November and December 1991 A Publication of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty Volume 1, Number 6
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Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859)
I am inclined to believe that if faith be wanting in (a man) he must be subject; and if he believe, he must be free.
These are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic Democracy in America.
Born in Paris in 1805, Tocqueville was a member of the petite noblesse. He was sent to the United States by his family to avoid the turmoil resulting from the Revolution of 1830, with his friend Gustave de Beaumont. While the stated purpose of his visit was to study the American penal system, Tocqueville did much more during his nine-month journey (May 11,1831 February 20, 1832) that took him from Boston in the east to Green Bay in the west, Sault Ste. Marie in the north and New Orleans in the south. His account of this visit has become a classic work of social commentary and political philosophy. In critiquing 19th century America, Tocqueville points out her weaknesses as well as strengths. Democracy requires a moral base, he argues:
When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the higher powers of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?