One of the most influential voices of early America was, in fact, a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was a philosopher, aristocrat and historian who observed the state of America and its relationship to the rest of the world in the wake of the American Revolution. He wrote many books on the subject, most notably his landmark work Democracy in America.
Throughout his work, Tocqueville observed the aftermath of the American Revolution and the role of freedom and democracy in America. In Democracy in America, Volume I, Tocqueville reflects on the past, present and future of the nation.
“It has since been discovered that when justice is more certain and more mild, it is at the same time more efficacious.”
“Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.”
“But there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer of it.”
“‘The will of the nation’ is one of those expressions which have been most profusely abused by the wily and the despotic of every age.”
“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be, pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
“Laws are always unstable unless they are founded upon the manners of a nation; manners are the only durable and resisting power in a people.”
“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”
“It cannot be repeated too often that nothing is more fertile in prodigies than the art of being free; but there is nothing more arduous than the apprenticeship of liberty.”
A subject that was of particular interest to Tocqueville was the efficacy of democracy and the role of government in a democratic society.
“The best laws cannot make a constitution work in spite of morals; morals can turn the worst laws to advantage.” - De la supériorité des mœurs sur les lois (1831)
“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” - Letter to Ernest de Chabrol, Selected Letters (June 9, 1831)
“Men in general are neither very good nor very bad, but mediocre... Man with his vices, his weaknesses, his virtues, this confused medley of good and ill, high and low, goodness and depravity, is yet, take him all in all, the object on earth most worthy of study, of interest, of pity, of attachment and of admiration. And since we haven't got angels, we can attach ourselves to nothing greater and more worthy of our devotion than our own kind.” - Letter to Eugene Stoffels (Jan. 3, 1845) quoted in The Decline of the Intellectual
“What seemed to be love for liberty turns out to be mere hatred of a despot. Nations born to freedom hate the intrinsic evil of dependence.” - Ancien Regime and the Revolution
“... a man's support for absolute government is in direct proportion to the contempt he feels for his country.” - Ancien Regime and the Revolution
“History, it is easily perceived, is a picture-gallery containing a host of copies and very few originals.” - Old Regime
“He who seeks freedom for anything but freedom's self is made to be a slave.” - Old Regime
“The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.” - Old Regime
“In a rebellion, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” - Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville
“For the first time in sixty years, the priests, the old aristocracy and the people met in a common sentiment—a feeling of revenge, it is true, and not of affection; but even that is a great thing in politics, where a community of hatred is almost always the foundation of friendships.” - Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville was fascinated by democracy and the work of early American figures like Benjamin Franklin. Since Tocqueville’s time, many more powerful advocates for democracy have come along and delivered powerful messages that resonated around the world.