The Radical and the Reactionary: Thomas Paine and Alexis de Tocqueville on Liberty


     The works of Thomas Paine and Alexis de Tocqueville have no doubt had a massive influence on the development and understanding of liberty from a Western perspective. The two are particularly lauded in the context of America’s early development, with Paine’s works helping to shape American notions of liberty at its inception, and Tocqueville’s works helping readers to understand liberty’s progression in America. Paine’s influences on the concept of liberty in America were crucial in shaping the America Tocqueville would later observe, so an analysis of both thinkers’ works is fitting. Thus, this paper seeks to broadly outline the views on liberty held by these two monumental figures, with particular emphasis on the American context.

In the first two chapters of this research, the views of both thinkers will be broadly outlined by analyzing their most seminal works and secondary sources which elaborate upon them. Paine, being the earlier and more optimistic of the two, is presented first as a radical for his universalist views on liberty at a time when the rights we take for granted today were just taking shape. Following this, Tocqueville, who observed first hand many of the fruits of Paine’s labor on his trip through America, will be presented as more of a reactionary for his rather pessimistic projection of where the quests for liberty, democracy and equality were headed. Following these chapters, a third will contain this author’s concluding observations on the most salient ways in which the works of both men compare and contrast.


Chapter 1. Thomas Paine the Radical

     Paine’s views on liberty set him apart as a radical and nonpareil in the late 18th century. Paine must have been keenly aware of the prescience of his views, as he opened his formative pamphlet, Common Sense, with a disclaimer that such views, although destined to make converts with time, were perhaps “not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor” (1776). Nevertheless, Paine’s outspoken views made a multitude of instant converts across various segments of colonial society. Who was Paine and what were his radical views on liberty? The following two subsections look to Paine’s most influential works, as well as to numerous secondary sources regarding them, with the aim of identifying the man and his views on liberty.

1.1. On Liberty from Britain

Any inquiry into any person’s views ought to inevitably begin with that person’s origins. As for Paine, much of the transformational rhetoric and radical views of his later years can be attributed to his “father’s Quaker beliefs and his unique experience as a workingman in England” (Dennehy, Morgan and Azzenza, 2006, p. 185). Paine’s religious upbringing seems to have been inextricably linked to his cosmopolitan ethos. Identifying as a “citizen of the world,” his ideas prompted him like a missionary to travel from England, to the United States and then on to France. In Paine’s own words, “my country is the world and my religion is to do good” (1791, p. 160). This background would lead Paine to the realization that the revolutions in America and in France were causes for the entirety of mankind and represented a global movement towards “universal civilization” (1791, p. 146).

Part of Paine’s universalist mission can be credited for one of the greatest causes for liberty in human history: American independence from Britain. In his second pseudonymous article written while in America, Paine wished for the separation of America from Britain due to the latter’s “involvement in the most horrid of all traffics, that of human flesh” (Andrews, 1981, p. 8). Paine casted further aspersions on Britain when he accused the British government of limiting the “social and political opportunities” of American women, and using the Native Americans as “tools of treachery and murder” against innocent white settlers. Prophetically, Paine concluded with a sincere call for separation from Britain: “Call it independence or what you will, it is the cause of God and humanity, and it will go on” (Kashatus, 2000, p. 56).

In Common Sense, Paine outlined the absurdity of monarchy and aristocracy both in natural and scriptural terms. He went on to critique the illogic of the English Constitution’s power to check, as well as the unnatural arrangement of a small island state like Britain casting a shadow over an entire continent like North America (Young, 1976, p. 90). What is more, in a brilliant stroke of punning innuendo, Paine praised the emergence of new “continental minds,” a rhetorical flourish mirroring earlier British efforts to separate their collective identity from continental Europe (Solinger, 2010). In doing so, Paine had begun to construct a collective identity that would lay the foundation for a new vision of political society based on the American experience (Dennehy, Morgan and Assenza, 2006). The following subsection will outline in more detail Paine’s views on liberty in regards to individuals.

1.2. On Liberty for Mankind

     Paine’s Common Sense undoubtedly influenced the cause for independence from Britain, the culmination of which was the Declaration of Independence. There was much more to Paine’s notions of liberty than simply severing ties with Britain, however. Many of Paine’s views on liberty for mankind are manifested in the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, two documents which his writings helped to shape. This section seeks to identify these views on liberty in regards to mankind by drawing from Paine’s most illustrative pamphlets and articles, as well as from secondary materials that reference them.

In his introduction to Common Sense, Paine argued that the cause for America “is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” and that circumstances leading to it “are not local, but universal,” and affect “all Lovers of Mankind” (1776). Importantly, Paine did not limit this “cause for America” to a certain race or gender. As proof of this, upon arriving in the colonies, Paine took up writing pseudonymously for various newspapers. His first article was entitled “African Slaver in America,” in which he called out the practice of slavery in the Americas for the barbarity that it was, and emphasized the hypocrisy of Americans complaining about their subjugation to the British while hundreds of thousands remained in actual bondage (Andrews, 1981, p. 8).

In The American Crisis, Paine distinguished between merely possessing the spirit of liberty and possessing the principle of liberty. Of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Paine wrote that while they maintained the spirit of liberty in regards to themselves, they still “employed their power to enslave the rest of mankind” (1826, p. 298). To Paine, this contradiction could not stand in the modern era. If both the spirit and principle of liberty were possessed, he averred, then the cause of liberty taking place in America and in France may be justly styled “the most virtuous and illustrious revolution that ever graced the history of mankind” (1826, p. 298).

Paine’s Rights of Man was especially radical in that it linked liberty to universalism and individualism. In it Paine voiced his contempt for the notion of governments being preordained by providence, as no generation had the right to predetermine the nature of government for subsequent generations. Instead, argued Paine, individuals were born with certain basic, indestructible rights, saying, “Man has no property in man. Neither has one generation a property in the generations that are to follow” (1826, p. 331). David Nash makes the case that Paine was the first to create the idea of the “global village where individuals co-existed as citizens,” and whose “individual and natural rights traversed boundaries” in the blink of an eye (2009, p. 18).

In Rights of Man, Paine lauded the first three articles of the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as the basis of liberty, saying that no country could be “called free, whose government does not take its beginning from the principles they contain, and continue to preserve them pure” (1791, p. 69). The three articles Paine was referring to are as follows:

  1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

  2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

  3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation (National Assembly of France, 1789).

This brings out the complexity of Paine’s views, as he was both a cosmopolitan and a supporter of national sovereignty. Robert Lamb (2014, p. 636) contends that this conflict is reconcilable so long as specific universal rights such as the three stipulated above are upheld by the state. To Paine, the legitimacy of the state is therefore contingent upon its commitment to protecting the individual’s fundamental rights.

Among the fundamental “first generation rights” advocated by Paine were the “rights to freedom of thought, speech, worship and to democratic representation” as well as a “latent right to rebel against any government that seeks to deny such rights” (Lamb, 2014, p. 638). As for economic rights, in Agrarian Justice Paine called for the creation of a “National Fund” that would compensate every person “for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property” (1795, p. 10). The commonalities between these rights are their universality both in location and context, as well as their inviolable applicability to individuals, all of whom possess a basic human moral equality (Lamb, 2014, p. 638).

In short, Paine’s views on liberty set him far apart from most of his contemporaries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His radical views were largely in favor of what are considered first generation rights today, with some of his views making forays into second generation rights. Binding his views on liberty together—i.e. both liberty for nation-states as well as for individuals—was the universal applicability he presumed they had. The following section will attempt to explicate the views on liberty held by Tocqueville in much the same way that this section has for Paine.


Chapter 2. Alexis de Tocqueville the Reactionary

     Tocqueville is most famous for his observations published in Democracy in America between 1835 and 1840. From the outset, Tocqueville was most struck by the “equality of conditions” found in America and pondered its notions and applications in the European—and especially the French—context. Although a lover of liberty, he would go on to voice his doubts over the future development of equality and democracy. Who was Tocqueville and what characterized his relatively reactionary views on liberty? The following two subsections—the first being on liberty in practice and the second on the dangers of its excesses—seek to expand on Tocqueville and his views on liberty by utilizing his most influential works, as well as the secondary literature concerning them.

2.1.    Liberty in Practice

 A mid-19th century French diplomat, political scientist and historian, Tocqueville was unique for having both an impeccable aristocratic pedigree and a penchant for liberty at a time when France was transitioning toward democracy. Near his life’s end, he wrote in the preface to The Old Regime and the Revolution that “I may perhaps be charged with evincing in this work a most inopportune love for freedom. […] I can only reply to these who urge this charge that in me the feeling is of ancient date” (1856, viii). Though Tocqueville was undoubtedly an enduring advocate of liberty, his unique understanding of it is worth examining.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville wrote surprisingly little on the topic of personal liberties. For example, though he discussed the federal Constitution at length, he did not once mention the Bill of Rights. To be sure, Tocqueville did mention the “idea of rights” in later chapters (i.e. property and political rights), but what sets his analysis of America apart is the attention he gave to the “unprecedented liberties enjoyed by political parties, the press, and political associations” (Maletz, 2001, p. 461). Thus, Tocqueville did not frame his understanding of liberty based on principle but rather on practice.

As for the freedoms enjoyed by political parties, Tocqueville observed that the early rise of the Federalist Party helped create a stable, functioning state that ensured relative domestic tranquility lasting until the time of the Civil War. America, Tocqueville noted, was blessed with this tranquility thanks to its assurance of freedom of religion and equality before the law, in addition to the economic prosperity its citizens enjoyed. Humorously, Tocqueville found himself unsure of how to process the peculiarity of America’s secondary-issue party-formation, as “all the domestic controversies of the Americans at first appear to a stranger to be so incomprehensible and so puerile that he is at a loss whether to pity a people which takes such arrant trifles in good earnest, or to envy the happiness which enables it to discuss them” (1835, p. 201).

In regards to freedom of the press, Tocqueville saw the laissez-faire approach towards the American press as a means for preserving liberty. Tocqueville confessed, “I do not entertain that firm and complete attachment to the liberty of the press, [… however] I approve of it more from a recollection of the evils it prevents than from a consideration of the advantages it ensures” (1835, p. 204). Coming up with common codes for censorship, Tocqueville reasoned, would be not only dangerous in America but absurd, as it would lead to a multitude of cumbersome modifications that change daily or, if charges were pressed, the courts would be ineffective in finding solutions. In short, Tocqueville saw the vehemence and chaos inherent in a free press as being “so strangely composed of mingled good and evil that it is at the same time indispensable to the existence of freedom, and nearly incompatible with the maintenance of public order” (1835, p. 207).

Concerning the freedom of association exercised in America, Tocqueville made the case that this freedom was “almost as inalienable as the right of personal liberty [and that] no legislator can attack it without impairing the very foundations of society” (1835, pp. 218-9). In Tocqueville’s eyes, freedom of association allowed members of a minority to unite to show their numerical strength and moral authority, while also promoting exchanges of ideas and diversity of opinion. Lastly, he stated that because of America’s innate democratic nature, such a freedom was absolutely necessary as a “permanent protection against the most galling tyranny; [… oppression] by a small faction, or by a single individual, with impunity” (1835, p. 218).

2.2.    On the Dangers of Democracy

Where Tocqueville earns his “reactionary” qualifier, at least in this author’s estimation, is in his wariness of the incessant “religion of progress.” It is worth reemphasizing that Tocqueville was not against the notion of equality and human rights. But while he was a “rigoristic defender of the unconditional value of basic rights,” at the same time he was one of the first critics of these doctrines (Solovyov, 1997, p. 33). This is because Tocqueville saw potential hazards that could emerge from the excessive pursuit of equality through democracy.

One of the hazards of the “religion of progress” was that democracy “‘democratizes’ aspects of life such as the family, religion, [and] intellectual life,” and eventually the result is for everything to be subjected merely to “the ubiquitous claims of ‘public opinion’” (Mahoney, 2001, p. 206). According to Tocqueville, this constant harkening to collective judgement made America the country with the least “independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion” in the entire world (1835, p. 292). In short, the high level of public trust in America, fostered by its unprecedented level of freedom, bred complacency at the cost of critical thinking.

In Tocqueville’s view, rule by public opinion risked developing into a tyranny of the majority, not unlike the dilemma faced in a democracy composed of two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. To Tocqueville, democratic despotism was a “far more subtle, insidious and dangerous threat to the integrity of human nature” (Mahoney, 2001, p. 208). His reaction was against the conflation of the concept of inherent, sacred, and inalienable rights (or the new ‘natural law’)” (Solovyov, 1997, p. 33) with the “religion of progress,” the latter of which contributed to the rise of tyrannical systems in the 20th century that arose from efforts to impose equality on societies.

Tocqueville was unusually prescient in this regard. He reckoned that although liberty and equality were both seen favorably in democratic societies, they were not equally cherished. In fact, Tocqueville saw a people’s passion for equality to be more “ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism – but they will not endure aristocracy (1835, p. 573). In light of this, Tocqueville admonished his readers to look to the future with a “salutary fear” that vigilantly seeks to protect freedom, rather than the “faint and idol terror which depresses and enervates the heart” (Solovyov, 1997, p. 33).

There was a glimmer of hope in Tocqueville’s eyes in regards to restraining this excessive push for material equality through democracy: America’s religious nature. Tocqueville saw religion as a vital restraint on America’s excessive political equality—what he called the “liberty of a corrupt nature” for all to do as they please (1835, p. 61). Sarah Beth V. Kitch notes that in Tocqueville’s evaluation, Americans benefit from the alliance between the “equality that energizes their politics” and the “moral order that structures their thought and actions” (2016, p. 955). The result of this alliance is protection from the symptoms of materialism and individualism that arise from democracy’s limitless independence. Kitch concludes that to Tocqueville, “religion matters because it guides humans in how to use their liberty, helps them to perceive moral meaning, and teaches them about the significance of their own individuality” (2016, p. 957).


Chapter 3. Concluding Comparisons

Notions of liberty as discussed by Paine and Tocqueville compare and contrast in a few key ways. Interestingly, while their incisive views compare in that they both center on liberty, they contrast significantly in time and context. The timeline of these thinkers’ works is important, as Tocqueville was able to make many of his novel observations because he was fortunate enough to be standing on the shoulders of giants such as Paine. In terms of context, Paine’s works were largely focused on liberty in principle, as fundamental notions of individual rights were only taking rudimentary form during his lifetime. Decades later, Tocqueville, while observing facets of American life, was able to transcend liberty in principle and instead focus on liberty in practice, as the America he witnessed was largely a product of Paine’s seminal ideas on liberty.

In addition to this cleavage, these two lovers of liberty saw the future of liberty differently. From Paine’s point of view, liberty was a universal end in itself that concerned all mankind. To be sure, Tocqueville also presciently saw this trend towards liberty, democracy and equality as being more or less inevitable. The difference between their views on liberty’s inevitable progress was, of course, the optimism of Paine versus the pessimism of Tocqueville. In standing on the shoulders of Paine, Tocqueville saw ahead to the potential dangers of the relentless pursuit of equality that could arise from extensive liberty, with 20th century communist regimes being a notorious example of such. This premonition on the part of Tocqueville, as well as his views on what could potentially stave its advancement, likely would not have garnered Paine’s favor.

Paine and Tocqueville each held contrasting views on religion that dovetailed with their respective views on liberty. As a deist, Paine’s unorthodox views on religion were largely reviled at the time. In Age of Reason, Paine’s nonconformist views undermined “the pretensions of established religion and structures associated with it” (Nash, 2009, p. 15). Much like his views on liberty from rather than through the state, (or rather, freedom despite the state), Paine did not see God as a deity who manifested himself through miracles, scripture, revelation or clergy; instead, God could be seen in nature, reason and in living a virtuous, philanthropic life (Webb, 2006, pp. 515-524). In short, Paine saw organized religion as being intertwined with arbitrary power structures, which restricted and distorted mankind’s interaction with God.

On the other hand, Tocqueville, an ardent Catholic, was more orthodox in his views of religion and rejected notions of religious freedom as individualistic and reason-based as Paine’s (Cantrell, 2015, p. 35). As noted earlier, Tocqueville saw religion as an essential bulwark against the “religion of progress” that can result in materialism and fanaticism. The alliance between freedom and religion seen in America allowed Americans to “agree on standards of justice in the political world,” thereby “legitimating authority” so that citizens could “accept authority without degrading themselves” (Kitch, 2016, p. 956). Religion was a bulwark in the sense that it taught people that there was more to life than the individualistic pursuit of money and possessions, and knowing this would keep people from sacrificing their liberties for equality.

In conclusion, there is a fair amount of continuity between each thinker’s views on liberty and his views on religion, with Paine being the far more radical of the two and Tocqueville being the more conservative and reactionary figure. This doubles for other views held by each thinker. Although they both compare in that they produced seminal works on liberty at crucial times in its historical development, each thinker had his respective time and context which shaped his views differently. The unbounded optimism of Paine’s universalistic and individualistic views on liberty helped shape America’s early development, which Tocqueville would go on to examine in practice with a more pessimistic and reactionary eye to its future development.



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