Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

I’ve noted previously that I spent much of the past summer with Alexis de Tocqueville.  Tocqueville wrote about so many facets of American politics and culture that hardly a week has gone by this autumn without something in the news bring one or more passages to mind.

This was the case last week when reports began to come in of an off-the-record summit meeting at Trump Tower in New York between the president-elect and a host of media executives and news anchors.  Reports of the gathering diverge widely.  Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway described the meeting as “very cordial, very productive, very congenial,” but an unnamed source likened it to a “firing squad” in which Mr. Trump attacked his guests mercilessly, and Breitbart News exulted “Trump Eats Press.”

However things went down, there is no doubt that Mr. Trump’s relationship with the press has been more openly hostile than for any major presidential candidate in U. S. history.  He will assume the presidency having pledged to change federal libel laws (something he evidently believes the president can do unilaterally) so that when the “dishonest media” write “negative and horrible and false articles . . .  we can sue them and win lots of money.”

All of which brought to mind Tocqueville’s reflections on the value of a free press in his classic Democracy in America.  The Frenchman was no great fan of American journalists.  “In America,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835,

The spirit of the journalist is to appeal crudely, directly, and artlessly to the passions of the people he is addressing, forsaking principles in order to portray individuals, pursue them into their private lives, and lay bare their weaknesses and vices.  Such abuse of thought can only be deplored.

Sounds a lot like Breitbart News.

And yet, if Tocqueville could not bring himself to admire journalists, he valued journalism, believing that a free press was absolutely integral to the preservation of liberty.  In vol I, part II, chapter III of Democracy in America, Tocqueville argued that it was impossible to curb the excesses of the media without creating a threat to freedom.  “When it comes to the press,” he concluded, “there really is no middle ground between servitude [a press that is wholly subservient to the state] and license [a press that is wholly unrestricted].  In order to reap the priceless goods that derive from the freedom of the press,” he went on, “one must learn to accept the inevitable evils that it breeds.”

Acknowledging that the “destructive tastes” that journalists often indulged and promoted, Tocqueville’s final defense of a free press as unqualified:

The more I consider the chief effects of the independence of the press, the more convinced I am that, among the moderns, independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.  A people that wants to remain free therefore has the right to insist that the independence of the press is the most important, indeed the essential, ingredient of liberty.




  1. I further considered my post and realize it comes across in a mean-spirited way. Please forgive me.

  2. It’s unfortunate you used an ellipsis in the Trump quote in the third paragraph. The context is more than you report, and the quote is misleading for that reason.
    I’m concerned about the turn your writing has taken on the blog: polemics doesn’t suit a historian in this medium.
    George’s question shouldn’t be so quickly dismissed. A free press isn’t tantamount to taking liberty with the truth.

    • Hi, Ron: I didn’t mean to dismiss George’s question, but rather to answer it simply. In the larger context, Tocqueville argued that “the arm of the law” is an ineffective mechanism for regulating the press. He did not speak to the question of how to get the press to restrain itself. As to my engaging in polemics: the dictionary gives the following synonyms for “polemic”: “diatribe,” invective,” “rant,” “tirade.” I have had the temerity to question Mr. Trump’s commitment to freedom of the press, but I don’t think that anything I have written would qualify as any of those. I wrote at some length about my decision to make explicit my deep concern about Mr. Trump’s candidacy. I did not do it lightly, and I did it out of a sense of moral obligation. I believe that the highest calling of the historian is to cast light on the present by taking advantage of the perspective that knowledge of the past affords. To be clear, I do not make overtly political statements to my students in a classroom setting, because I never want them to feel pressure to agree with me or to fear that I might penalize their grade for holding different political views. But in this forum, in which my readers are not students but other adults over which I have no power, and among whom I am consciously trying to promote “a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live,” I do not feel this same reservation. Having said that, I do not take your comment lightly, Ron, and will consider it seriously.

      • Thanks for your gracious reply.

        I did not mean at all to challenge your edifying pursuit. I signed on to your blog because of statements like this: “I believe that the highest calling of the historian is to cast light on the present by taking advantage of the perspective that knowledge of the past affords.” I believe that you attain your calling, but it occurred to me that the tone had changed.
        I think I may be guilty of not wording myself well. I was not clear in expressing my thoughts.

  3. Of course we do have libel and slander laws that serve to protect most common citizens who are not out in the public using the press to promote their particular point of view. Freedom of the press also makes it possible to have press outlets representing many different points of view. The flaw in this is that many people do not want to hear any point of view that is contrary to their own opinions. Conservatives watch Fox and liberals watch MSNBC or perhaps CNN. Unfortunately, the in-depth reporting found in major newspapers is less and less available to the public. We could all develop a healthy dose of skepticism when viewing or listening to the media outlets. It will be interesting to see if Trump’s relationship with the press continues to deteriorate. After all, the press can be a great aid in putting out information the President wants people to know.

  4. Sounds a lot like the Huffington Post…

    • Or Daily Kos. Or BuzzFeed. Or any of the fever swamps. In other words, there’s a lot of this going around. I avoided Breitbart during the election but have not found it all that awful since, and I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump (or Mrs. Clinton, for that matter).

  5. There is nothing new under the sun. I remember Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice president, tore into the press. Back then there was no CNN, Fox or Breitbart. Nixon’s “great silent majority” speech was panned by the press and Agnew took them to task.

  6. Does Tocqueville discuss the responsibilities of the press, given its freedom, the way that personal responsibility and accountability are associated with individual freedom? Does he suggest ways to handle the abuses of the press?

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