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
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.
Despite the high tone of this work, it directly address controversies that were boiling over in the
1960s. The Cold War was raging. Conservatism, to whom the defense of free enterprise had
fallen after the Second World War, had already been redefined (or even defined) by the work of
National Review to mean the backing of the U.S. military state in its life-or-death struggle with
As Murray Rothbard explained in Betrayal of the American Right, the conservatives claimed
to favor freedom but what really rallied the troops was the issue of war against Russia
and its satellite states. This was the battleground that Raico faced in the late 1960s.
The argument between conservatives and libertarians was fundamentally about the Cold War,
but that was not the only subject discussed. Instead, the conservatives came to characterize the
libertarians as not only strategically flawed but philosophically corrupt. And why? Because they
had inherited the secularism, the anti-clericism, the essential immoralism and anti-nomianism,
of the old liberal school of the Enlightenment (a word to be spoken with sneerful disdain).
Conservatives attempted to paint the libertarians with the brush of the hippy, dropout generation—a sector of the new left that spoke vaguely of freedom while rejecting all manner of social authority.
Did the critique apply? Were the liberals of the 18th and 19th century truly foreshadowing the
hippies of the 1960s, and thereby in need of the correcting force of conservatism to add piety
and an appreciation of tradition to their love of freedom?
The grain of truth here is that the liberal party of old had risen up in the age of enlightenment when freedom was not only something that existed in absence of the overweening state; it was also something that required throwing off the shackles of tradition, of Church control, of the moral limits imposed by superstitions of the past.
To some extent, this tendency in old liberalism found its justification in the too-close relationship
between Church and State in Europe’s old regimes; the liberals believed that both had to be
battled in the name of the rights of individuals. But in other cases, there were genuine mistakes,
as with John Stuart Mill, who variously imagined social authority to be as much a threat to
freedom as the state itself.
But this attitude in no way characterized the whole of the old liberal tradition. There was
another tradition of liberalism that was not necessarily anti-religion and anti-tradition but
rather focused its critique of coercion against the state alone. After all, it is only the state, not
religious institutions, that possess that critical power to aggress against the life and liberty of the
To the extent the Church can tax, it is only through the power and authority of the law over
which the state possesses the monopoly. What's more, this other sector of liberalism did not see
freedom alone as the sole point of existence, but rather saw freedom as a means to an end of
achieving higher moral purpose.
What resources were available that highlighted this alternative liberal tradition? There weren't
many at the time. It was during this period when Ralph Raico went to work on his dissertation.
He hit target with 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.
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