because there doesn’t seem to be anything better (DA 2.1.5, 418). It’s a bad doubt, a passive doubt that leaves you paralyzed and unable to do anything because you don’t know what you want to accomplish, and you don’t think that in any case you can do it even if you did know it. So the alternative to that is religion which is based on faith or conviction. I think Tocqueville presents religion as a substitute for philosophy. Philosophy is hostile to the practical life, to action, to doing things because it leaves you paralyzed by doubt, whereas religion gives you conviction on a certain few basic points which human beings need in order to act or even to live. So, democracy especially needs this kind of religion, which is a sort of simplified philosophy, because it needs to guide itself and doesn’t have faith in God or in any kind of human authority, which is unequal, hierarchical. Religion is democratic because it applies to everybody, and Tocqueville’s always thinking of the Christian religion as democratic. Everybody has a soul and all souls are equal. But it also supplies you with the truths that you need in order to give a firm grounding to your action. Here is where the political action of Americans has its basis. You see that from the Puritans at the beginning, and it continues today. So he says, if you want to be a slave, you can be satisfied with doubt, but if you want to be free, you have to believe (e.g., DA 1 “Introduction,” 12; 1.1.2, 43).


Eds.: Does he ever specify in what we believe?


HM: Well, the main point of religion for him is the immortality of the soul (DA 2.2.15, 517-9) and that tells you that you’re something special; it lifts you above the rest of the universe, as a kind of denial of pantheism (DA 2.1.7, 425-6; Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, lxv). And so it grounds your pride and your sense of honor.


Eds.: All humans have a soul and only humans have a soul.


HM: Right. And second, it gives you something to do with your life that is not just material enjoyment. It gives you an infinitely precious thing, your immortal soul—what could be more valuable than that? Obviously, Americans don’t always behave as if they thought their souls were immortal. They’re too materialistic for that, but still, religion is a kind of constant reminder that this is not enough. And so it’s a counteracting force to democratic materialism.


Eds.: Would a truly democratic religion—a religion for a democratic age—consist primarily in these propositions: That we have a soul, and that it’s immortal?


HM: Yes, and that would imply God, who made you with such a soul, and faith in the God who did so. But it would also seem reasonable to you because these propositions make sense. They keep you from being just like the rest of the universe, just like a bit of matter or a well-organized bit of matter.


Eds.: Would you like to say something about woman now?


HM: Tocqueville’s women?[18]


Eds.: Exactly. Tocqueville’s women are in some sense the indirect legislators of public life, for whom religion reigns as a sovereign (DA 1.2.9, 279), but—we would nowadays say, “but”—these women freely choose to devote themselves to a man, to a husband. So could you say something about why his view makes sense, perhaps even more so than the present day understanding of the democratic rule of women in a democracy?


HM: Women rule through mores. So, in order to justify and explain the role of women, he has to tell you what mores are.[19] Mores are customs, laws—customary laws—that take effect insensibly through the reminders, not to say nagging, of women especially. Women attach themselves to a man and try to make him better, and I’m adding a little bit to Tocqueville here to explain some of the features of the thought he means to present. Now, he thinks that women are equal to men and equal even in manliness because he calls American women “virile” or manly (DA 2.3.12, 574). They’re able to use their own reason to make their way in the world. They don’t have to be sheltered in convents from exposure to temptation or things that women shouldn’t see. They know everything and they use religion only as a last resort, he says, somewhat strangely. [laughter] And, they freely enter the bonds of matrimony and accept the duties of matrimony, which include the education or taming of their husbands, as well of their children. So it’s a difficult situation and he doesn’t think that American women are especially joyful or are happy. They don’t have things taken care of for them as under aristocracy, such that they are free to enjoy themselves and play and flirt. [laughter] Instead, American women are sad and serious—


Eds.: …as are American men. [laughter]


HM: Yes…and that’s also because American men are rather unerotic, being absorbed in seeking material gain and material pleasure (DA 2.3.15, 582-4), so they don’t particularly make good lovers, or good dates, as we would say. I think this is also a picture, again, a picture of a social contract such as we saw in the Puritans and in the importance that Tocqueville gives to political liberty. But he calls this the marital—the conjugal association (DA 2.3.12, 574). It’s one of the associations in the general, universal theory of associations that he says exists, and one should pay attention to that. When he says “theory of associations,” that sounds like it’s a part of his new political science (DA 2.2.7, 497; 1 “Introduction,” 7; Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xliii). His new political science is something that you gather as you read through; it’s never presented in one place. You have to understand it bit by bit and put it together yourself and become your own political scientist. In doing so, you see that, again, this is women freely binding themselves to obey. That is just what the social contract does. But they do it freely, they’re not quickly driven into it, to use Locke’s phrase, or forced into it by having to leave a state of nature (1690/1988, 352). On the contrary, they leave something good for something less good. Something good is the freedom they have as jeunes filles, teenagers or young girls even, getting their education, and they use their education to freely accept their bonds, you could even say their bondage (DA 2.3.9-10, 563-7). And it also tells you that freedom has limits. We’re not free of our sex, or of our families, or of the necessity to obey.


Eds.: Right, in your Very Short Introduction to Tocqueville, you discuss women twice, if I recall, and there you present the passage of women from their freedom to their bondage as a necessary passage (Mansfield 2010a, 30-1, 74-7). They’re allowed to—or they can


HM: Yes, he says they freely accept it, yes (DA 2.3.10, 566; 2.3.12, 575). It’s a necessary in the sense that you can’t not be married in those times, or at least very few can…


Eds.: And today?


HM: And just as today, just as society is a necessity too. Necessity in this way is not an opposition to freedom. If freedom is what you choose, then there are necessary things that go with the capacity to choose. And one is having a society with a government that has police and laws and judges and so on.


Eds.: And a household?


HM: And a household. Yes.


Eds.: So if we can go back, a few minutes ago you said that we have to become our own political scientists. You have said elsewhere that religion is the first premise of this new political science that we piece together as we read Tocqueville, which, as you know, is a challenging and interesting claim to make (Mansfield 2010, 32). I think I understand it in part, but I’d like to understand it more fully. One way of doing that would be to contrast the way Tocqueville includes religion within his new political science with the way that Auguste Comte identifies the two or calls “religious” his new sociology (Comte 1852/2009). How does Tocqueville maintain the separation [between science and politics]? He says that religion is powerful when it’s distinct from politics—and we can talk about science in a second—but how does he maintain religion’s power while still including it within this new political science?


HM: He doesn’t oppose religion so much to reason. It’s true that every religion is based on an authority and on a particular belief. That means there’s something wrong about using the abstract word religion, since religion is always instantiated in a religion. I think he’s quite aware of that and he’s also quite aware of the need for authority that a thinker like Comte wishes to emphasize. But, this is a freely adopted authority for Tocqueville and his religion is not customary in a way that it is for Comte.


Eds.: Tocqueville said that the separation of church and state contributes to Americans’ zeal for religion. He says that, again, religion is powerful when it doesn’t try to meddle in politics (DA 1.2.9, 284)…


HM: That’s right.


Eds.: And so one can see how the church suffers when its doctrines are put in tension with, say, Darwinism. One way of avoiding that is to keep faith, belief, and immortal soul distinct from political engagement or engagement with science. Does the separation of church and state contribute to that? Is that the reason why, when you look at Pew surveys, you find that America is an outlier with respect to religiosity, and other democracies, such as Japan, [those] in Scandinavia, etc., are much more atheistic?[20]


HM: I don’t know Tocqueville’s full view on this. He might make a distinction between the practical importance of religion and the theoretical. And the theoretical importance of religion does seem to be in conflict with science and with human reason and with the intellect, and he wants to sustain the theoretical premises and inquiries of science, which he sees, I think, to be more characteristic of ancient times than of modern times. And that would imply a certain distance from religion and from faith, authority. But his more practical view of religion, as I said, does not depend on custom so much—it’s rational. The purpose of religion is to free your practical rationality…free it from the paralysis of doubt, make it possible for you to act and to govern yourself. Just how to make that consistent with some of the theories of science, for example, Darwinism, is perhaps something of a problem that might pose a difficulty with Tocqueville.


Eds.: Right, in Volume Two, Part One, Chapter Ten, Tocqueville defends science as a vocation and sees the need to create, he says, “great scientific passions,” which he doesn’t think is characteristic of a democratic age where you would see applied science rather than theoretical science (DA 2.1.10, 438). He’s left with a tension there that it is difficult to leave as a tension rather than to resolve.


HM: Right. I mean, in the separation of church and state he seems to apply more to morality and politics than to science. So the separation of church and state keeps religion pure. Now, what is pure: it’s not involved in the politics of a particular country or therefore of a particular party, and therefore religion can be stronger if it’s not made particular or civil. It’s a little bit like Kant’s view of morality: the purer the morality, the stronger it is. If you introduce some empirical—what Kant calls an empirical principle (Kant 1785/2012, 3-6, 23-6)—you weaken it.


Eds.: So, this is a difficult problem to keep religion and science in some sense in salutary tension…


HM: Yes, right.


Eds.: …and to keep religion pure, and yet not wildly moralizing and overreaching.


HM: That’s right. Yes. Yes, so that you’re counting on democratic self-government to keep religion within bounds, among other things. And there is a reciprocal relationship between democracy and religion: democracy affects religion and religion affects democracy. Democracy can make religion more exaggerated and populist and irrational and evangelical. It’s hostile to religious rites and religious forms and religious offices. But on the other hand, religion does tell a democrat that his soul is more important than his property.


Eds.: What you said brings up a related question concerning the vices and the virtues characteristic of certain political forms. You have compared Tocqueville with some contemporary liberal thinkers, including Guizot and Constant (Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxv-xxix). Tocqueville emphasized the difficulty of formalizing the liberty of democratic politics, especially in light of the power of majorities. In the United States, for instance, the Declaration of Independence seems opposed to the counter-majoritarian operation of the Constitution. Self-evident truths push people to ask for more equality…


HM: Yes, that’s true…


Eds.: …and the people always want to change the political structure of the United States…


HM: …that’s very true.


Eds.: …to ask for more responsiveness from Washington. So, how does the constitution play a role in formalizing American democracy?


HM: Yes…and what you say about the Declaration may be the reason why Tocqueville doesn’t mention it in Democracy in America (Mansfield 2010a, 4). It leads to too much endorsement of democratic passions for equality, always stronger than the passion for—or the taste, he says—for liberty. The Constitution, he thinks, America was very fortunate to have. There was an aristocratic party, the Federalist Party, that had, I guess, an aristocratic sense of responsibility for the democracy, and that founded it as a republic rather than as a democracy. That’s a distinction that Madison makes in the Federalist 10 (Hamilton, Jay, and Madison 1787/2003, 76). But, Tocqueville doesn’t think that that founding has lasted, that’s true. So he says in the beginning of the second part of the first volume, where he introduces the informal aspects of American democracy, that the people are sovereign (DA 165).[21] They get what they want sooner or later, usually sooner, actually. And so the optimism that other liberals of his time had that a constitution could contain democratic passions he thought was wrong and exaggerated and denied by American practice. When he came to America, he saw the America of Andrew Jackson: a populist democratic president who got the job because he won a battle, which Tocqueville says was nothing but a skirmish (DA 1.2.9, 265). [laughter] So he was not really a hero, but just a man who knew how to play on democratic passions. And this has taken over from the constitution—well, that would be exaggerated. I don’t think he quite believes that. But it’s because democracy is hostile to forms that it needs forms. If it were naturally deferent and reverential, as perhaps British democracy is more than American, then the problem wouldn’t be as great. But forms are disliked by democratic peoples because they get in the way of what you want immediately and directly. They enforce what’s called due process on government, so that you have to do it in a certain way, and this is where the influence or the function of lawyers comes in, too. Lawyers know the ins and outs, the technicalities of due process and they take it upon themselves as a body to enforce those legal formalities in American politics, very successfully, because, as he says, in America a political question always becomes a legal question (DA 1.2.8, 257). So in that way, the respect for forms lasts but through these two aristocratic bodies: first, the Federalist party, and second, the lawyers, which this written constitution, which is itself a fundamental law has set up, has made possible.


Eds.: This is also the place where we should introduce that phrase, “self-interest well understood.” In your Tocqueville: A Very Short Introduction, you say that the democratic citizen should be “prevented from going directly to one’s self-interest but compelled to do so legally or constitutionally or conventionally or respectfully or formally” (Mansfield 2010a, 28). Is the purpose of forms to prevent you from leaping directly to achieve the satisfactions you desire?


HM: Yes.


Eds.: And to slow you down so that you do so respectfully, as you say?


HM: Yes, respectfully, that means formally, so to speak, wearing a coat and a tie. Those things which keep you from feeling comfortable.


Eds.: Right. The democrat would say, “Why?”


HM: Yes.


Eds.: Well, I’ll ask that question for him.


HM: You see, it’s because it’s too easy to be comfortable. You indulge yourself in immediate satisfactions and forget the need of curtailing your passions for the sake of something more lasting. So forms remind you of what is important. For example, to get married in a formal ceremony reminds you of the importance of this step.


Eds.: Is that primarily for your own self-respect and self-development as opposed to a respect for others?


HM: Yes.


Eds.: …So, it’s not driven by a need for reciprocity? It’s driven more by the self-development of the individual?


HM: Yes. It makes you think more of yourself to abide by those forms and it makes other people think more of you. So on your first date, you get dressed up, you bring some flowers; and if you’re going to be examined orally, a student will get dressed up. And they do this without being told. In the time of the late ’60s, it was a sign of democratic passion on the loose that students would come to an oral exam dressed in jeans with holes in them. That meant they weren’t taking this exercise seriously or themselves seriously.


Eds.: I suppose, yes, they’re saying in some sense to the people examining them: I don’t want to be like you. I don’t see that as being great or good?


HM: Yes, even though I’ve spent the last four years [as a student] doing that.


Eds.: Right, yes, it’s sort of self-contradictory.


HM: Yes, it is. You’re condemning yourself.


Eds.: Returning again to the matter of formalizing democratic politics, we were interested in knowing how much autonomy or self-determination local governments or local communities can have within a union or a nation. Does Tocqueville have a model for the cooperation of different levels of government? John Stuart Mill has one but it’s very general. At the very end of On Liberty, he defends the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency, plus the greatest possible centralization of information (Mill 1859/1977, 309). We push information to the center and we also devolve power or execution to local bodies. And, for him, that’s a sufficient model for how we can have local energy and, frankly, the rule of elites at the center.


HM: Well, Tocqueville, as ever, I think, leaves a problem for democratic peoples to solve freely by means of the institutions of their political liberty. So, instead of a model, he makes a distinction between the centralization of sovereignty and of general questions, and administrative decentralization. So you can make decisions at the center, but they should be administered locally with as much participation of citizens in the elections as possible. So he likes it that there are many, many elections going on in America for many offices (DA 2.2.4, 486). This brings citizens out of the mass and makes them address their fellow citizens, trying to get elected, and teaches them how to accomplish things in a free country, where there’s often opposition to what one might think is rational, superior.


Eds.: A couple of these bodies that he discusses are the New England Township government, a form of government that is presented as natural (DA 1.1.5, 57), and the civil jury. We talked a little about lawyers, but participation in the civil jury is a sort of free school (DA 1.2.8, 262). How alive are those things today? How Tocquevillian can one be when analyzing the present-day energy of American democracy?


HM: I think that they’re both considerably alive. Those are the formal ways, and then the informal ways are through voluntary associations. I do think it’s often treated as a pain [laughter], but you feel obliged if people are running for office for the Cambridge City Council to find out whom you like and whom you don’t, and to take more interest than you would if it were just being run from Washington. Like, say, the Social Security Administration, which has an office in Cambridge as it has in most other cities—several offices—but it doesn’t ask people to participate in the decisions which are made. And it’s good that people run for office and that people vote for office, many times. And the juries, I think, also, that’s again a pain because it takes you out of your routine of your regular job. And you have to sacrifice. [laughter] You get paid, but not very much.


Eds.: I think I’ve seen a recent survey, where, of the mail you receive, the letter you don’t want to receive is about jury duty…


HM: …Call for jury service, yes. And they can be inconvenient, but if you talk to people who have been on juries, they think they have learned something. Tocqueville tries to make that a little more specific. You learn that generalities—laws are generalities, or generalizations—don’t always work in the individual circumstances of human life, so you have to apply a generality to a particular person. And you have to keep the generality alive; that is, you have to obey the law, maintain respect for the law, but you also have to satisfy the justice that the law is aiming at, but sometimes doesn’t achieve.


Eds.: Well, this suggests a related question about competing notions of political control and about colonialism. You know, for example, John Stuart Mill has a defense of benevolent despotism. He calls it the “government of leading-strings” and suggests that we have a moral duty to elevate cultures which are historically backward and immobile, and to advance them so that they share the civility of modern, liberal democracies (Mill 1861/1977, 396). Tocqueville, in his non-Democracy in America and non-Old Regime and the Revolution writings, has a few letters on Algeria (Tocqueville 2001). He visited Algeria in 1841, but he doesn’t share Mill’s view. He has a more ambivalent approach to colonialism.


HM: Yes, he certainly wanted to use France’s influence to abolish slavery and also to civilize the peoples and the colonies that they had, but he doesn’t apologize for it and I think it’s because it’s a part of democratic greatness that a more civilized country—a democratic country—could have an empire, be a colonial power (Mansfield 2010a, 111). It would do it in a different way from the tsar, but it wouldn’t refrain from doing it, necessarily.


Eds.: And that’s a part of pride,


HM: Yes…


Eds.: …pride connected to equality, in this case, and to the principles of the revolution.


HM: Yes, but pride in the superiority of France, too.


Eds.: Okay, it’s not disconnected from the Gallic pride in one’s own nation.


HM: No, no.


Eds.: It’s particular…


HM: [laughter] We’ve had a wonderful revolution and we’re going to impose it on you.


Eds.: Yes, and it seems that he doesn’t care about the freedom of people who live in these colonies.


HM: Yes, well, except for the slavery. That they shouldn’t have. And I think he wants it pretty much the way the British did: to teach them, gradually, democratic practices and institutions.


Eds.: So we shouldn’t shy away from connecting national pride and the word empire—we can still embrace that in talking about democratic greatness…


HM: Yes.


Eds.: …today as well as in Tocqueville’s time?


HM: Today, it would be desirable in many places, [laughter] but is no longer tenable because of the misinterpretation of the right of self-determination. You have the right of self-determination even if you’re not a democratic or a free country. So Gaddafi has the same right, or the same sovereignty…he’s equal among the powers of the world.[22]


Eds.: Regardless of the principles and aims of the regime.


HM: That’s right.


Eds.: We talked briefly about Tocqueville’s intention in discussing the races at the end of Volume One. In your reading, the focus is on pride, and the example of racially-driven majority tyranny shows, sort of like the Goldilocks fable, the different types of pride one can have. The red Indians’ pride, which doesn’t allow them to enjoy civilization at all; the white man’s pride, which results in the extermination of Indians and the subjugation of blacks; and the blacks’ attempt to fit into civilized society even at the expense of….


HM: …of slavery.


Eds.: Right, yes. So, do we see here a good example of the centrality of pride?


HM: Yes, you certainly do. So [in DA 1.2.10] he presents the three races almost theoretically, and may somewhat distort his description of things in order to make the point that he seems to want to make. His intention, I would say, is again to show what a free government is and what it requires. It seems to require something of the reds and something of the blacks. Something of the reds—freedom—and something of the blacks—obedience. Civilization requires obedience. You have to obey what’s reasonable and the power that you yourself have set up as reasonable. So obedience is certainly a factor. That’s what the Indians altogether lacked and which kept them primitive and their freedom at war with itself. They didn’t know how to live in peace, to have a peaceful, farming existence. He says that, I have forgotten how he phrases it, something to the effect that the white is a man par excellence, combining this slavery and this freedom, this obedience and this freedom to make a free government that makes obedience legitimate.[23] Remember that’s the problem you see in the introduction to Democracy in America, that democracy doesn’t seem to be as legitimate as aristocracy is…Legitimate and free at the same time (Mansfield 2000, xxxvii; DA 1 “Introduction,” 12-3).


Eds.: Okay, so I think I’m seeing more clearly why he has that very curious structure where in his chapter on the three races, he includes very broad reflections finishing Volume One on the prospects for the Union and for the Republic as well (DA 1.2.10, 379-84)…


HM: Yes.


Eds.: He’s approaching the races as a political philosopher, I guess one would say, and this is a striking contrast, I think, to Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV, where he says we should look at these people, both the reds and the blacks, as “subjects of natural history” (Jefferson 1784/2000). That seems quite a different approach.


HM: It is, it is. It’s unsympathetic. It’s not looking at them as they understand themselves and [as they] make a contribution. It concedes, in a manner Rousseau would like, to the necessity of giving up the wildness of freedom.[24] That wild freedom has a certain dignity or pride that controlled, moderate, civilized freedom lacks. And he presents the blacks as without pride. Now, I don’t think that’s really correct since it seems that they were not docile and especially, if you think of Frederick Douglass—I’m not quite sure of the dates. In the 1830s that he was teaching himself how to be free and rebellious.[25] So there were signs of stirring. And this picture of black servility…I don’t think is put together correctly and maybe is deliberately exaggerated by Tocqueville.


Eds.: I personally think that Tocqueville is the first political thinker who took seriously the relation between majority tyranny and ethnicity. Like you just talked about in the United States, majority tyranny finally became a majority of a specific race or ethnic group.


HM: Yes.


Eds.: …so there is an inter-twined relation between majority tyranny and ethnic problems.


HM: Yes.


Eds.: Especially when we look back at democratization over the past fifty years in the former Soviet Union, in the central and eastern European countries, along with democratization, there is bloody ethnic tension and ethnic wars. It seems that ethnicity is a hard problem to handle in democracies, especially after democracy. In democracy, different ethnic groups can contest for powers, so they often use ethnic identity to struggle for power… There is no authority above the different ethnic groups. That’s a huge problem.


HM: Yes.


Eds.: My question is: How can we overcome ethnic division or ethnic domination in the majority politics of democratic regimes and throughout the process of democratization? Although there are still problems of race in the United States, I think that the United States is a very good example of a country where ethnic identity is weakened and not so important.


HM: Because there’s no majority ethnic group here. All right, first on Tocqueville. I think what you say is very important. I think he is the first to treat slavery as a form of majority tyranny, in other words, as a democratic phenomenon. I think it’s quite true that before American slavery there were many opponents of slavery. But it was just presented as a moral issue and an issue that partisans of freedom everywhere would naturally leap to advance. But in America, slavery becomes a problem of majority tyranny because it’s a democracy and, again, originally it was thought that the only people who would like slavery are slave owners, because they profit from them. But, in his time—in Tocqueville’s time—in America, the Jacksonian party became a very important and democratic support for slavery.[26] Whites who didn’t own slaves and who were poor were in favor of slavery because it gave them some superiority over the blacks even though they didn’t get profit from it and even though it was morally repugnant, and, as Tocqueville argues, economically backward and hindering economic progress (DA 1.2.10, 331-4). So I think he’s very right to point to that; America is a government by consent. Therefore, the slave owners and the prejudiced whites, especially in the South, had political power and it turned out at the end that the only way to deal with it was to have a war—whereas in Russia, the tsar could abolish slavery by a snap of his fingers because it’s not a democracy or it was not a free democracy.[27] Actually, at the end of the first volume of Democracy in America, Tocqueville refers to Russia as a democratic country and it illustrates one way in which democracy could develop (Mansfield 2000, xlvii; DA 1.2.10, 395-6). So I think that’s a very true point. And there’s also the case of those who say that the Federalists who did argue against majority tyranny gave an argument about interests and religions, but not about races or ethnic groups…


Eds.: …so they didn’t make the connection that Tocqueville does between interests and prestige.


HM: That’s right. And, actually, since the majority was white, there wasn’t a diversity of races that they could use to apply the same argument that they used for economic interests and religious sects. So I think you’re right to point to this. And at that time, America was mostly English and Dutch, and later Germans came and then Chinese and Irish, Italians, so now, even though they’re all white, that still makes them a kind of natural majority that’s dangerous or always has the potential to majority tyranny. Nonetheless, they’re divided and have different outlooks according to how recently they arrived. That’s a pretty general answer I give you.


Eds.: One of the reasons that the race problem is not the most important problem in the politics of the United States is factions.


HM: Yes, that’s right. And, the blacks therefore are not always in a minority. They are, by themselves, but as part of a political party, they can sometimes win in the election as we just saw, so that’s a great check on majority tyranny—the fact that whites have to appeal to blacks to get their votes. But it’s still true that blacks consider themselves a minority—“The Man,” the way they refer to whites that dominate over them. They feel this more or less. They have different opinions about it too.[28] That’s a big subject.


Eds.: In drawing near to a close, could you speak more about the difference between Tocqueville and earlier modern liberal thinkers and also about the connection between them?


HM: The connection between them is that they both stand for liberty as the highest good, or highest political good, but they go about it differently. The most general way of stating the difference, I would say, and this is what I tried to propose in my article on religion and liberty, is that the early liberals, as I call them—the 17th century liberals, Hobbes and Locke and Spinoza—those rested everything on a foundation, a philosophical foundation which had the effect of excluding the influence of religion, which was the great enemy of freedom (Mansfield 2010-1). So, Tocqueville did not think that. He thought that maybe some religions were dangerous—Islam was—but Christianity was not an enemy of liberty or did not have to be. So that was one reason why he abandoned the state of nature—the liberal foundation for liberty as a pre-political foundation—and looked instead to a foundation in practice, in politics: the Puritan democracy and the early American democracy which it inspired. His foundation is in practice and it’s unlike the early liberal foundation in theory. It takes advantage of the fact of freedom and is therefore political instead of trying to rest everything on freedom, which is non-political and which becomes political only through a social contract. So, in that way, Tocqueville resembles Aristotle, who said that man is by nature a political animal and that man’s nature is not to live in a condition where there is no politics, like the state of nature. It always has to be political. And second, another aspect of his Aristotelianism is to look at the actual practice as opposed to the theories in a way that Aristotle looks to the practice of moral virtue to define it.[29] So Tocqueville looks at the practice of free politics to define it. A third [aspect] would apply both to politics and something in between politics and society, like mores; his emphasis on mores and habit, that too is Aristotelian. And to keep philosophy out of the public eye, concealed, rather than upfront like Plato’s philosopher king.


Eds.: Concealed meaning active but in check?


HM: It’s active. It’s like Tocqueville’s new science of politics that you have to put together for yourself, but it’s there.


Eds.: Is it checked by being concealed?


HM: Yes, right, because the open appearance of philosophy in a democracy makes for more democratic passion, encourages the democratic propensity for generalizing, and promotes rational control and mild despotism. So all that goes with the open influence of philosophers such as preceded the French Revolution.


Eds.: So, to return very briefly to the first question, if Tocqueville educated us—we Americans—that we’re actually closet Cartesians, what you’re suggesting is this would not help us; it would merely allow us more rationally to control our society and in a sense to enervate politics.


HM: Yes. So he appeals to the forbearance of philosophers and theorists, at least in political matters.


Eds.: What would Tocqueville say to the neo-Kantian liberal or the liberal democrat who’s engaged in politics, as a way of advising them, or cautioning them?


HM: Well, first, the crucial importance of political liberty. The central liberty of all liberties is political liberty because you don’t have secure freedom unless you’re governing yourself and doing it successfully. And then, some of the things that he himself mentioned are the importance of forms, of formal institutions in self-government, and third, maybe to learn by doing and that theory can come out of practice. Look at what it is you’re doing right, and proceed from there instead of being so critical that you overlook the positive, and that you try to change everything or change things which don’t really need to be changed. Begin with what you have and count your blessings and understand them. Find a principle in them and theorize from that. Theorists of humanity are mainly hostile to humanity. They make the problem so large that it doesn’t look as if it could be changed: that’s a kind of passive conservatism. Or the problem can only be dealt with by wholesale change: that’s revolutionary freedom.


Eds.: Thank you very much, Harvey.


HM: It’s my pleasure.


Works Cited:

Ceaser, James. 2011. “Political Foundations in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.” In Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice, 23-44. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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———-. 2010b. “Tocqueville’s New Political Science: A Theory from Practice,” Tocqueville and the American Tradition Series, Georgetown University lecture.

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[1] The dialogue was recorded in the spring of 2011, when Chris Barker was the Jack Miller Fellow in Harvard University’s Program on Constitutional Government, and Tao Wang was a visiting scholar in the same program. The transcription was made by Kamyar Noori.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville. 1835-40/2000. Democracy in America. Translated by Delba Winthrop and Harvey Mansfield. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [hereafter DA, followed by Arabic numerals indicating the volume, part, and chapter of DA, and then by the corresponding page number(s) in Mansfield’s and Winthrop’s edition].

[3] But see Mansfield and Winthrop, “Editor’s Introduction,” lxxxiii.

[4] “Why did Descartes, wanting to make use of his method only in certain matters even though he had put it in such a way that it applied to all, declare that one must judge for oneself only philosophical, and not political, matters?…How did it happen that in the eighteenth century all at once they derived from the same method general applications that Descartes and his predecessors had not perceived or had refused to uncover” (DA 2.1.1, 405)?

[5] “In America, Tocqueville says he sought ‘an image of democracy itself’…The image is there to be seen, but in his political science it is embedded in fact rather than abstracted in a theory. Democracy for him is in America” (Mansfield and Winthrop 2006b, 85-6).

[6] E.g., Aristotle, Metaphysics, Delta XXIV-V.

[7] “I confess that in America I saw more than America; I sought there an image of democracy itself, of its penchants, its character, its prejudices, its passions; I wanted to become acquainted with it if only to know at least what we ought to hope or fear from it” (DA 1 “Introduction,” 13).

[8] See Mansfield and Winthrop (2000, xxiii) for Tocqueville’s 1852 speech to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. A new translation of this speech is found in Hebert (2011, 17-30), where the art of writing is discussed as follows: “Indeed, the art of writing suggests, to those that have practiced it for a long time, habits of mind hardly favorable to the conduct of affairs. It enslaves them to the logic of ideas, when the crowd never obeys any logic save that of the passions. It gives them the taste for the fine, the delicate, the ingenious, the original, when it is coarse commonplaces that lead the world” (18).

[9] For elucidation of Mansfield’s several publications on this theme, see Mansfield 2010b and 2006b.

[10] “In the heart of that brilliant and literary Europe the idea of rights had perhaps never been more completely misunderstood; never had people less lived a political life; never had notions of true freedom less preoccupied minds” (DA 1.1.2, 42).

[11] “There are a thousand circumstances independent of men’s will that facilitate the democratic republic in the United States” (DA 1.2.9, 265). Tocqueville cites America’s geopolitical position, decentralization, equal conditions, and material well-being. He then transitions to what Americans do, citing the westward migration (268) and other things that are under our control.

[12] “Man’s condition: inconstancy, boredom, restiveness” (Pascal 1670/2008, 14 [translation slightly modified]; Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxxi).

[13] Tocqueville, “Letter to Edouard de Tocqueville, 2 November 1840,” [quoted in Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, xxi.] and “Letter to Sophie Swetchine, 11 February 1857” [quoted at xxxii-iii]. See also Tocqueville’s “Letter to his wife, 26 December 1837” discussed, along with the other letters, in Mélonio (2006).

[14] The Oxford English Dictionary notes: “In 19th-cent. examples it is freq. difficult to tell whether restlessness (as in the emergent sense [Unable to remain still, silent, or submissive, especially because of boredom or dissatisfaction, fidgety, restless; uneasy]) or recalcitrance is the primary sense of the word.” The root meaning, recalcitrance, comes via the earlier restiff. Thumos is the word used by Plato for the spirited part of the soul. See Plato (1991, 374e-375c, 548c).

[15] “Often a man leaves his spacious mansion, because he is utterly bored with being at home, and then suddenly returns on finding that he is no better off when he is out. He races out to his county villa, driving his Gallic ponies, hell-for-leather…but the moment he has set foot on the threshold, he gives a yawn or falls heavily asleep in search of oblivion (Lucretius 2001, III.1060-67, on p. 97 of this edition).

[16] See Mansfield (2006b, 39-44).

[17] Leo Strauss, Course on Natural Right, Autumn 1962 [an excerpt of the transcript is found at]. Strauss says: “In other words, what Tocqueville says, an a-religious or irreligious democracy is bound to perish. And he meant by this not that vague religion, or what is sometimes called vague religion, namely that enthusiasm for fine things, but a specific dogma, the crucial point is the immortality of the soul; spiritualism is the term which he uses.”

[18] Tocqueville’s women are discussed in DA 2.3.8-12, 558-76; see also Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, lxxvii-lxxx and Mansfield (2010a, 30-1, 74-7), discussed below.

[19] This is an ancient term, according to Tocqueville, which he glosses as “habits of the heart” (DA 1.2.9, 275). See Mansfield and Winthrop (2000 lxi, lxvii) and (2006b, 97-8), and Mansfield (2010a, 28-30).

[20] E.g., Pew Global Attitudes Project.  2002. “Among Wealthy Nations…U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion.” Pew Research Center.

[21] As Mansfield and Winthrop note in the “Editor’s Introduction,” Tocqueville also discusses popular sovereignty in Volume I, Part One, Chapter Four and following (2000, liv).

[22] Gaddafi was deposed and killed after ruling Libya for forty-two years in August, 2011, after this conversation took place.

[23] “Among these men [in the New World], so diverse, the first who attracts the eye, the first in enlightenment, in power, in happiness, is the white man, the European, man par excellence” (DA 1.2.10, 303; see also Mansfield and Winthrop 2000, lviii and Mansfield 2010a, 42).

[24] E.g., “What man loses by the social contract is his natural freedom and right to the community [of goods]” (Rousseau 1997, 53-4).

[25] Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), self-educated orator and opinion-leader who escaped from slavery in 1838 and fled Maryland to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He lectured for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, published the newspaper The North Star, and wrote multiple autobiographical accounts of his life.

[26] Tocqueville characterizes Jackson as the “agent of provincial jealousies” even if he sometimes bullies his master (DA 377-8). Richard Ellis argues that the Jacksonians rejected abolitionism and that they were morally indifferent to the institution of slavery (Ellis 1989, 170).

[27] Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom by an Imperial Proclamation issued in 1861. A drafting committee had been working on the statutory framework of emancipation for several years, and their measures accompanied Alexander’s proclamation. In contrast to the Tsar’ s proclamation, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was justified under his executive war powers as a war-time measure, and only freed slaves within the confederacy (Guelzo 2009, 103-4).

[28] From the Oxford English Dictionary: “The Man” is in use from at least as early as 1918. Its use is beautifully captured in a quotation from a 1928 novel, Walls of Jericho: “The man, designation of abstract authority. He who trespasses where a sign forbids is asked: ‘Say, biggy, can’t you read THE MAN’S sign?’” The phrase has a positive valence seen from the 1950s onward: “I’m diggin’ a lot of Armstrong, ’cause he’s the man.”

[29] The references are to the famous opening of Aristotle’s Politics (1253a) and to the mode of working from commonly-accepted opinions in, for instance, the Nicomachean Ethics.