Hidden in Plain Sight: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Recognition of the Jewish Origin of the Idea of Equality

, October 21, 2005

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:3-4 (Fall 2005)

Although Alexis de Tocqueville examined in depth the idea of equality in his classic Democracy in America, and attributed its origin to Christianity, he explicitly recognized its Jewish provenance in a letter to Arthur de Gobineau of 24 January 1857. This finding is significant, because Tocqueville’s pioneering study identified the central importance of equality in modern democracy and described its benefits and dangers. This year marks the bicentennial of Tocqueville’s birth (29 July 1805-16 April 1859).

Alexis de Tocqueville, Historian and Social Observer

On 25 July 2005, the world commemorated the bicentennial of the birth of Alexis Charles Henri Clerel de Tocqueville, the French historian and statesman. Tocqueville, who was born in Paris into the old nobility of France and belonged to a Norman family, is famous for his two major studies, Democracy in America (Volume 1, January 1835 and Volume 2, 1840) and The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856).Possessing a fine analytical intellect, he is known for his thoughtful examination of the workings of modern democracy, which he observed during his visit to the United States during 1831 and 1832 with his friend, Gustav de Beaumont.

In Democracy, he studied the implications of the idea of equality, particularly how political equality was derived from conditions of material equality. In his study of the French Revolution, he explained that the revolution first took place in men’s minds before it broke out in real life and advanced the thesis which became known as the “Revolution of Rising Expectations.” It posited that revolutions took place not necessarily in times of despair but under improving conditions:

“Thus the social order overthrown by a revolution is almost always better than the one immediately preceding it, and experience teaches us that, generally speaking, the most perilous moment for a bad government is one when it seeks to mend its ways….Patiently endured for so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men’s minds.1″

As an observer of history, Tocqueville viewed men as being at the center of the historical stage, placing them in the context of material conditions, political structure, legal and social relationships, religion, ideas, and previous history. One of Tocqueville’s important historical and methodological contributions was his identification of the important link between religion and political culture. To use the language of the time, he was interested in the “moral influence that religion exercised on society.”2 Thus, his work anticipated a new field, the sociology of religion. His writing is deep and nuanced, and by taking into account a maximum of variable factors, he was able to produce major works which would stand the test of time and to make a number of accurate long-term predictions. His most famous was that, by the middle of the twentieth century, Russia and the United States would be the two leading powers in the world.3 Another was that, when abused, equality in modern society could serve the ends of the totalitarian state.4

Tocqueville and Gobineau: Opposed Worldviews

Generally, the scholarly literature has devoted attention to Tocqueville’s main works, to the exclusion of his extensive personal correspondence.5 Nevertheless, much of his correspondence is highly valuable, particularly Tocqueville’s exchange of letters in the 1850s with his diligent young secretary, Arthur de Gobineau, an atheist and adherent of Hegel’s dialectical approach, who became one of the first European writers to interpret the historical development of mankind as being dependent on race. Between 1853 and 1855, Gobineau published a work titled Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races). After reading it, Tocqueville penned a withering refutation of Gobineau’s racist theory with its implied historical determinism, predestination, and fatalism.6

According to Jean-Louis Benoit, a leading Tocqueville scholar, the correspondence with Gobineau, taken as a whole, represents the most important single contribution in which Tocqueville devoted his attention directly to questions of moral and ethical human behavior. Benoit recognized the importance of this correspondence, which he analyzed in his recently published study, Tocqueville moraliste. He also published an inspired selection of the most sensitive texts of this correspondence in his anthology, Alexis de Tocqueville, textes essentials.7

Although under normal conditions the debate for equality and against racism would not be drawn to its ultimate conclusion, one must grasp what is at stake. In order to understand the virtue of equality and the principle of man’s moral perfectibility, it is necessary to point out that the actual antithesis of freedom is slavery.8Bernard Lewis explained the link between racism and slavery: “For the ancient Greeks, the medieval Muslims, and the modern philosophers, [racism] served the same purpose – to justify slavery.”9 Indeed, when Tocqueville wrote, the burning moral and political question of his age was the institution of slavery in the United States. It follows therefore that the debate for and against democratic universality, whose basic idea is equality, has extensive political and practical consequences.

Tocqueville, in his correspondence with Gobineau – particularly his letter of 17 November 1853, the best known of the series – pointed out that Gobineau’s ideas led to fatalism and ideas of predestination. Using blunt language, Tocqueville relentlessly attacked Gobineau’s main idea: “Do you not see that your doctrine brings out naturally all the evils that permanent inequality creates – pride, violence, and the contempt of fellow men, tyranny, and abjectness under all its forms?”10 He then added that: “…courage, energy, integrity, foresight, good sense” are the true reasons for the prosperity of individuals as of empires, and that the destiny of man “either as an individual or as a nation is what he wants to make of it.”11

Writing some four years later, Tocqueville produced a succinct and forceful exposition of his thinking on the subject of equality. Here, he returned to one of the central themes of Democracy in America, which he had developed in the early 1830s. He declared that he viewed Christianity as morally superior to Gobineau’s materialistic determinism, which, as a professing Christian, he rejected out of hand. His position was absolutely uncompromising:

“…I confess that it was impossible for me to believe that you did not perceive the difficulty of reconciling your theories with the letter and even the spirit of Christianity. As to the literal meaning, what could be clearer than the unity of mankind in Genesis and that all men are descended from the same man?12And as to the spirit of Christianity, has not its distinctive characteristic been to want to abolish all the distinctions of race [“nationality” in this context], which the Jewish religion allowed to persist, and to create one human species of which all of its members could perfect themselves and become like one another? How could this spirit, according to widely-held ideas of common sense, be reconciled with a historical doctrine that creates distinct races, unequal ones, made more or less to understand, judge, act, and this as a consequence of a certain original disposition that cannot change and invincibly restricts the perfection of some of these? Christianity was inclined to make brothers and equals of all men. Your doctrine effectively makes them cousins at best whose common father is in heaven. Here on earth, there are only conquerors and the vanquished, masters and slaves by right of birth, and it is so very true that your doctrines are approved of, cited, and commented on by whom? by the owners of blacks [literally Negroes] and in favor of their eternal servitude [slavery] which is based on the radical difference of race….13″

Tocqueville’s Statement in Historical Context

This passage is unique because in it Tocqueville explicitly recognized the Jewish origin of the principle of equality, although he was not overly generous about it. At all events, his words should be placed in historical context. When Tocqueville writes that Christianity’s distinctive characteristic was “to want to abolish all distinctions of race, which the Jewish religion allowed to persist…,” it should be noted that in the nineteenth century “race” meant nationality,14 and in ancient times, legal rights customarily belonged only to the citizens of a given city.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, the great nineteenth-century historian of the ancient city, explained: “If we wished to give an exact definition of a citizen, we should say that it was a man who had the religion of the city. The stranger, on the contrary is one who has not access to the worship, one of whom the gods of the city do not protect, and who has not even the right to invoke them.”15

Tocqueville, a professing Christian, was deeply convinced that the rise of Christianity in the ancient world represented a totally new form of morality and reversal of values in contrast to what preceded.16 His views may have been correct in the case of the pagan religions of the time, but were mistaken with regard to Judaism. It is evident that Tocqueville overlooked the fact that Judaism in ancient times was an open, proselytizing, monotheistic religion and, then as now, the benefits of life under Jewish law and equal status within this community were accessible to anyone prepared to accept the commandments. Moreover, the stranger in Israel enjoyed certain defined rights.

It is more likely that the exclusivity which Tocqueville attributed to Judaism better describes the condition prevailing in the pagan cities of the ancient world. It should be noted as well that while Christianity created a more universal type of affiliation based on faith in Jesus, it did not improve on or detract from the originality of the Jewish idea of equality.

Indeed, the first Christians and subsequently the Church Fathers endeavored to demonstrate the originality of Christianity by claiming that with its advent, Judaism lost its historical purpose and was destined to be replaced by the new faith. Although today many Christians have dissociated themselves from Replacement Theology and Supersessionism, this discredited doctrine may be identified in the assertion that because Christianity appropriated and widely disseminated the idea of equality it became a Christian concept. Tocqueville, it should be noted, wrote well before the fundamental reexamination of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism that took place after the Holocaust and which fostered a new recognition of the Jewish contribution both to Christianity and to world culture.

Historically, it was not through the medium of early Christianity that the idea of equality became a part of modern Western thought, as Tocqueville had implied, but as a result of one of the great cultural events of all times, the translation of the Bible into European languages during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Through this medium, the literate public, particularly of the English-speaking world, gained direct access to Jewish ideas in the scriptural texts, particularly of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament in the commonly accepted terminology. Indeed, Protestant culture attached special importance to literacy both for boys and girls.17 Furthermore, recent scholarship has abundantly demonstrated that the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels are replete with Jewish ideas which were current in the Second Temple era.18

Christopher Hill in his study, The English Bible and the Seventeenth- Century Revolution, explained the importance of this cultural event:

“When we say, rightly, that the English became the People of the Book, we must not suppose that theology or the after life were all that they studied in that Book. The after life indeed has no place in the Old Testament. They found lessons and consolations for living on earth as well as the path to heaven. Some Englishmen also found confirmation and justification of their worst vices – sexism, patriarchalism, racialism, social hierarchy, national arrogance. Nor did the pious monopolize the idiom of the Bible. In the late eighteenth century popular songs celebrated the Biblical virtues of highwaymen. The Bible has established cultural norms which survived religious beliefs.19

Taken in historical context, Tocqueville’s letter to Gobineau of 24 January 1857 clearly recognizes the contribution of the distinctly Jewish idea of equality to the evolution of Western thought. This attribution is significant, because in Democracy in America he emphasizes its central importance to modern democracy, describing both its benefits and potential dangers. To date, it has been the accepted view that all political thought in the Bible which contributed to the unique development of American political culture is Christian. Indeed, several American political scientists have propagated this majority view of history which is both inaccurate and unsupported by the evidence. Hopefully, the present examination of Tocqueville’s correspondence will provide a better appreciation of his analytical thinking at the end of his career, which found expression in an emphatic affirmation of universal equality which he articulated, most appropriately, in a vigorous refutation of racist thought.

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1. Ancien Regime, Part III, Ch. 4, as quoted in John Stone and Stephen Mennell, Alexis de Tocqueville on Democracy, Revolution and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 230.

2. Andre Jardin, Tocqueville: A Biography, trans. Lydia Davis with Robert Hemenway (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 322. See also “Indirect Influence that Religious Beliefs Exert on Political Society in the United States,” “How in the United States Religion Knows to Make Use of Democratic Institutions,” in Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (respectively) of Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

3. Democracy in America, Vol. 1, Part II, Ch. 10, “Conclusion,” p. 395.

4. See: “Continuation of the Preceding Chapters,” Vol. 2, Part IV, Ch. 7, Democracy in America, pp. 666-673. In this famous section Tocqueville predicted that conditions of equality under certain circumstances could lay the foundation for what later become known as totalitarian rule. He wrote:

“I believe that it is easier to establish an absolute and despotic government in a people where conditions are equal than in any other, and I think that if such a government were once established in a people like this, not only would it oppress men, but in the long term it would rob each of them of several of the attributes of humanity. Despotism therefore appears to me particularly to be dreaded in democratic ages. (ibid., p. 666)”

5. See, e.g.: Pierre Manent, Tocqueville et la nature de la democratie (Paris: Julliard, 1982) (French).

6. Jean-Louis Benoit, Tocqueville moraliste (Paris: Honore Champion éditeur, 2004), p. 77 (French). See also: Pierre-Andre Taguie., “Le racialisme pessimiste: La Vision gobinienne de l’histoire comme décadence,” in La Couleur et le Sang: Doctrine racistes a la française (Paris: Mille et une nuits, 2002), pp. 46-47 (French). It should be noted that Gobineau expressed positive views about the Jewish people.

7. Benoit, Tocqueville moraliste, p. 122; Alexis de Tocqueville, Textes essentials, Anthologie critique par J.-L. Benoit (Paris: Agora, 2000) (French). See also: Francoise Melonio, Tocqueville and the French, trans. Beth G. Raps (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998).

8. Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 90.

9. Ibid.

10. A. de Tocqueville to A. de Gobineau, 17 November 1853, in J.-P. Mayer, ed., Alexis de Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 9, Correspondance d’Alexis de Tocqueville et d’Arthur de Gobineau (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), p. 203 (French), as quoted in Olivier Zunz and Alan S. Kahan, eds., The Tocqueville Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Library, 2002), p. 269.

11. Ibid.

12. Genesis 2:3; also Malachi 2:10: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?”

13. A. de Tocqueville to A. de Gobineau, 24 January 1857, in J.-P. Mayer, ed., Alexis de Tocqueville, Oeuvres complètes, Vol. 9, Correspondance d’Alexis de Tocqueville et d’Arthur de Gobineau (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), p. 277 (French). (Author’s translation.)

14. For an analysis of Tocqueville’s use of the word “race,” see: Anne Amiel, Le vocabulaire de Tocqueville (Paris: Ellipses, 2002), pp. 47-49 (French).

15. Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City: A Study of the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome, trans. Willard Small (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), p. 194. The author thanks Prof. Daniel R. Schwartz of the Hebrew University for this reference.

16. Benoit, Tocqueville moraliste, pp. 81-91. For Fustel de Coulanges’ description of the profound effects of the new Christian idea of affiliation in the ancient world, see: The Ancient City, pp. 389-96.

17. David Landes, “Culture Makes Almost All the Difference,” in Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds., Culture Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2000), p. 12. Here, Landes drew on the research of Max Weber.

18. See: David Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988); ibid., Jesus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997); ibid., Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 1989); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (London: Fontana-Collins, 1976); ibid., Jesus and the World of Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Geza Vermes and James G. D. Dunn, eds., The Parting of the Ways: Jews and Christians AD 70 to AD 135 (Tuebingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1992).

19. Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution (London: Allen Lane, 1993), pp. 438-39. See also: David Daniell, The English Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 461.


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DR. JOEL FISHMAN is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and of the Centre for Strategic and Military Studies at the University of Calgary. He received his doctorate in modern European history as well as the Certificate of the Institute of European Studies from Columbia University. He has recently published on Israel’s position after the Oslo agreements and his book, with Efraim Karsh, La Guerre d’Oslo, appeared this year. This article contains findings from his project, Democracy in Israel, under the auspices of the JCPA.

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Joel Fishman

Dr. Joel Fishman is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs and editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.  He served as the assistant editor of volumes X (July 1920-December 1921) and XI (January 1922-July 1923) of The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1977).