The United States through the eyes of French classical liberalism

In the 18th and 19th centuries, French classical liberals have often seen the United States as an example and a model. Yet, if some have loved this country in a sort of long-distance relationship, others have actually made the travel and have written detail accounts. In this article, Benoît Malbranque examines the praises and criticisms put forward by authors such as Volney, Tocqueville or Gustave de Molinari, regarding the social and economic situation of the United States.

The United States through the eyes of French classical liberals


by Benoît Malbranque



 “If there is much to admire and even to copy in the United States, there is also certain things to leave there.” — Gustave de Molinari (1876, 361)


“Those who, after reading this book [Democracy in America], would judge that by writing it I wanted to propose the Anglo-American laws and mores for the imitation of all peoples who have a democratic social state would have made a great error”. — Alexis de Tocqueville (2012, I:512)


The history of the United States is said to be a proof of the superiority of free institutions, and for this very reason the country must have been held dear by French classical liberals, who where arguing in favor of such institutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. There are multiple reasons, nonetheless, why this might not be the case. For one, any country located on the other part of the earth, and which can only be accessed by a journey of a couple of weeks on a boat, is bound to be portrayed unfairly. Those who rely solely on external accounts can easily be deceived, and those who do travel rarely have enough time for an in-depth understanding of the country. Volney, who arrived in 1795, spent 3 years; Tocqueville made the best of his 9 months in 1831-1832; and in 1876 Gustave de Molinari had to come back after only 3 months. They were all convinced of the inadequacy of such a short stay. (Tocqueville 1951, V:26; Chinard 1923, 64; Rémond 1962, I:336) But above all, the experience of freedom, as understood in the United States, might not have been entirely to their taste. If we recall that at the end of his trip Molinari was desperately longing for French cuisine (1876, 362), and that Volney slams the American eating habits as a recipe for day-long indigestion (1803, 305), a similar reaction might be expected of them in the realm of ideas.

A model and an inspiration

For French classical liberals, the United States did function, up to a certain point, as a concrete proof of the superiority of freedom. It was the land of free speech, freedom of religion, free-trade, reduced taxes and very limited government intervention, and the positive effects of such policies could be judged by the rapid and almost extraordinary growth both in wealth and population. To this some added the foreign policy of non-intervention, like Bastiat (2012, 317), but on this issue opinions varied. One thing was sure: the average American was better off. “Over here, writes Michel Chevalier in 1834, nothing is easier than to live from your work, and to live well. The price of essential products such as bread, meat, tea, coffee, firewood, is generally lower than in France, and wages are two or three times higher.” (1836, I:145) Free competition was ensuring the development of railways and technologies such as electric telegraphy, and was giving the best possible service to consumers, for the smallest price (Molinari 1876, 47).

On some issues, the United States were solidifying radical ideas. When Jean-Gustave Courcelle-Seneuil, a forefather of free-banking, was making his case, he could counter the objection that it was plain utopia, by mentioning concrete examples such as the United States (1867, 115).  Similarly, the absence of government intervention which was striking in America, gave ideas to Jean-Baptiste Say (Malbranque 2021, 69), Alexis de Tocqueville (1951, V:89) and Gustave de Molinari (Molinari 2020, IV:469);  “I did not venture too far when I said that one could conceive of a society without government, said Jean-Baptiste Say; one can do more than just conceive it; one can see it: there is no other difficulty than that of the travel”. (Malbranque 2021, 69),

A land of many surprises

Some did that travel; they had, it is true, the liberty to do so. “No passport is required in this country”, marveled a French traveler in 1821. “Along with your luggage, you can just jump off, and nobody is asking you the reasons of your travel.” (Montulé 1821, I:19) In 1876, Gustave de Molinari had to undergo a sanitary check, but it did not take more than a few minutes for the doctor sent on board to see that there was no case of cholera, plague or smallpox (1876, 20).

The actual travel in the United States was of course full of surprises. The cities had curious names, some remote villages being named Rome or Paris, and more often twice than once. “In the United States there is more than sixty places bearing the name of Washington, writes Volney. There is also a dozen of Charleston.” (1821, VII:358) Most cities were built with streets running at right angles to each other, forming a grid. “Once you have seen one street and one house, you have seen them all”, notes Molinari, puzzled (1876, 37).

Americans might be astute businessmen and money-makers, but according to French liberty-minded travelers, the subtlety of art was definitely beyond them. Public buildings were pale copies of the monuments of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, with a great lack of taste and sense of proportions. Most classical architecture seen by Tocqueville in New York was fake, with “white-washed brick and columns of painted wood” (2012, II:794) “Despite its Greek porch, writes Molinari, the White-House looks like a second-rate subprefecture” (1876, 95). It even extends to the national literature, found incredibly poor (Tocqueville 2012, II:808-809; Molinari 1876, 355), and to American industrial products. The same Molinari, who judged them harshly, concludes by saying that in America “decent schools teaching industrial drawing would do no harm” (1876, 53).

The dark side of America

When their attention turned to burning issues such as slavery, Native Americans and Blacks, the tone was even more critical.

Volney portrays Native Americans as a very primitive people, and in his mind the Rousseauistic debate over the superiority or inferiority of the state of nature compared to modern civilization, was easily decided. But he was sympathetic, made tremendous efforts to understand their point of view, and wished them well. He was under no illusion, however, about their destiny under the yoke of the Anglo-American expansion (1821, 475). Tocqueville too, blamed the “most civilized and most greedy nation on earth” for the rapid extinction of Native Americans (2021, 103). Seeking help, one day, for an “Indian” who was lying down on the road, obviously dying, Tocqueville was horrified by the cold and insensitive response of the Americans. He later remarked how, “in the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country. The Americans of the United States do not let their dogs hunt the Indians as do the Spaniards in Mexico, but at the bottom it is the same pitiless feeling which here, as everywhere else, animates the European race.” (2021, 103).

In his travel, Gustave de Molinari also investigated the condition of the so-called colored people (that is, non-whites) and he found that Blacks attend separate churches, they rely on separate fire-fighters, they form separate militias (1876, 190). Even cemeteries are distinct. “I have left the intolerance of the old world only to find it again in the new one”, he notes (1876, 85.) “Americans seem to believe that to force a criminal to breathe the same air as a negro, is still degrading him”, Tocqueville writes (2021, 112). Their smell and lack of education might be a nuisance in numerous instances, Molinari once candidly explains to some Americans during his trip, but to block them from entering any white gathering is disgraceful and preposterous. “This speech, he recalls, in which I tried to be as eloquent as possible, did not convince anyone, and a nice lady to whom I was asking why she did not receive in her house a clergyman of color with higher education and impeccable morality, appeared outraged by my question, as if I had asked her why she did not invite a monkey or a pork for diner.” (1876, 198).

In 1876, Molinari also found America under the mirage of the Lynch Law. Whenever a crime is committed, he explains, “the one individual whose appearance indicates as suspect” is arrested and immediately killed (1876, 14). This is the case, in particular, when a black male and a white female are in dispute, for it is commonly believed in America, Molinari continues, that “any negro laying hands on a white lady must absolutely be hanged”, and “without more procedure or remorse than if it was a rabbit.” (1876, 230)

The mixing of races was surely at a low point. “Having sex with a girl of color has almost no effect on the the reputation of an American man, Tocqueville observes, but marrying her would disgrace him.” (2021, 112) When considering the future relation between whites and blacks in America, he was highly pessimistic, saying bluntly: “I do not think that the white race and the black race will come to live on an equal footing anywhere.” (2012, I:572)

Were at least the United States going in the right direction? For most French classical liberals, it seemed dubious. Already, the country, a long example of complete free-trade, had become an “outright protectionist” (Molinari 1876, 75). The absolute rule of democracy was showing its limits, with poorly educated career politicians “electionning” in a very grotesque and carnivalesque fashion (Tocqueville 2021, 81, 85; Molinari 1876, 359). Molinari was of the opinion that unlimited democracy was not the final word of political wisdom (1876, 361), and Tocqueville advised specifically for the President of the United States to be elected for a longer term, and not eligible for re-election (2021, 62). But by 1890 American democracy was definitely under siege. “More and more, writes Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, the two main parties in the United States are becoming two large unions, whose members only differ slightly in their opinions, and who are fighting for the material benefits that the possession of the coercitive apparatus, called government, involves.” (1890, 311).




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