Free Thought and Political Society in the American Republic

by Matthew Levinton

My research considers how intellectual liberty and the modern democratic polity in- teract, and how the latter necessarily shapes the character of the former. To do this, my thesis first looks closely at Alexis de Tocqueville’s concept of “Tyranny of the Majority” as he presents it in his famous work Democracy in America.

I turned to Tocqueville for this project because his aristocratic upbringing and knowledge of the principles of political modernity allowed him to appreciate the incredibly transformative power of democracy as it swept through civilization and remade the world in ways unlike any political development had in the past. Looking to Tocqueville thus allows us to access a perspective difficult for us to appreciate today, as it opens our eyes to an outside point of view that permits us to look at our polity in ways otherwise challenging to experience. My treatment of Tocqueville ultimately reveals the potential for intellectual tyranny to occur within a democracy, so as to reveal the existence of this possible problem—a problem that is often all the more dangerous because it is rarely considered.

Following my analysis of Tocqueville, I turn to a consideration of some of the most successful educatory projects of the American founders, projects actually designed to shape majority opinion and thus to influence the character of intellectual liberty. I consider what role such founding efforts played in shaping the America that Tocqueville experienced in 1831, and whether such efforts can and should be taken up again today.

I first turn to James Madison, arguing that in his contributions to the Federalist, he sought not only to argue for the merits of the constitution, but also to encourage his audience to accept a specific understanding of politics that would both make them favor the constitution as well as hold those ideas required for the constitutional order to succeed. Thus, in his Federalist essays, Madison is not only discussing the institutional creations of the constitution, but he is also arguing for those institutions on the basis of a specific understanding of political justice and human nature, in turn encouraging his audience to accept those understandings as well, so as to encourage the citizenry to hold a uniform set of core political opinions.

After my analysis of Madison, my thesis turns to a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to establish a tradition of American education. This part of my paper looks closely at Jefferson’s proposed curriculum for his school of government and law at the University of Virginia. I argue that for this school Jefferson sought to produce a unique combination of civic and liberal education that would allow the university to educate future leaders who would be grounded in and appreciative of the foundational ideas of the American Republic.

From here my work turns to a final discussion of civic education, education in the political principles of a polity, and to liberal education, education concerned foremost with liberating the mind. In this section I consider how the two can be reconciled as well as discuss how each in fact needs the other to be realized to its fullest.

My thesis concludes by pointing to the concern for human freedom that unites the projects of Madison, Jefferson, and Tocqueville, as I suggest that such a concern, one which considers how intellectual freedom and political society interact, speaks to the very core of a genuine devotion to liberty itself. I am very thankful to Professor Lorraine Pangle for serving as my faculty adviser during this project.