“Providence and Democracy” by Harvey Mansfield

Harvey C. Mansfield, "Providence and Democracy," Claremont Review of Books, Winter/Spring 2010/2011.


Alexis de Tocqueville was a liberal, but, as he once wrote, a “new kind of liberal.” For us, no feature of his new liberalism is more remarkable than the alliance between religion and liberty that he saw in America and proposed to be imitated, wherever it can, in every free society.

In liberalism today, there is a debate over whether liberal theory needs—or should avoid—a “foundation.” Tocqueville seems to take the anti-foundational side: he never mentions the “state of nature,” which was the standard foundation of 17th-century liberalism, and in Democracy in America he omits any reference to the Declaration of Independence with its ringing foundational assertion that “all men are created equal.” Yet, if he avoids laying a foundation in reason, he also thinks that religion is essential to political liberty because of the “certain fixed ideas” that it offers to ground the practice of self-government. These are doctrines of faith, since for Tocqueville “religion” means revealed religion, not a rational or natural religion.

These doctrines, however, include articles of reason encompassed in faith. Tocqueville was a strong opponent of divine right in politics and a strong proponent of the separation of church and state. Although he praised the Puritans highly as being the “point of departure” for democracy in America, he criticized their theocratic character. Personally, he seems to have suffered a crisis early in life when, as he recounts it, he came upon the books of 18th-century materialists in his father’s library and promptly and permanently (so far as we know) lost his faith, not only in religion but in “all the truths” that supported his beliefs and his actions.

Questions arise that are still with us: What does Tocqueville hold against the introduction of foundational principles in democratic politics, and how can they be kept out? What is the relationship between philosophy and religion, given the hostility of modern philosophers (particularly the French philosophes) to religion and his desire to make an alliance between the two? Just what essential support does religion supply to political liberty—the essential liberty according to Tocqueville—so that despite the separation of church and state necessary to political liberty, he can say, strikingly, that religion “should be considered the first of [the Americans’] political institutions”?

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