In the political writings of Alexis de Tocque-ville (1805-1859), Francis Lie-ber (1798-1872), and Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), we find insights, opinions, and warnings of great current applicability, especially with regard to international affairs.  The task Professor David Clinton sets himself in this excellent study is not, however, primarily to draw conclusions concerning the present but to analyze each thinker’s views on international questions of his time.  Following a solid Introduction, three chapters (“Why did M. Tocqueville Change His Mind?,” “Why did Professor Lieber say No?,” and “Why was Mr. Bagehot Opposed?”) define the positions each man took on pressing issues.  The differences among them are brought out in the conclusion, which is also the occasion for the author to distinguish between his subjects’ views and the dogma of 21st-century liberalism and globalization.

The term liberalism, as Professor Clinton employs it, indicates the championing of liberty, at home and perhaps abroad.  In an international connection, the term stands in contradistinction to realism or neorealism—illustrated most famously by Bismarck.  What is proper, what is feasible in this liberal enterprise is, of course, the great question, especially (as the author remarks) given the distaste historical liberalism has shown for coercion and its concern for private life.  Neither Tocqueville, Lieber, nor Bagehot was an unqualified liberal, though all three supported individual liberties, limited government, and the rule of law; all tempered their positions with “realist” qualifications.  None had, moreover, a primary interest in international politics, yet each gave theoretical as well as practical consideration to the topic.  To some degree, the positions of each man mirror the circumstances of his native (or adopted) country, although not rigidly.

The French sociologist was concerned with preservation of republican, but not radical, government in France and with his nation’s prestige and stability, both being necessary for the advancement of liberal society.  Judging the spread of democracy to be both desirable and inevitable in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville was mindful of the threat posed to it by extreme egalitarianism on the one hand and rigid class structure on the other.  The grounding of democracy must be, he thought, civic virtue.  America illustrated such virtue, particularly on the local plane, where Tocqueville admired pragmatic problem-solving; but she also exemplified the dangers of excessive individualism and egalitarianism.  The pursuit of individualism, especially where directed toward material benefits, weakens the citizenry’s determination to protect its liberties; and excessive concern with equality, he believed, would lead to stultifying uniformity and erode the very entity (the nation-state) charged with protecting freedom.

Whereas Tocqueville had been ready, as a new legislator in 1839, to take on any foreign adversary (chiefly as a means of affirming nationhood by upholding honor or “national passions”), ten years later, as foreign minister under the Second Republic, he was fully converted to the cause of international peace and the quiet resolution of disputes.  He saw an enormous advantage to the American republic in geographical separation—especially when contrasted with the proximity of the European nations to one another.  Yet national sovereignty—and, hence, patriotic ardor—remained primary for Tocqueville.  A “vaguely beneficent attitude toward the whole of humanity” (the phrase is Professor Clinton’s) should not be allowed to replace loyalty to home, place, or language.  What, then, could encourage virtue and contribute to human freedom (without resort to demagoguery) on the international plane?  Since Tocqueville feared a loss of national authority (he believed that the legitimacy of treating the nationals of other states differently from one’s own had been undermined already), mutual agreement among states on standards of acceptable national conduct was the only means.  He urged especially a greater understanding between France and England, the two major liberal powers.

Francis Lieber was more nationalistic still than Tocqueville.  A Prussian who emigrated to America in 1827, lived in Boston, and taught for many years at South Carolina College before moving to New York, Lieber believed that “life, all conscious existence, turns on the two poles of Individualism and Socialism [social bonds].”  The American union was not only good in itself but showed how freedom (individual interests) could be extended by means of voluntary association among states, to which they adhere through honor.  He campaigned actively for international agreements in such areas as weights and measures, coinage, copyright law, free trade, and rules governing the conduct of war, one of his principal interests.  (Lieber was chiefly responsible for drawing up the “instructions for the government of armies” known as General Orders Number 100, 1863.)

Yet he concluded that the natural (to him) bonds of society could not be extended to the universal plane without jeopardizing rights; thus, he unequivocally opposed a proposed international court with punitive powers (1872) and the creation of any supranational institution, or “Universal empire,” charged with enforcing them.  Lieber ardently supported the cause of German unification.  For the sake of national stability, he opposed extending the franchise, as it would give effective control to the working class, and he favored prohibiting immigration by non-Europeans to America.  His concept of national sovereignty implied even the right to overrule custom and violate international usages—and perhaps wage war—as “necessity” might dictate, since the responsibility of the state is to look after its own interests.  “Self-preservation alone forces at times a state to interfere with the affairs of another.”  More than his strong dislike of slavery, his fervent belief in national integrity as a means of preserving both liberty and society explains his condemnation of secession in 1861 and his enthusiastic support of the Union.

Bagehot, the author of The English Constitution and editor of the Economist, held views that are particularly relevant today.  These include his opposition to foreign entanglements and political crusades (notably in the Near East), his distrust of zealotry, and his support of a reduction in public expenditures.  They represent not insularity but a reasoned position, taking into account the international scene and Great Britain’s particular situation.  Reason was, indeed, Bagehot’s political creed; through political evolution, he believed, a few advanced states had abandoned the policies of coercion (by sheer power and the weight of tradition) in favor of enlightened discussion.  This belief in government by discussion (the parliamentary process supported by free journalism) made him wary of any supranational enterprises even in the cause of freedom, since the extension of enlightened discussion and sound judgment seemed to him utopian, given the “inconsideration” of human beings, vast differences among societies (few of which were ready for parliamentary government), and the persistence of power politics (exemplified by Bismarck and Napoleon III).  Similarly, Bagehot opposed extension of the franchise by lowering property qualifications, as this reform would place decisionmaking in the hands of those ill-equipped to evaluate arguments.  His liberalism was thus well dosed with what Professor Clinton terms an “essentially conservative mistrust of the human ability to alter complex realities for the better.”

Joined in the “liberal project of preserving the freedom of the individual within a workable social framework,” these three thinkers agreed also in warning, well over a century ago, against the transfer of national loyalties to a global community.  Under such a scheme, they argued, civic virtues could no longer be sustained, and, thus, freedom of the human spirit would be lost.  Few lessons more pertinent to the 21st century can easily be imagined.


[Tocqueville, Lieber, and Bagehot: Liberalism Confronts the World, by David Clinton (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 159 pp., $55.00]