Can Alexis de Tocqueville’s American Exceptionalism Be Restored?

This speech was delivered at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 8, 2015.

Over a nine-month period beginning in 1831, a 26-year-old Frenchman visited nearly every corner of what were then the 24 states of the American Republic. He traveled from New England to the upper Midwest to the Gulf Coast in the Deep South to the mid-Atlantic. Then he wrote a great book full of amazing insights. It made its appearance 180 years ago, in 1835. Perhaps nobody before or since has defined the essence of America better than he did; but then, no other nation in history offered an essence so profoundly exceptional.

Less than half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, America was still an infant nation, but Alexis de Tocqueville sensed the stirrings of greatness. He praised our entrepreneurial drive and initiative, our self-reliance and personal independence, and our vibrant civil society institutions and voluntary associations. He felt that our ideals would eventually lead us to lead the world. He believed that America had placed two sacred principles -- freedom and equality -- on a higher pedestal than any previous civilization had. They were, he said, our most defining characteristics, the sources of our strength. But he also feared that we would carry one to an extreme that would undermine the other. Milton Friedman was echoing Tocqueville when he said in the 20th century, "A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both."

Tocqueville's appreciation of freedom knew few bounds. Here is perhaps his most eloquent endorsement of it:

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