Binding order and liberty: Tocqueville the politician

Tocqueville may not have been an effective foreign minister but his commitment to order and liberty is uncontested.

Tocqueville 1848
Barricade on the Boulevard Montmarte in Paris at the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848. Credit: The Granger Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

‘This great thinker, this great writer was not a useful minister.’ So wrote the French politician Augustin Cochin to the liberal Catholic thinker Charles de Montalembert upon learning of the death of Alexis de Tocqueville on April 16, 1859.

Today, Tocqueville is most remembered for his landmark study of democratic culture in Democracy in America. Fewer know that Tocqueville had an active political career, culminating in his service as foreign minister in the government of Prime Minister Odilon Barrot during the Second Republic from June 3 to October 31, 1849.

Tocqueville himself was disappointed with his performance as a member of the Chamber of Deputies between 1839 and 1848, during King Louis-Philippe’s reign. After narrowly losing to a government candidate in the Valognes arrondissement in Normandy in 1837, Tocqueville won the seat in elections two years later. As a parliamentarian, however, Tocqueville discovered that he was inept at speech-making, being handicapped by a soft voice and an inability to respond quickly to interjections. His efforts to build a parliamentary faction devoted to liberal principles, but also decentralisation of the highly consolidated French state, likewise came to grief. He lacked the necessary deal-making skills, and even struggled to remember people’s names. More generally, political dynamics in 1840s France were shifting away from the middle-class liberalism which overthrew King Charles X in 1830 towards a highly unstable mixture of Bourbon legitimism, resurgent Bonapartism, renascent Jacobinism, and a burgeoning socialism.

It was in the chaos that followed the 1848 Revolution that Tocqueville’s political career took off. His appointment as foreign minister was preceded by his election to the post-revolutionary Constituent Assembly and membership of the commission charged with drafting a constitution for the Second Republic. During the June Days uprising in Paris in 1848, he emerged as a vocal supporter of the government’s use of the military to crush the insurrection of working-class Parisians, radical republicans, Jacobins and socialists seeking to establish a République démocratique et sociale. His subsequent September 12 speech to the Constituent Assembly denouncing socialism, socialists, and all their works underscored to all with ears that Tocqueville was as much a man of order as he was an advocate of liberty. In those remarks, he particularly insisted that the political, legal and economic order generated by private property was the sine qua non of any form of government that valued freedom, and pointed to American democracy and constitutionalism as exemplifying the connection between the two.

Therein lies the significance of Tocqueville’s five months in high office, which showed he remained committed to establishing a regime that took liberty seriously in the way that he believed America did. That was one reason why he was wary of the new popularly elected president, Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of the Emperor, who Tocqueville suspected of wanting to restore the Napoleonic Empire. But the same time period demonstrates that he saw order as indispensable for freedom. To that extent, his tenure as foreign minister also revealed his conservative side.

Tocqueville’s nomination to the foreign ministry was not especially surprising. He possessed the necessary language skills and had travelled widely — not just to America but also Canada, Britain, Ireland, Germany, as well as Italian states such as the Kingdom of Naples and the Papal States. Tocqueville was personally acquainted with many foreign notables. He had also visited France’s new colony in Algeria twice and consequently written a report, published in 1847, that analysed the dynamics of colonisation just as France’s colonial empire was expanding in Africa and the Far East. His knowledge of the world thus stretched far beyond his native land.

But Tocqueville also brought a unique political pedigree to the Barrot ministry. Thanks to Democracy in America and his voting record in the Chamber of Deputies, his credentials as a liberal constitutionalist were impeccable. He made no effort to hide his admiration of liberal thinkers such as Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant, as well as the liberal historians and politicians François Guizot and Pierre Royer-Collard. Nonetheless, Tocqueville’s family background was one of aristocratic Catholic legitimism, and he remained immersed in that social milieu for his entire life. His father, Hervé de Tocqueville, had been imprisoned during the Reign of Terror and loyally served the restored Bourbon monarchy as a prefect. Alexis himself was known to be a regular mass attender, albeit one critical of ultramontanism and closer to liberal Catholics like Cochin and Montalembert. Then there was Tocqueville’s anti-socialist zeal and his willingness to use the army against radical insurrectionists. That was reassuring to middle-class liberals and Catholic aristocrats alike.

For a government dominated by the Parti de l’Ordre — a grouping made up of moderate monarchists and conservative republicans committed to constitutionalism, and possessing strong political support throughout France — Tocqueville was thus a natural fit. He also served as a perfect conduit between different ministers because he shared things in common with all of them, whether legitimists like the education minister Alfred de Falloux or anti-clericals such as the interior minister Jules Dufaure.

Tocqueville’s appointment as foreign minister followed the outbreak of renewed rioting in Paris in June 1849. As a member of the Barrot cabinet, he had no qualms about urging the government to act forcibly. ‘I made a contribution to enforcing order on June 13,’ he later noted. That involved reimposing a state of siege — effectively martial law — on Paris and approving laws that temporarily restricted freedom of the press, as well as the liberty of political clubs. Some might see this as being at odds with Tocqueville’s liberalism. He saw no reason, however, to tolerate those intent on undermining the constitution.

That concern for order as a precondition for liberty shaped Tocqueville’s activities as France’s most senior diplomat. The July Monarchy may have been overthrown in France, but Europe remained dominated by kings, some of whom— most notably, Emperor Francis-Joseph of Austria, Czar Nicholas I of Russia, and King Frederick William IV of Prussia — were busy suppressing revolution throughout Central Europe and Italy. These men were inclined to view republics as synonymous with sedition, and remembered that the first French republic had plunged Europe into 23 years of war.

As foreign minister, Tocqueville’s priority was peace. France was in no state to become involved in confrontations with any major European power. Hence, he carefully arranged for men who he knew Czar Nicholas and Emperor Francis-Joseph would find personally congenial to be named as ambassadors to St Petersburg and Vienna. Soothing the worries of foreign monarchs, however, was not Tocqueville’s biggest foreign policy challenge. That was to be found in Italy and what was called the Roman Question.

The Italy of 1849 was a hothouse of revolutionary activity. That included the Papal States. In 1848, Pope Pius IX, who had been elected two years earlier with a reputation as a liberal, promulgated a major constitutional reform throughout his realm. Despite this liberalisation, the pope immediately found himself with a full-scale and particularly violent revolution on his hands. This resulted in the assassination of the pope’s reforming finance and interior minister, the liberal economist Pellegrino Rossi, and the declaration of a Roman Republic in February 1849. Upon fleeing to Gaeta in Naples, the pope called upon the Catholic powers for assistance. That primarily meant Austria and France. The two countries had struggled for dominance of the Italian peninsula over the previous 300 years, and Austrian troops were already crushing revolutionaries throughout Northern Italy.

It’s hard to imagine a bigger conundrum for Tocqueville. On the one hand, he was worried that the Roman Revolution had captured the imagination of French radicals and even inspired some of them to attempt a second uprising in Paris in 1849. But like many French liberals, he had no love for the staggeringly incompetent clericalist regime that had governed the Papal States prior to 1848. Nor, however, did Tocqueville have any particular sympathy for the Roman revolutionaries. He considered them ‘reds’ and terrorists, distinguished only by their taste for extreme violence. Moreover, he was acutely aware that the Catholic vote mattered in mid-nineteenth century France and formed a major basis of support for the Parti de l’Ordre.

Before entering the ministry, Tocqueville had voted in favor of sending an expeditionary force to Rome that had three objectives: first, to restore the pope’s temporal power; second, to impose liberal institutions throughout the pope’s domains; and, third, to check Austria’s growing influence through Italy. As foreign minister, Tocqueville followed through on this policy. It happened to fit his ongoing effort to bring liberty and order into balance, while also seeking to promote France’s interests as a Great Power. Like most continental liberals of his time, it’s worth noting, Tocqueville was also a nationalist.

French military intervention certainly restored order in Rome and prevented Austria from extending its influence any further south than Tuscany. But the effort to establish liberal institutions in the Papal States failed. Despite considerable pressure from Paris, Pius IX’motu proprio of September 12, 1849, describing the type of government that he intended establishing in Rome, made only token efforts at reform. The motu proprio permitted, for instance, an assembly but did not give it voting powers over the budget, thereby rendering it powerless. Even worse, Jews living in Rome were re-confined to the ghetto following the pope’s return. Even many Romans who had loathed the revolutionaries were exasperated by Pius IX’s actions.

Back in France, dissatisfaction with the results of French intervention led to considerable dissension in both the ministry and the Legislative Assembly. More importantly, it provided President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte with a pretext for dismissing the Barrot ministry — including Tocqueville — and replacing them with individuals more tied to him than the legislature. By inserting himself so forcibly into relations between the ministry and the legislature, Louis-Napoleon effectively carried out what Tocqueville described to his friend Gustave de Beaumont a ‘small-scale coup d’état’. This set the stage, Tocqueville believed, for a major future confrontation between the president and the legislature.

As foreign minister, Tocqueville necessarily spent considerable time with the prince-president. He became quite familiar with Louis-Napoleon, his advisors, and the ‘idiots’ and ‘hussies’, as Tocqueville described them, of the Bonaparte family. It was during this period that he abandoned any illusions about Louis-Napoleon’s ultimate ambitions. As he wrote to Beaumont one month after his dismissal from the ministry, ‘The President is a monomaniac who will only give up the imperial dream with his last breath’.

Like other members of the Barrot ministry, Tocqueville regarded himself as ultimately responsible to the legislature. It was, he wrote, ‘the sole trustee of the will of the people’. By contrast, Louis-Napoleon wanted his ministers to be, as he stated in his letter dismissing the Barrot ministry, ‘men who would be as conscious of my responsibilities as of their own’. The president then added: ‘The name of Napoleon is in itself a programme. That is to say: at home — order, authority, religion, the well-being of the people; abroad — national prestige.’ Tocqueville was not the only one to notice that the word ‘liberty’ was missing from this lexicon.

Complicating matters was the fact that the Second Republic’s constitution limited the president to one term. That, Tocqueville feared, was likely to precipitate Louis-Napoleon into taking extra-constitutional measures to extend his presidential tenure. Tocqueville consequently spent much time during his regular audiences with Louis-Napoleon trying to gauge the president’s designs and finding ways to avert a transition to authoritarian rule.

It turned out that the president quite liked his very serious and impeccably well-mannered foreign minister who, like Louis-Napoleon himself, had spent some time in America. For his part, Tocqueville found Louis-Napoleon to be ignorant of practical matters and a daydreamer whose mind was full of incoherent ideas, though wedded to a few unchanging principles. Yet Tocqueville also discovered that the president had ‘some appealing qualities’ including ‘a kindly easy-going temperament’ and ‘a humane outlook’.

There were others in the ministry and legislature who regarded Louis-Napoleon as a menace to the republic and wanted him gone sooner rather than later. Tocqueville considered such a move unrealistic, given the president’s popularity, as well as unconstitutional. Nonetheless, he also resisted attempts by the president’s entourage of ‘hotheads’ and ‘adventurers’ to draw him into supporting their plans for a coup. Instead, Tocqueville tried to persuade Louis-Napoleon to work within the constitution. In his Recollections, Tocqueville records that he told the president:

I will never help you overthrow the Republic but will gladly work with you to assure you an important place within it, and I think my friends will all eventually agree to do the same. The Constitution can be revised. Article 45, which prohibits the reelection of the president, can be changed. That is a goal we will gladly help you to achieve.

According to Tocqueville, ‘As was his wont, [Louis-Napoleon] listened to me carefully without giving any hint of the impression my words made on him’.

This reaction reflected Louis-Napoleon’s taciturn ways. Yet it is also likely he realised that Tocqueville was effectively giving him a way to remain prominent in French politics and even extend his term as president, but without the ignominy of violating the constitution. For Louis-Napoleon, that was certainly an option worth thinking about. To Tocqueville’s mind, the effect would be to defuse a potential march toward authoritarian rule, thereby preserving the order and liberty that the Second Republic’s constitution was supposed to uphold.

Just over two years after this conversation, in December 1851, Louis-Napoleon launched a successful military coup. The legislature was dissolved and the office of president was granted the powers of a dictator. Like other prominent defenders of the constitution, Tocqueville was briefly imprisoned and then released. The following year, Louis-Napoleon reestablished the Empire and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. Plainly, at some point, he had decided to reject Tocqueville’s advice and instead embraced the role of the man on horseback.

Despite efforts by the emperor to draw him back into public life, Tocqueville retreated into a type of internal exile. He refused to have anything to do with a regime which he regarded as illegal and soon proved itself, at least for the first half of its existence, highly authoritarian. While Tocqueville corresponded with opponents of the Second Empire, ranging from moderate republicans to the Bourbon pretender, the Count de Chambord, his return to private life was dominated by research into the question of the causes of the upheaval of 1789. This bore fruit in his extraordinary, albeit lesser known book, The Old Regime and the Revolution, published in 1856.

Given the scale of his intellectual achievements, it is understandable why Tocqueville’s short period as France’s foreign minister was not considered useful, to use Cochin’s expression, by some of his contemporaries. But while we can debate the effectiveness of Tocqueville’s tenure, what cannot be disputed is his commitment to order and liberty — always together and never apart — during those five turbulent months. It would have been all too easy for him to be consumed by the immediacy of events, or to have thrown in his lot with a president with a very different agenda. Tocqueville, however, chose the path of integrity. How often can we say that of political leaders in his time, and ours, who have held lesser offices for far longer?


Samuel Gregg