Stealing into Power by Opposition to Power
Two acute observers of the American system and its decentralized character were Alexis de Tocqueville, who with his friend Gustave de Beaumont traveled through America for around nine months while studying America’s prisons, and Francis Lieber, a German émigré who met with them in Boston over the course of several days in September 1831. The first published fruits of their budding relationship were Lieber’s translation and notes to Beaumont and Tocqueville’s On the Penitentiary System in the United States (1833) followed by Lieber’s Letters to a Gentleman in Germany (1834), which reproduced and embellished at least one of their conversations. Lieber sent along with them several completed volumes of his Encyclopaedia Americana (13 vols., 1829-1833). Tocqueville likely drew on some of this material for his two-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840).
The enterprising Lieber had moved to Boston from London in 1827 to operate a new gymnasium organized by reform-minded Germanophiles. 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 of a state-mandated, Prussian-modeled public education system in 1837. Lieber played a major role in a growing Transatlantic cultural exchange.
Lieber was only seventeen years of age when he enlisted to fight against the French revolutionary army and in June 1815 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 his year-long stay in Rome, political rehabilitation, and introduction to the history of British liberty.
The power of words
By the time Lieber 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, who had by then had read Edmund Burke, could not sympathize.
Noah Webster’s already authoritative 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defined “Republic” thus: “A commonwealth; a state in which the exercise of the sovereign power is lodged in representatives elected by the people.” By contrast, Webster distinguished the Republic from a democracy, in which the people exercise the powers of sovereignty directly in person. Even so, Webster’s efforts to preserve the language of the Founding generation gradually lost influence, although the name Webster 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 detaching it from this context would impede its adoption abroad. On this point Tocqueville 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.”
This being the case, it raises the question of whether it is possible to transmit an original understanding of America’s political laws to the present day. Ever since Woodrow Wilson derided what he called the Newtonian conception of constitutionally-limited and balanced government in favor of a fluid Darwinian interpretation, many wonder whether government’s imperial tendencies can ever again be bound down, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” When asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced, Benjamin Franklin famously quipped: “A republic, if you can keep it,” suggesting that it depends upon the moral fiber and civic courage of the people.
The character of that Republic has always been at issue. Lieber’s understanding of the Republic—the Roman res publica—was Anglo-American rather than European. Describing the War for Independence as an American Revolution only added to the confusion after the grim bloodletting of the French Revolution transitioned into the Jacobin program to wipe the historical slate clean and recalibrate the calendar. As a consequence, some conservatives reimagined the American Revolution as a revolution prevented or even as a counter-revolution.
The problem is that the word “revolution,” like the word “republic,” has evolved and been redefined. What once meant returning to a point of origin, a rebirth, or renewal, came to signify the utter destruction of an old order in favor of a fresh start, much as Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus, became the Romantic model for the heroic overthrow of the old gods, the old order, the old verities.
Following the War Between the States, Zachariah Montgomery, an assistant attorney general in the Cleveland Administration, wrote that the “Webster” school dictionaries then in use had changed the lexicographer’s definitions of words like Constitution, Union, and Federal to promote a political language favorable to nationalism and what he called “a centralized despotism.”
This is a critical distinction. Since language is a medium of power and identity, one may wage cultural revolution—indeed a war of words—through redefinition of the very words that fortify the defenses of cultural, religious, and political institutions. The public relations pioneer Edward Bernays ironically confirmed this in 1928 in the opening sentences of Propaganda: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” Even his fellow Progressives were shocked by such a naked affirmation of what Walter Lippmann had earlier called “the manufacture of consent.” But the reality he described has only become more prevalent.
The dangers of centralization
Alexis de Tocqueville’s chief reason for visiting America was to study democracy in its purest form. A rising democratic ethos was challenging the decimated aristocratic order to which he had been born. He and Lieber found in each other sympathetic observers who could stimulate and sharpen each another. Here, for example, is Tocqueville in the second volume of Democracy in America (1840).
“In democratic communities nothing but the central power has any stability in its position or any permanence in its undertakings. All the citizens are in ceaseless stir and transformation. Now, it is in the nature of all governments to seek constantly to enlarge their sphere of action, hence it is almost impossible that such a government should not ultimately succeed because it acts with a fixed principle and a constant will upon men whose position, ideas, and desires are constantly changing.”
In The Federalist, no. 10, James Madison had more than half a century earlier (1787) argued in favor of enlarging the territory of the Republic to dilute the effects of faction: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. . .’” Tocqueville focused instead on the hazards of enlarging the scope of government. Where does this encroachment into everyday life lead? How should we understand or possibly reconcile the respective observations of these two great analysts?
Tocqueville discerned and wrestled with the prospect of an emergent form of despotism congenial to a democratic culture. Like his friend and correspondent Francis Lieber, he had difficulty finding the words to express its distinct character:
“I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.”
Although Lieber later introduced “democratic absolutism” (or “Rousseauism”), which he contrasted with “institutional liberty” and “self-government” on the positive side, he at first offered in his Manual of Political Ethics (1838) the Greek-derived “autarchy” to replace despotism and then contrasted it with “hamarchy,” from Greek roots meaning “at the same time, jointly, cooperatingly” and “to rule.”
Lieber’s binary distinction introduced a theme that continues to be explored by later scholars, although his uncharacteristic use of autarchy (which is better suited for “self-government” or “self-sufficiency”) and the dissonance of the word hamarchy limited their appeal. Lieber intended autarchy to mean something like autocracy, which he associated with monarchy. Wanting a word that could encompass an absolute democracy or aristocracy, he anticipates twentieth-century totalitarianism. “Hamarchy, on the other hand, is that polity, which has an organism, an organic life, if I may say so, in which a thousand distinct parts have their independent action, yet are by the general organism united into one whole, into one living system.” This concept prefigures political pluralism and general systems theory. Johannes Althusius—whose work still languished from neglect—had earlier coined the word symbiosis (living together) to express a kind of association similar to Lieber’s hamarchy.
In the mid-twentieth century Michael Oakeshott developed in greater detail a similar distinction between telocracy and nomocracy. Telocracy is a systematic concentration of power, a corporate person (universitas) that asserts complete control over its own members, a purpose-driven organization of the energies of its subjects toward “a single, premeditated end,” as may be seen with totalitarian regimes. Nomocracy, by contrast, is what is commonly known as the rule of law. It is a limited form of government proper to a diverse body of people (societas) bound by a common loyalty to each other. It is particular, concrete, and empirical in character rather than universal, abstract, and deductive. Like Oakeshott’s, Lieber’s dichotomy naturally raises the question of whether America is fundamentally an idea or a people.
“In the autarchy the law is the positive will of power; in the hamarchy it is much more the expression of the whole after a thousand modifications. Hamacratic polities rest materially on mutuality; autarchy on direct power. The principle of autarchy is sacrifice; the principle of hamarchy is compromise. Blackstone had in mind what I call hamarchy, when he said, ‘every branch of our civil polity supports and is supported, regulates and is regulated by the rest.’”
Lieber’s Anglophilism displays itself through his supporting illustrations, including the way he contrasts the institutional diversity of England—“republican in its character”—with the centralization of France: “that government mechanism which is called significantly, if not classically, bureaucracy, is decidedly autarchic in character.” Tocqueville similarly singled out the danger of a “compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people.” Lieber’s parting shot against autarchy makes clear what is at stake for us today nearly two centuries later: “The dead weight of power oppresses, takes away from each minor activity its peculiar and characteristic function and, though it may effect some specific astonishing effect, it saps the life—it may raise pyramids, but it cannot produce healthy, happy cottages.”
Although the first great experiment in scientific despotism, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, was still a decade away, both Lieber and Tocqueville already detected clouds on the horizon, sensing the rise of soft despotism or “democratic absolutism.” As Tocqueville wrote in 1840:
“It frequently happens that the members of the community promote the influence of the central power without intending to. Democratic eras are periods of experiment, innovation, and adventure. There is always a multitude of men engaged in difficult or novel undertakings, which they follow by themselves without shackling themselves to their fellows. Such persons will admit, as a general principle, that the public authority ought not to interfere in private concerns; but, by an exception to that rule, each of them craves its assistance in the particular concern on which he is engaged and seeks to draw upon the influence of the government for his own benefit, although he would restrict it on all other occasions. If a large number of men applies this particular exception to a great variety of different purposes, the sphere of the central power extends itself in all directions, although everybody wishes it to be circumscribed.”
Here Tocqueville anticipates both Frederic Bastiat’s idea of legal plunder, which over time tends to favor universal plunder, and the idea of rent-seeking—manipulating political influence to increase one’s wealth without adding anything of value—that is associated with public choice theory.
Before the 1840s ended, Frederic Bastiat analyzed this same phenomenon. In his essay, The Law, Bastiat noted that the law may be used to protect forms of plunder that would otherwise be criminal. Such legal plunder is simple to identify: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” The danger is that such a law will develop into a system of universal plunder. In his introduction to the first American edition of Bastiat’s Sophisms of the Protective Policy (1848), Lieber dismissed the labor theory of value, which, undoubtedly, could be used to justify and proliferate such rent-seeking. As Tocqueville put it:
“Thus a democratic government increases its power simply by the fact of its permanence. Time is on its side; every incident befriends it; the passions of individuals unconsciously promote it; and it may be asserted that the older a democratic community is, the more centralized will its government become. . . It may easily be foreseen that almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labour without ceasing to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers. It is a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the State, since they are centralizing for their own benefit.”
Another keen observer who sensed the storm clouds on the horizon was an even younger state legislator from Illinois who understood how ambition might in the future be pursued by tearing down what the Founding generation had sacrificed so much to build. Abraham Lincoln acknowledged a generational fault line in his 1838 Lyceum Address:
“[N]ew reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. . . Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”
Remembering who we are
What is the “we” that binds a people together, that instills in them a common loyalty? St. Augustine cited love. The Romans loved and were loyal to Rome. The Romans had a word for this “binding together,” religio, which is derived from the same root as “ligament.” Similarly, the medieval historian Ibn Khaldun called it ‘asabiyya, a group consciousness or a sense of shared purpose that is strong in the tribe but weak in the larger secular society. We must ask how the societies of strangers within which we live may be renewed and defended when most of their customary bonds have been weakened, broken, or deliberately severed. Lieber acknowledged the Christian moral and spiritual capital upon which the West was built—“the moral value of the individual became immeasurably raised”—but it is now largely hidden from view.
We live in a day of tumbling monuments and thwarted ambitions, where past and future are contested, and the present is an ever-shifting battlefield scoured by ideological armies. Resentment or rancor is on full public display. Max Scheler characterizes this resentment as “a suppressed wrath, independent of the ego’s activity, which moves obscurely through the mind. . . In itself it does not contain a specific hostile intention, but it nourishes any number of such intentions.” Roger Scruton argued that it “is not directed against specific individuals, in response to specific injuries. It is directed against groups, conceived as collectively offensive and bearing a collective guilt.” Hence, such movements—driven by envy and spite—take shape around a common target, which becomes the focus of their redirected rage.
James Chowning Davies’s J-curve theory offers some insight on what triggers political violence: “Revolutions are most likely to occur when a prolonged period of objective economic and social development is followed by a short period of sharp reversal.” Following the long period of rising expectations, a sudden reversal of fortunes during the economic lockdown may create a sense of “relative deprivation.” Ordinary envy, grievances, and rivalries which René Girard associated with “mimetic desire” may be opportunistically weaponized, so to speak, and break out into a violent “mimetic escalation” that includes scapegoating directed at groups, individuals, symbols. “[T]oo frequently does tyranny creep in as popular despotism,” Lieber noted. “A process, perhaps, still more remarkable, and yet frequently exhibited in history, is that by which despotism steals into power by opposition to power.”
The historian Michael Burleigh asks:
“Can any nation survive without a consensus on values that transcend special interests, and which are non-negotiable in the sense of ‘Here we stand’? Can a nation state survive that is only a legal and political shell, or a ‘market state’ for discrete ethnic or religious communities that share little by way of common values other the use of the same currency? Can a society survive that is not the object of commitments to its core values or a focus for the fundamental identities of all its members?”
If people are confused over what these commitments might be, it is time to seek the neglected sources of the moral, cultural, and political order. Franz Kafka dramatized our bureaucratic stasis a century ago:
“They were offered the choice between becoming kings or couriers. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other—since there are no kings—messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service.”
The philosopher C. E. M. Joad wrote that decadence is the loss of an object in life. We see it in an unwillingness to confront past and present evils, in a lack of the civic courage required to address deep-rooted injustices and seek reconciliation.
Francis Lieber witnessed first-hand what happens when that commitment to core values weakens. He stood at the divide between Europe and America, North and South, and suffered losses on all sides. As he put it in his inaugural public lecture at Columbia in January 1859:
“[I]t is a characteristic of our present public life that almost every conceivable question is drawn within the spheres of politics; when there, it is incontinently seized upon by political parties, and once within the grasp of parties, it is declared improper to be treated anywhere except in the arena of political strife. If it be treated elsewhere, in whatever spirit, it is taken for granted that the inquiry has been instituted for grovelling party purposes. Fair and frank discussion has thus become emasculated, and the people submit to dictation. There is a wide class of topics of high importance which cannot be taken in hand even by the most upright thinker without its being suspected that he is in the service of one party or section of the country and hostile to the other.”
So it is today. Every cultural nutrient is leached out and fed into the political vortex. So abstracted have we become that today people ask: Who are we? It is a question raised at the outset in Homer’s Odyssey: "Speak, Memory.” Our memories are the touchstones of our sense of time and place and. . . voice. As we slip into relentless peer pressure, our identity is increasingly negotiable and we lose our power to say yea or nay. With their natural defenses stripped away through what Roger Scruton called “a culture of repudiation,” America and the West today face an unsparing ideological challenge through sophisticated strategies of subversion meant to further distract us from recognizing the real target. George Weigel summarized this affliction more than a decade ago.
“A West that sees in its past nothing but pathology—racism, colonialism, religious wars and persecution, sexism, and all the rest—is a West that cannot, and almost certainly will not, defend its present. A West that can’t remember its past accurately will not be able to project itself imaginatively into the future. A West that has airbrushed from its collective memory the contributions of biblical religion to its present freedoms is a West that is in a poor position to meet the challenge of a religiously shaped alternative reading of the past, present, and future. . . Saying no to moral insouciance, then, means saying no as well to historical amnesia, and no to a crudely secular reading of the roots of the freedom project that is now under assault, and that we must defend.”
See George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,1998 ), 375-80; Frank Freidel, Francis Lieber: Nineteenth-Century Liberal (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968 ), 89-104.
Francis Lieber, ed. Letters to a Gentleman in Germany Written After a Trip from Philadelphia to Niagara (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1834), 34-35.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 trans. Henry Reeve (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House ), 114.
Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language, facsimile ed. (San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1980 ).
See Christopher Wolfe, The Rise of Modern Judicial Review: From Constitutional Interpretation to Judge-Made Law (New York: Basic, 1986), 205-15.
Thomas Jefferson, The Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/jefferson%E2%80%99s-fair-copy
Richard R. Beeman, “Perspectives on the Constitution: A Republic, If You Can Keep It,” Constitution Center https://constitutioncenter.org/learn/educational-resources/historical-documents/perspectives-on-the-constitution-a-republic-if-you-can-keep-it
Russell Kirk, “A Revolution Not Made but Prevented: American War of Independence.” https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2012/08/russell-kirk-a-revolution-not-made-but-prevented.html
Peter F. Drucker, The Future of Industrial Man: A Conservative Approach (New York: Mentor, 1965 ), 156.
Zach. Montgomery, The School Question from a Parental and Non-Sectarian Stand-Point (Washington: Gibson Bros., 1886), 38-41.
Edward Bernays, Propaganda (New York: IG Publishing, 2005 ), 37.
Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Free Press, 1997 ), 158.
Tocqueville II, 312 note. Italics added.
Tocqueville 312 note.
Francis Lieber, Manual of Political Ethics Designed Chiefly for the Use of Colleges and Students at Law, Part I (Bostoin: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1838), 411.
Johannes Althusius, Politic, ed. And trans. Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). 17.
Michael Oakeshott, Lectures in the History of Political Thought, ed. Terry Nardin and Luke O’Sullivan (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint-Academe, 2006, 471, 483, 490.
Lieber Ethics, 412.
Tocqueville II, 339.
Francis Lieber, Miscellaneous Writings. Vol. I: Reminiscences, Addresses, and Essays (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott., 1880), 383.
Tocqueville II, 312 note.
Fr. Bastiat, Sophisms of the Protective Policy, trans. Mrs. D. J. McCord (New York: Geo. P. Putnam, 1848), 7.
Tocqueville II ,31 3, 381 appendix X.
Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1972), ix. Epigraph to Lucifer.
Propaganda and disinformation play an outsized political role today. See, e.g., Max Eden, “A Divisive, Historically Divisive Curriculum,” City Journal, December 3, 2019. https://www.city-journal.org/1619-project?fbclid=IwAR2xT59-M6pvGoc1hJaJF-O90xl2z3qm5ZpXE7kExOf1kuRR1bR-qLJX2fE
Oakeshott, Lectures, 214-15.
Lieber, Ethics I, 431-37.
Parallels with China’s Cultural Revolution are drawn in Xiao Li, “America’s Cultural Revolution Is Just Like Mao’s,” UnHerd Daily, July 6, 2020. https://unherd.com/2020/07/americas-cultural-revolution-is-familiar-to-the-chinese/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups=18743&tl_period_type=3
Max Scheler, Ressentiment, revised ed., trans. Lewis B. Coser and William W. Holdheim (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998 ), 25.
Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2006), 151.
See Rabbi Shimon Raichik, “From Kristallnacht in Germany 1938 to Riots in America 2020,” Chabad of Hancock Park, June 4, 2020
James C. Davies, “Toward a Theory of Revolution,” American Sociological Review, 6:1 (February 1962): 5-19.
Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 23.
René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 7-18, 56-57.
Lieber Manual I, 390.
See Bruce S. Thornton, The Wages of Appeasement: Ancient Athens, Munich, and Obama’s America (New York: Encounter, 2011), 278.
See, e.g., Vishal Mangalwadi, This Book Changed Everything: vol. 1: The Bible’s Amazing Impact on Our World (Pasadena, CA: SoughtAfterMedia, 2019); Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974).
Walter Kaufmann, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (Cleveland: World, 1956), p. 130.
 Russell Kirk, “Is America Decadent?” Imprimis, January 1976. https://imprimis.hillsdale.edu/is-america-decadent-january-1976/
Lieber, Miscellaneous I, 385.
Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon & Schuster, 2004).
Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002), 67-83.
George Weigel, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 117.