Liberty, Equality, Democracy: Tocqueville’s Response to Rousseau

  • Sanford Lakoff


‘There are three men,’ Alexis de Tocqueville confided to a lifelong friend, ‘with whom I commune a little bit every day; they are Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.’1 The first two of these spiritual associations are easily accounted for;2 the third is more of a puzzle but more intriguing for an understanding of the development of the modern theory of democracy. As Robert Derathé has remarked,3 Tocqueville shared with Rousseau a keen preoccupation with the relationship between liberty and equality, the moral principles that lead to belief in democracy. Rousseau claimed to have shown that each was indispensable to the other. Only under conditions of political equality could liberty replace privilege; only if each citizen were independent enough to understand his interests and pursue them vigorously could dependence on others be avoided. By participating jointly in the exercise of sovereignty, all citizens could retain their autonomy in civil society, substituting moral or civil for natural liberty. Tocqueville recognised that the demand for political equality expressed a profound moral claim ultimately derived from the common origin and nature of all mankind. He feared, however, that a thoroughgoing egalitarianism would threaten liberty. Even a narrowly political equality raised the spectre of a tyranny of the majority. Extended to socio-economic relations, it would rule out differences of wealth, and with them the right of private property which seemed to him crucial to personal independence.


French Revolution Civic Virtue Political Equality Political Liberty Selfish Individualism 
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  1. 3.
    Robert Derathé, ‘La place et l’importance de la notion d’égalité dans la doctrine politique de Jean-Jacques Rousseau,’ R. A. Leigh (ed.), Rousseau After Two Hundred Years: Proceedings of the Cambridge Bicentennial Colloquium (London, 1982 ) pp. 55–63.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America trans. George Lawrence (Garden City, 1969) vol. ii, p. 692.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution trans. S. Gilbert (Garden City, 1944) p. 158.Google Scholar
  4. 22.
    G. P. Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1913 ) p. 218.Google Scholar
  5. 24.
    See inter alia Chalmers Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Boston, 1966) p. 176.Google Scholar
  6. 25.
    Raymond Aron, In Defense of Decadent Europe trans. S. Cox (South Bend, 1977) p. 237.Google Scholar
  7. 26.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality trans. M. Cranston (Harmondsworth, 1984) p. 79.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© George Feaver and Frederick Rosen 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sanford Lakoff

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