Forty years ago, historian Ralph Raico completed his dissertation under the direction of F.A. Hayek at the University of Chicago. Its title masks its power and importance: The Place of Religion in the Liberal Philosophy of Constant, Tocqueville, and Lord Acton. It has been published for the first time by the Mises Institute, and this is not merely to honor a great historian and thinker.
The research contained within it amounts to a major contribution to public intellectual life of the United States at the time. The issue he addresses—the revelation of a different form of early liberalism, one heavily influenced by moral concerns and steeped in an older religious ethos—has major implications in our own time as well.
In response to conservative claims that the liberal tradition is essentially amoral and antinomian, Ralph Raico provides an extended discussion of three massively important figures in the history of liberalism for whom a religious orientation, and an overarching moral framework, was central for their thought: French Protestant Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), French Catholic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), and Lord Acton (1834–1902).
All three were distinguished for: (1) consistent anti-statism, (2) appreciation for modernity and commerce, (3) love of liberty and its identification with human rights, (4) an conviction in favor of social institutions such as churches and cultural norms, and (5) a belief that liberty is not a moral end in itself but rather a means toward a higher end. What’s more, these thinkers are people whom conservatives have tended to revere if only in passing, but have they really studied their thought to see their radicalism, their deep love of freedom, and their true attachment to the old liberal cause?
Raico provides a detailed reading of their work in all these respects and shows that one need not embrace statism, and that one can be a consistent and full-blown liberal in the classical tradition, and not come anywhere near fulfilling the stereotype that conservatives were then creating of libertarians. Ours is a varied tradition of secularists, yes, but also of deeply pious thinkers, too. What drew them all together was a conviction that liberty is the mother and not the daughter of order.
Forty years later, it is striking how poignant Raico’s treatise remains. And it is fact: conservatives who were blasting away at libertarians at the time never saw this book. It is just now published. It’s this way with great books, classic studies of this depth: it remains as powerful and relevant now as ever.