Alexis De Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Empire
This dissertation investigates the liberal imperialism of Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, two of the most prominent defenders of liberalism in the 19th century. The principal question guiding the inquiry is whether their support for imperialism was compatible with their commitment to liberal politics as the best form of government possible in the modern world. The dissertation argues that both their liberalism and their imperialism ultimately spring from their respective understandings of human nature. What appear as incompatible strands of their thought are in fact deeply interwoven; both depend on theories of civilizational development and the malleability of human nature. Moreover, given the political exigencies of the 19th century, Tocqueville and Mill thought that liberalism was most likely to survive and spread if countries such as Britain and France that embodied it in customs, mores, and institutions maintained a prominent position on the international stage and a leading role in world affairs. When compared with previous liberal thinkers, Mill and Tocqueville have much in common. They conceive of their particular historical and civilizational moment as unprecedented, believing that its characteristics shape the possibilities for realizing a liberal political order. Yet their assessment of the challenges facing those who wish to spread liberalism depends on their divergent understandings of the prerequisites necessary for liberalism to be established and sustained. It is in light of their different understanding of the conditions and the purposes of a liberal regime that we can best understand their judgments about empire. Mill argued that the imperial rule of a liberal country could help less advanced peoples prepare themselves for political freedom. He did not regard the conquest of and undemocratic rule over “uncivilized” foreign peoples to be inconsistent with Britain’s commitment to liberalism because his understanding of liberal principles limited their application to “civilized” peoples. Mill’s ideas about liberty’s prerequisites guide his prescriptions for both rulers and ruled in empire: Britain will prepare “barbarian” peoples for the introduction of liberal ideas and she will maintain enough global security that liberty will have the opportunity to take root in foreign countries, enabling them eventually to take their place in a peaceful world order. Tocqueville’s concern for France’s international position was the most urgent reason for his imperialism. He argued that imperialism would advance France’s national interests, redounding to France’s glory, honor, and greatness. Tocqueville believed that French empire would foster strength in French politics and mores – strength which he thought was necessary for ensuring the longevity of democratic liberty in France. More broadly, Tocqueville’s understanding of the unfolding epochs of human civilization informs his thoughts about how greatness and liberty can be realized in a democratic age and about the role empire might play in advancing those aims.