Crispin Collins

Major and Classification

History and Minor in French

Faculty Mentor

Elinor Accampo, Ph.D.


Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

McNair Project

“Liberal Use of ‘Liberalism’: A Comparison between an 1838 Liberal”

Project Abstract

Alexis de Tocqueville–a French nobleman, celebrity writer, and political philosopher–wrote extensively about France’s newly acquired Algeria, beginning in 1837, as he sought a seat in Parliament. Although based on stereotypes rather than direct experience, his 1837 writings often praised Algerian cultures, especially that of the Kabyle people. After his first visit to Algeria in 1841, Tocqueville realized that France could not force the often-resistant native cultures to assimilate. His proposed policies shifted in a less idealistic direction, supporting brutal tactics to pacify and control Algeria’s native peoples. Some scholars have cited this support as evidence that Tocqueville was not truly liberal. The term liberalism is problematic in that it covers both right-wing and, in Tocqueville’s case, left-wing liberals. Liberalism generally supported limited government and a laissez-faire economy; however, there were social aspects to liberalism, such as the support of equal human dignity. Tocqueville’s reputation as an advocate of the marginalized, for example, his extensive writings demanding the abolition of slavery, coupled with the social aspects of liberalism have led some scholars to characterize his writings as contradictory. Scholars, who consider Tocqueville liberal, have argued that his writings were highly nuanced rather than contradictory. This essay supports the latter theory through a close reading of four of his writings on Algeria and French colonial policy, arguing Tocqueville prioritized rather than abandoned his liberal ideals. The highly liberal contemporary French government echoed many of Tocqueville’s policies and attitudes about Algerian natives. This essay provides an analysis of a parliamentary document from 1838 compiled by, among others, right-wing liberal statesmen to show that Tocqueville’s writings were consistent with the sentiments of other liberal statesmen. Tocqueville was truly a paragon of French liberalism and arguments to the contrary require further definition of the term liberal and its varied meanings.