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As founding fathers of modern liberalism, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville shared a common sensibility as well as a number of key concerns. Of central importance to both men was the need to protect individual rights and freedoms against what they saw as an encroaching social power. Having learned the lessons of the French Revolution, they knew that power, whether concentrated in the hands of one man, or executed in the name of the "people", was a dangerous thing. Thus they worked throughout their lives to establish and defend a representative system with constitutional guarantees that would protect fundamental rights such as freedom of the press, the safety of private property, and religious toleration. Both men felt that such guarantees were essential to shield individuals from despotic government. But both Constant and Tocqueville also agreed that, in the end, laws and constitutions were not enough. Evidently, liberal political structures needed something more than laws and constitutions to survive. The success of liberal regimes depended on the social, intellectual and moral capital of the society that they governed.

This essay will briefly compare and contrast the views of Tocqueville and Constant on the right role of religion in the modern society. This paper is a modest attempt to help resituate Tocqueville's ideas on religion in their proper nineteenth century French context by contrasting them to those of Benjamin Constant.Comparing the views of Constant and Tocqueville allows us to see more clearly their distinctiveness. It also enables us to appreciate the richness and complexity of early liberalism's engagement with religion.


This work was originally published in Annales Benjamin Constant.



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