Written by Vladimir Moss



     By the 1830s, the French revolution, in spite of its radicalism, had not attained its revolutionary aims. It required further revolutions – in 1830, in 1848 and even in 1871 – to remove from it the last remnants of Bonapartism and monarchism and reduce it to some kind of stable republicanism and democratism (not to mention atheism). America, by contrast, was more advanced than any other major European country from a liberal point of view. Her economic system was more purely and successfully capitalist than any other’s, and her government more democratic, with a by now stable party system; for the supposed scourge of monarchism had been more effectively removed from America than from any other country.So from the leftist point of view, Americas was, as Hegel put it, “the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself. It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical lumber room of Europe.”[1]

     That the old world of Europe projected its desires onto the New World across the ocean was true enough. And America certainly played a major part in tidying up Europe’s lumber room in the mid-twentieth century. But the idea that America, whose genes, both physical and cultural, were largely European, could escape the inheritance of Europe’s original sin, her rejection of the Orthodox faith and the Orthodox autocracy, was a fantasy; and no amount of dreaming about her “manifest destiny”, or speculation about the workings of the “World Spirit”, could eradicate the contradictions in her historical path… 

     Nevertheless, disillusion with America lay far in the future; and in this period “the American dream” was a common fantasy. That the republic, as Hugh Brogan writes, “was now a democracy, was patent to all. But it was a democracy of a particular kind. Every white male adult citizen was, or could be, involved (the percentage of the electorate voting in 1840 was 80.2 – a proportion to be surpassed only in 1860 and 1870); a legal revolution could occur every four years. A permanent contest had sprung up spontaneously between the Ins and the Outs: whatever the good luck or the good management of the ruling party, there would always be an opposition ready to fight. The spoils system [whereby a new incoming government necessitated the removal and replacement of all existing officials] gave it something to hope for; the prospect of another election gave it something to hope for; and though a party might be defeated nationally, it would have gret reserves of strength in the states, cities and counties which it still controlled – for no party victory has ever been absolutely complete – and, throughout the history of the American party system, local victory has always seemed, to some politicians, more important than a national one. The contest was by no means wholly cynical. Whigs and Democrats stood for significantly different economic programmes, and although both parties tried to appeal to all parts of the country equally, they did not sink all their beliefs in order to do so. The Democrats stuck by the doctrines they had inherited from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The federal  government, they believed, should be weak, the states strong. There should be no national bank, nor paper money, but instead a currency of gold and silver, and an independent Treasury where federal revenues, derived from the sales of public lands rather than the tariff (the Democrats were a party of free-traders), could be kept safe from aristocratic speculators and corrupters. The Whigs were equally loyal to the memory of Hamilton’s reports on manufactures and banking, and to Henry Clay’s American System, which contradicted the notons of the Democracy at every point. The Whigs wanted to build up American national strength by building up the economy; if that meant creating a class of rich men, so much the better. But they were not undemocratic, in the political sense: they enjoyed the game too much for that; nor were they illiberal or reactionary as to social policy. This was a great era of experimental reform, and of noisy egalitarianism. The Whigs, or some of them at any rate, espoused both. Seward, for example, began his career as a leader of the so-called Anti-Masonic Party in New York state, which in the early thirties suspected the Freemasons of dreadful conspiracies against democracy; and as governor of New York he showed himself a human supporter of prison reform.”[2]  

     The failure of the Anti-Masonic Party was perhaps the greatest failure of the American Republic, and doomed it to eventual disaster. For God’s blessing could not be on the state whose main religion after Protestantism (there were more Masonic lodges in America than in any other country) was anti-Christian Masonry, whose blasphemies and plotting against lawful authority was to destroy the Russian Empire in 1917. But leaving aside this most fundamental defect, American democracy had others, which even some democrats detected.

     Thus the New Yorker Thomas Whitney declared: "I take direct issue with democracy. If democracy implies universal suffrage, or the right of all men to take part in the control of the State without regard to the intelligence, the morals, or the principles of the man, I am no democrat... As soon would I place my person and property at the mercy of an infuriated mob... as place the liberties of my country in the hands of an ignorant, superstitious, and vacillating populace."[3] Lord Macaulay wrote in a similar vein to the American Henry Stephens Randall: “I have not the smallest doubt that if we had a purely democratic government here… either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish.”[4]


     A fine critique of the American dream was written by the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville. He wrote in his Democracy in America (1835) that the Russians and the Anglo-Americans seemed each “to be summoned by a secret plan of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world”.[5] He was famously right about that. So, on the assumption that he shared the prejudice of almost all educated westerners that Russia was an evil despotism, how did he rate the world’s only democratic superpower-to-be?

     The short answer is: not as highly as one might expect… “Following his famous visit to America,” writes Stephen Holt, “he suggested that democracy, if unchecked by religion and other forms of association, could well be characterized by self-destructive individualism, oppressive egalitarianism and an anxious desire to acquire, or be provided with, material well being.”[6]

     An important defect of American democracy, Tocqueville thought, was what he called “the tyranny of the majority”: “In the United States, as in every country where the people rules, it is the majority which governs in the name of the people… If ever liberty dies in America, we shall have to blame it on the omnipotence of the majority which will have reduced the minorities to despair and compelled them to make an appeal to physical force. We shall then see anarchy, but it will come as the consequence of despotism.”[7]

     “The moral authority of the majority is partly based on the notion that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in a numerous assembly than in a single man, and the number of the legislators is more important than how they are chosen. It is the theory of equality applied to brains. This doctrine attacks the last asylum of human pride; for that reason the minority is reluctant in admitting it and takes a long time to get used to it…

     “The idea that the majority has a right based on enlightenment to govern society was brought to the United States by its first inhabitants; and this idea, which would of itself be enough to create a free nation, has by now passed into mores and affects even the smallest habits of life…”[8]

     The worst aspect of this freedom was its extreme intolerance of any minority opinion. “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. The majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them.”[9]

     This contributed to a general “dumbing down” of culture, although this cultivated Frenchman admitted it also prevented complete brutalization. “Few pleasures are either very refined or very coarse, and highly polished manners are as uncommon as great brutality of tastes. Neither men of great learning nor extremely ignorant communities are to be met with; genius becomes more rare, information more diffused. There is less perfection, but more abundance in all the productions of the arts.”[10]

      This state of affairs was facilitated by the fact that there was no native American aristocracy, and few minority interests (except those of the Indians and Blacks) which were directly and permanently antagonistic to the interests of the majority. “Hence the majority in the United States has immense actual power and a power of opinion which is almost as great. When once its mind is made up on any question, there are, so to say, no obstacles which can retard, much less halt, its progress and give it time to hear the wails of those it crushes as it passes.

     “The consequences of this state of affairs are fate-laden and dangerous for the future…”[11]

     One consequence was the idea of “making the world safe for democracy”, which has been so “fate-laden and dangerous” for the contemporary world…

     Another consequence was legislative instability, “an ill inherent in democratic government because it is the nature of democracies to bring new men to power…. Thus American laws have a shorter duration than those of any other country in the world today. Almost all American constitutions have been amended within the last thirty years, and so there is no American state which has not modified the basis of its laws within that period…

     “As the majority is the only power whom it is important to please, all its projects are taken up with great ardour; but as soon as its attention is turned elsewhere, all these efforts cease; whereas in free European states, where the administrative authority has an independent existence and an assured position, the legislator’s wishes continue to be executed even when he is occupied by other matters.”[12]

     But, continues de Tocqueville, “I regard it as an impious and detestable maxim that in matters of government the majority of a people has the right to do everything, and nevertheless I place the origin of all powers in the will of the majority. Am I in contradiction with myself?

     “There is one law which has been made, or at least adopted, not by the majority of this or that people, but by the majority of all men. That law is justice.

     “Justice therefore forms the boundary to each people’s right.

     “A nation is like a jury entrusted to represent universal society and to apply the justice which is its law. Should the jury representing society have greater power than that very society whose laws it applies?

     “Consequently, when I refuse to obey an unjust law, I by no means deny the majority’s right to give orders; I only appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of the human race.”[13]

     In a believing age, instead of “the sovereignty of the human race”, the phrase would have been: “the sovereignty of God” or “the authority of the Church as the representative of God”. But after this obeisance to the atheist and democratic temper of his age, Tocqueville does in fact invoke the sovereignty of God. For the essential fact is that the majority – even the majority of the human race – can be wrong, and that only God is infallible. Therefor “Omnipotence in itself seems a bad and dangerous thing. I think that its exercise is beyond man’s strength, whoever he be, and that only God can be omnipotent without danger because His wisdom and justice are always equal to His power. So there is no power on earth in itself so worthy of respect or vested with such a sacred right that I would wish to let it act without control and dominate without obstacles. So when I see the right and capacity to do all given to any authority whatsoever, whether it be called people or king, democracy or aristocracy, and whether the scene of action is a monarchy or a republic, I say: the germ of tyranny is there, and I will go look for other laws under which to live.

     “My greatest complaint against democratic government as organised in the United States is not, as many Europeans make out, its weakness, but rather its irresistible strength. What I find most repulsive in America is not the extreme freedom reigning there, but the shortage of guarantees against tyranny.

     “When a man or a party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms. A jury? The jury is the majority vested with the right to pronounce judgement; even the judges in certain states are elected by the majority. So, however, iniquitous or unreasonable the measure which hurts you, you must submit.”[14]


     Towards the end of his great work, Tocqueville describes in a remarkably prescient manner how he sees democracy changing into a benevolent yet sinister despotism: “I ask myself in what form will despotism reappear in the world. I see an immense agglomeration of people, all equal and alike, each of them restlessly active in getting for himself petty and vulgar pleasures which fill his whole being. Each of them, left to himself, is stranger to the fate of all the others. A vast, protecting power overshadows them. This power alone is responsible for securing their satisfaction and for watching over their fates. The power is absolute, concerned with every detail, smooth in operation, takes account of the future, and is not harsh… The power wants all citizens to be happy, provided that happiness is their sole aim. It works willingly for their well-being, but insists upon being the source of this well-being and the sole judge of what it should consist. It gives them security, foresees and supplies their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts the principal business of their live, manages their industries, divides their properties and regulates their inheritances and, in short, saves them from the trouble of thinking and the difficulties of living.

     “This tutelary power is continuously at work to render less useful and more infrequent the use of free-will; the sphere of liberty of decision is thus restricted more and more until every citizen loses, as it were, the control of himself. Equality has conditioned men for all these transformations and prepared to accept such things and even to welcome them as beneficial.

      “After having brought the individual, stage by stage, into its mighty bonds and moulded him to its wishes, the sovereign extends its tentacles over the community as a whole, and covers the surface of society with a network of little rules, complicated, detailed and uniform, but from beneath which the more original minds and the more vigorous personalities can find no way of extricating themselves and rising above the crowd. The sovereign does not break the wills of the subjects; it enervates them, bends them to its purpose, directs them, rarely forcing them to act, but continually preventing them from action; it does not destroy, but merely prevents things from coming to life; it never tyrannizes, but it hampers, dumps down, constricts, suffocates, and at the last reduces every nation to the level of timid and industrious animals of whom the Government is the shepherd…

     “This kind of regulated servitude, well regulated, placid and gentle, could be combined – more easily than one would think possible – with the forms of liberty and could even establish itself under the shadow of the sovereignty of the people.”[15]  

      The democratic government Tocqueville had in mind here as preventing the tyranny of the majority was probably that of England, with its rule by “the king in parliament”, its respect for custom and strong aristocratic element. England’s aristocratic element did indeed protect the English from some of the excesses of democracy for a time. This elicited the comment of Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev that parliamentary government was possible only in England.

     In this context, and in the light of our modern experience of democracy, it will be useful to examine the estimate of Tocqueville given by his fellow Frenchman and fierce anti-communist, Jean-François Revel: “Tocqueville the visionary depicted with stunning precision the coming ascension of the omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient state that twentieth-century man knows so well; the state as protector, entrepreneur, educator; the physician-state, helpful and predatory, tyrant and guardian, economist, journalist, moralist, shipper, trader, advertiser, banker, father and jailer all at once. The state ransoms and the state subsidizes. It settles without violence into a wheedling, meticulous despotism that no monarchy, no tyranny, no political authority of the past had the means to achieve. Its power borders on the absolute partly because it is scarcely felt, having increased by imperceptible stages at the wish of its subjects, who turn to it instead of to each other. In these pages by Tocqueville we find the germ both of George Orwell’s 1984 and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

     “In one sense, history has endorsed Tocqueville’s reasoning and, in another, has invalidated it. He has been proved right insofar as the power of public opinion has indeed increased in the democracies through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But public opinion has not grown more consistent or uniform; it has in fact become increasingly volatile and diversified. And the state, instead of gaining strength in proportion to its gigantism, is increasingly disobeyed and challenged by the very citizens who expect so much from it. Submerged by the demands on it, called on to solve all problems, it is being steadily stripped of the right to regulate things.

     “So the omnipotence based on consensus that Tocqueville forecast is only one side of the coin of modern government. The other is an equally general impotence to deal with the conflicting daily claims made on it by constituents eager for aid but less and less willing to assume obligations. By invading every area of life, the democratic state has stuffed itself with more responsibilities than powers. The very contradictions among special interests that are as legitimate as they are incompatible, all expecting to be treated with equal goodwill, show that the state’s duties are expanding faster than its means of performing them. There is no denying how burdensome a tutelary government is on society – provided we add that its expansion makes it vulnerable, often paralysing it in its relations with client groups that are quicker to harry it than obey it.

     “This sort of behavior splinters democratic societies into separate groups, each battling for advantage and caring little for the interests of others or society as a whole. Public opinion, instead of being united by uniform thinking, is fragmented into a variety of cultures that can be so different in tastes, ways of living, attitudes and language that they understand each other only dimly, if at all. They coexist but do not mingle. Public opinion in today’s democracies forms an archipelago, not a continent. Each island in the chain ranks its own distinctiveness above membership in a national group and even higher above its association with a group of democratic nations. 

     “In one sense, we do live in a mass era as residents of a ‘planetary village’ where manners and fashions blend. But, paradoxically, we also live in an age of the triumph of minorities, of a juxtaposition of widely differing attitudes. While it is obvious that the passion for equality, identified by Tocqueville as the drive wheel of democracy, generates uniformity, let’s not forget that democracy also rests on a passion for liberty, which fosters diversity, fragmentation, unorthodoxy. Plato, democracy’s shrewdest enemy, saw this when he compared it to a motley cloak splashed with many colours. In a democracy, he said, everyone claims the right to lives as he chooses [Republic 8], so that ways of living multiply and jostle each other. To Aristotle, too, liberty was the basic principle of democracy. He broke this down into two tenets: ‘for all to rule and be ruled in turn’ and ‘a man should live as he likes’. In American democracy, the right to do one’s own thing is as much or more cherished than equality.”[16]

     More cherished even than the Christianity that they so prided themselves on, which exhorted men to be “free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice” (I Peter 2.16)...

     This brings us to the question of American religion and the secular religion of Americanness. “In America,” wrote Sir Roger Scruton in 2002, “religion has been a vital force in building the nation. The initial unity of faith among the Pilgrim Fathers rapidly disintegrated, however, and while religious worship remains an important feature of the American experience, freedom of conscience has been guaranteed from the beginning by the Bill of Rights. This does not mean that America is a secular nation, or that religion has no part to play in establishing the legitimacy of American institutions. It means, rather, that all the many religions of America are bound to acknowledge the authority of the territorial law, and that each renounces the right to intrude on the claims of the state. Furthermore, these religions come under pressure to divert their emotional currents into the common flow of patriotic sentiment: the God of the American sects speaks with an American accent. 

     “The patriotism that upholds the nation-state may embellish itself with far-reaching and even metaphysical ideas like the theories of race and culture that derive from Herder, Fichte and the German romantics. But it might just as easily rest content with a kind of mute sense of belonging – an inarticulate experience of neighbourliness – founded in the recognition that this place where we live is ours. This is the patriotism of the village, of the rural community, and also of the city street, and it has been a vital force in the building of modern America. Indeed, in the last analysis, national identity, like territorial jurisdiction, is an outgrowth of the experience of a common home.

     “Of course, if people turn their backs on one another, live behind closed doors in suburban isolation, then this sense of neighbourliness dwindles. But it can also be restored through the ‘little platoons’ described by Burke and recognized by Tocqueville as the true lifeblood of America. By joining clubs and societies, by forming teams, troupes, and competitions, by acquiring sociable hobbies and outgoing modes of entertainment, people come to feel that they and their neighbours belong together, and this ‘belonging’ has more importance, in times of emergency, than any private difference in matters of religion or family life. Indeed, freedom of association has an inherent tendency to generate territorial loyalties and so to displace religion from the public to the private realm…”[17]

     This may have been true in the nineteenth century, or even in some parts in the 1950s, but feels outdated today, in the twenty-first century, when social cohesiveness has declined drastically, political divides have become much deeper and fiercer, and religion has been not only banished to the private realm, but been invaded and trampled on. True cohesiveness does not exist without the true faith, which the Americans never did possess (although they gave refuge to many immigrants having the true faith). Hence the sage words of President John Adams: “We have no government capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion… Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

      Indeed, we can generalize this conclusion: no constitution can survive the onslaught of unbelief and immorality from the mass of the people. Constitutional “safeguards” are powerless to do anything but delay the eventual collapse of the impious state into anarchy or despotism. Therefore the best “constitution” is that which is united to the true religion and represents its natural political expression….


June 11/24, 2019.


[1] Hegel, The Philosophy of History, in M.J. Cohen and John Major, History in Quotations, London: Cassell, 2004, p. 576.

[2] Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA, London: Penguin, 2019, p. 278.

[3]Whitney, in David Reynolds, America, Empire of Liberty, London: Penguin, 2010, pp. 171-172.

[4] Macaulay, in Cohen and Major, op. cit., p. 611.

[5] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bk. 1, pt. 2, ch. 10.

[6] Holt, review of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in History Today, May 2001, p. 58.

[7] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bk. 1, pt. 2, chs. 1,7.

[8] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York: Fontana, 1968, vol. I, pp. 305-306.

[9] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, in Barzun, op. cit., p. 538.

[10] Tocqueville, On the Effects of Future Democratization, 1840.

[11]Tocqueville,Democracy in America, pp. 306-307.

[12]Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 307-308.

[13]Tocqueville, op. cit., pp. 309-310.

[14]Tocqueville, op. cit., pp. 311- 313.I am guided by Alexis de Tocqueville,” writes Charles C. Camosy, “in my assessment of the course of liberal democracy, who observed that as democracy becomes ‘more itself,’ it becomes ‘less itself.’ Thus, the end station of democracy, according to Tocqueville, was despotism” (“Why Individualist Liberalism Wins, and the Catholic Side Loses”, Crux, December 19, 2017).

[15] De Tocqueville, op. cit.

[16] Revel, How Democracies Perish, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985, pp. 13-15.

[17] Scruton, The Rest and the West, London: Continuum, 2002, pp. 47-49.

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