Tocqueville thought of himself as a liberal, but one of “a new kind.” Although scholars have offered illuminating and instructive accounts of Tocqueville’s political thought, the foundations of his innovative liberalism remain obscure. The intent of this study is to begin to uncover these foundations and to articulate both the promise and perils of his new liberalism. One of the central findings of this study is that a crucial aspect of his liberalism has been overlooked. The current scholarly consensus is that Tocqueville rejects the state-of-nature heuristic of early modern political thought. In contrast to this orthodox view, I maintain that state-of-nature theory serves as one of the foundations of his liberalism.
Overall, this study finds that there are three primary intellectual foundations for Tocqueville’s liberalism: the thought of Pascal, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Tocqueville communes with each thinker and puts each in dialogue with the others. The thought of one illuminates and completes the thought of the others. All three, however, needed to be improved or completed by Tocqueville himself. Like Pascal, Tocqueville is concerned with the needs of the soul; but in contrast to Pascal, he is more concerned with political life. Like Montesquieu, Tocqueville is concerned with individual security; but in contrast to Montesquieu, he is more melancholic, less satisfied with modern commerce and liberty. Like Rousseau, Tocqueville longs for a more robust form of political community and freedom; but in contrast to Rousseau, he is more restrained, less willing to abandon individual rights for civic solidarity. In sum, Tocqueville is a political Pascal, a melancholic Montesquieu, and restrained Rousseau.
I conclude that to be Tocquevillian, one must go beyond Tocqueville. Pascal, Montesquieu, and Rousseau were foundational to Tocqueville’s liberalism, but none of them were an absolute authority. Tocqueville had to compare their ideas and apply them to new circumstances. We must do the same with Tocqueville. New facts, new ideas must be used to weigh and evaluate his liberalism. Ultimately, Tocqueville’s new liberalism should provide scholars with more questions than answers. A simple return to Tocqueville will not resolve the problems we face, but a tentative return may elucidate the questions that we need to investigate.