The Forgotten Thinker Who Explained America To Tocqueville

Posted: Feb 17, 2021 10:25 AM
The Forgotten Thinker Who Explained America To Tocqueville

Source: AP Photo/David Goldman

In September 1831, two acute observers of the American system met in Boston over the course of several days. The 26-year-old Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend Gustave de Beaumont traveled through America for around nine months while studying America’s prisons. While staying in Boston they encountered and spoke at length with Francis Lieber, a German émigré still in his early 30s who had carved out a substantial niche for himself during his four years of residence. Lieber presented them with several completed volumes of the Encyclopaedia Americana, which he had launched in 1829. Tocqueville likely drew on some of this material for his two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840).

The enterprising Lieber had originally moved to Boston from London in 1827 to operate a new gymnasium organized by reform-minded admirers of Germany. Soon afterwards he founded the first swimming school and launched the encyclopedia. The city was then undergoing an intellectual renascence that flowered into the Transcendentalist literary movement and the establishment in 1837 of a state-mandated public education system modeled on Prussia’s. Lieber played a significant role in a growing Transatlantic cultural exchange by forging strong connections within literary, legal, and political circles.

At seventeen years of age Lieber had enlisted to fight against the French revolutionary army. In June 1815 he was left for dead during one of the battles that ended in Napoleon’s defeat. He convalesced for three months before returning to his regiment. A long bout with typhus further delayed his return home. Subsequently he joined and became a leader within Father Jahn’s Turners, a patriotic gymnastic movement that sought to shake off foreign domination. As a critic of the Prussian monarchy Lieber was prevented from studying at the University of Berlin. Instead, he completed his doctoral work secretly at Jena. Then, cut off from any means of making a livelihood, he slipped away to help fight for Greek independence, about which he published his first book.  

On his return journey through Italy in the Spring of 1822 Lieber called on the Prussian ambassador to Rome, the Anglophile historian Barthold Niebuhr, and was hired to tutor Niebuhr’s son. Thus began a year-long stay in Rome, political rehabilitation by the king, and an introduction to the history of what he later called Anglican liberty.

By the time he met with Tocqueville and Beaumont many of the themes of Lieber’s career as a historian and political scientist were already maturing. In a diary entry for September 22, 1831, a few days after they first met, Tocqueville recorded this assertion by Lieber:

We Europeans, we think to create republics by organizing a great political assembly.  The Republic, on the contrary, is of all the governments the one that depends most on every part of society.  Look at this country!  The Republic is everywhere, in the streets as in Congress.  If an obstacle embarrasses the public way, the neighbours will at once constitute themselves a deliberative body; they  will name a commission and will remedy the evil by their collective force, wisely directed.  Does a public ceremony, a banquet, take place, you will likewise see a gathering, a deliberation, and an executive authority arising therefrom.   The concept of an authority preceding that of the parties interested does not exist in anyone’s head.  The people has the Republic to the marrow of the bones.

Tocqueville later made similar observations in Democracy in America about the large role played by voluntary associations: “Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the Government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” Oddly, Beaumont reported to his brother that Lieber “had come to America to cease to be a Republican.” Lieber’s use of the word “Republic” must have puzzled him. To the classical definition the French had added a revolutionary overlay with which Lieber could not sympathize.  

Noah Webster’s already authoritative 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language – a scholarly effort to standardize American usage – defined Republic as “a commonwealth; a state in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people” and distinguished it from a democracy, in which the people exercise the powers of sovereignty directly in person. Despite the care he took, Webster’s efforts to preserve the constitutional language of the founding generation gradually lost influence, although the name Webster in America has remained synonymous with dictionary. 

Lieber’s conception of the Republic was more dynamic than Webster’s but he certainly recognized the cultural particularity of the American system and understood how its detachment from this context would impede its adoption abroad. On this point TocqueviIle recorded another of Lieber’s revealing observations:

Another time he said to us: How can a man who has seen America believe that it is possible to transplant its political laws to Europe, and especially at one fell swoop?  Since seeing this country I can’t believe M. de Lafayette in good faith in his theories; one can’t deceive oneself so grossly.  For my part, I feel myself inclined to believe every day more strongly that constitutions and political laws are nothing in themselves.  They are dead creations to which the morals and the social position of the people alone can give life.

If this be the case, Lieber’s remarks raise the interesting question of whether the original understanding of America’s political laws may even be transmitted to the present day. As has been said by a British novelist, the past is a foreign country. When asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced, Benjamin Franklin is said to have quipped: “A Republic, if you can keep it,” suggesting that it depends upon the historical understanding, moral fiber, and civic courage of the people.

When Lieber delivered his inaugural public lecture at South Carolina College late in 1835, he made this telling observation about the nature of the American system:

I know of but few stations more dignified than that of a public teacher of history; scarcely of one more elevated than that of a teacher appointed by a republic to instruct her children in civil history. For if history is a science important to every one, it is peculiarly so to republicans – to members of a community which essentially depends upon institutions. If they have to defend them against open attacks or plausible heresies, they must know them, must be well acquainted with their essential character. [...] History is the memory of nations; oh! how many have been lost for want of this memory, and on account of careless, guilty ignorance!

Lieber was uniquely situated in American public life as an international scholar who could help interpret and transmit this memory as well as address matters of public concern outside the classroom. At the end of his life, he wrote that “the American revolution [is] the greatest monument in honor of the English polity of self-government.”