Tocqueville in Baltimore


February 16, 1993|By PAUL H. LIBEN

Yonkers, New York. -- In Soviet tyranny's recent collapse, we have witnessed American democracy's decisive vindication. It is our democratic ideals and institutions that the anxious leaders of Eastern Europe and Russia wish to emulate. Clearly at stake is the salvation of their respective nations.

In 1831, a 26-year-old aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, had similar concerns. Revolutions in his beloved France in 1789 and 1830 had crippled its ancient triad of king, church and aristocracy. Seeing that an egalitarian social order was the French and European future, Tocqueville pondered this question: How could liberty, order and human dignity be preserved, and despotism, chaos and degradation be averted? In search of an answer he and a friend, Gustave de Beaumont, set sail for America, the world's oldest republic.

Arriving on May 7, 1831, they stayed here until February 1832. By 1840, Tocqueville had completed ''Democracy in America,'' which remains the premier study of American democracy's strengths, flaws and potential.

Tocqueville praised ''instruction which enlightens the understanding'' coupled with ''moral education which amends the heart.'' He had first seen this in Boston; there, as elsewhere in America, schools seemed omnipresent. Boston merchant Joseph Coolidge opined that Americans, while not bookish, were still the world's most enlightened people. Accustomed to self-government, they learned not only by studying but also by doing. Americans underwent a moral and religious tutelage encouraging them to respect human freedom and dignity, cultivate self-discipline, and shoulder their civic duties, all of which democracy needed for its survival.

Two days before reaching Philadelphia, Tocqueville had written that Americans routinely formed private associations for commercial, political, religious and other purposes. At first, he deemed then anarchic. But in Philadelphia, he began to view them as he did education, religion, and the family -- as vital institutions mediating between the individual and the state, thus protecting society against both anarchic individualism and state tyranny. Here was a possible answer to his chief question: Thanks to such institutions, perhaps freedom, order, and dignity could survive in a democratic society.

From October 26 through November 6, the two Frenchmen were in Baltimore. They met Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. At 94, he was entering his last year of life. Of his generation, Tocqueville lamented, ''This race of men is disappearing today, after having furnished America her greatest men. With them is being lost the tradition of the better born.''

Tocqueville was an aristocrat with decidedly aristocratic prejudices. He favored Carroll's urbane, genteel peers -- Washington, Franklin, John Adams and Madison -- over the middle classes who, he believed, had ''small passions'' and ''vulgar habits.'' Still, his concern transcended mere prejudice. Having pledged and, in many cases, forfeited their ''lives,

fortunes and sacred honor'' defending their Declaration of freedom, Carroll's was a most extraordinary generation, and Tocqueville knew it.

This led to an obvious question: Can a transfer of power from the ''better born'' to the middle classes, from aristocracy to democracy, proceed without inaugurating a tyranny of the majority or the chaos of anarchy?

James Carroll, a relative of Charles, had an answer: ''The machine goes and the state prospers. . . . There [exists] throughout the whole social body an activity and a life that another government would not know how to create.''

Reflecting on these words, and on his experiences in Boston and Philadelphia, Tocqueville was moved on November 30 to write these words: ''The mass of people who understand public affairs, who are acquainted with laws and precedents, who have a sense for the interests . . . of the nation and the faculty to understand them, is greater here than in any other place in the world.'' He concluded, ''America demonstrates invincibly one thing that I had doubted up to now: that the middle class can govern a state.''

Thus, when he left America, Tocqueville believed she was a worthy model for emulation. Consciously or not, most of Europe, France included, did follow her example, switching from aristocracy to democracy without sacrificing freedom or order. In Russia, however, aristocracy gave way in 1917 to Marxism and its accompaniment -- state subversion of family, religion, education and private associations. The result was economic, social and moral calamity.

Like Tocqueville, former tyrannies within Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union now see us as a model. Were he alive today, how might Tocqueville advise them?

First, he would support checks and balances to keep government from becoming totalitarian again. For its success in this area, Tocqueville called our Constitution ''the most perfect . . . that ever existed.''

Second, he would stress education. He would want civics and a common morality taught, but would oppose enthroning any state ideology or the doctrines of any one religious sect.

Third, he would support freedom of religion, both as a human right and for religion's value as a check against both chaos and despotism.

Last, he would favor rebuilding the mediating institutions battered by totalitarianism, without which, he would argue, democracy is doomed.

Tocqueville, then, would urge emulating America at her best. Eastern Europe and Russia would do well to pay heed. So would we.

Paul H. Liben is free-lance writer.

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