Monthly Archives: April 2014


For the last two posts I have been sharing about Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832 and later penned his observations in a two-volume treatise titled Democracy in America. I now want to share some of Tocqueville’s reflections on the nature of religion in the United States and the role that it played in American life. His observations on the topic are both rich and extensive, and it will take at least two posts just to hit the high points.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

When we enter into conversation with figures from the past, our primary goal should be to love them. This is easier said than done. Ever since the Fall, self-love has been the predominant sentiment in the human heart. This means that there is nothing natural about loving others. By nature, we love ourselves and use others. It makes little difference whether they are living or dead.

I mention this now because I suspect that, for Christians interested in the American past, the temptation to use Tocqueville—to cherry-pick quotes that support our agendas—may be particularly acute. If you’re troubled by our culture’s increasing commitment to a secular public square, Democracy in America offers an arsenal of powerful counter-arguments. Democracies need religion, Tocqueville emphasized over and over. That’s a truth we like to hear. But Tocqueville also said things about American Christianity in its supposed heyday that should trouble us—observations that we need to hear more than want to hear. We should purpose in advance to listen to both. We don’t have to agree with Tocqueville completely, but we do need to hear him out. Christian love constrains us to listen respectfully. Christian humility admonishes us to be teachable.

“The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States,” Tocqueville reflected in Democracy in America. No wonder. The Frenchman arrived in the U. S. during the height of the Second Great Awakening, a period of recurring religious revivals that rippled back and forth across the country from the late 1790s through at least the 1830s. It was during the Second Great Awakening that an essentially unchurched America gave way to a predominantly Christian country. The proportion of Americans who were formal church members roughly tripled, and Christianity influenced American culture more than ever before.

This discovery was hugely significant to Tocqueville. Remember that this French visitor was writing about America but not for Americans. His primary audience was his homeland, and in France many of the most politically progressive writers and thinkers took for granted that religion was the enemy of political freedom. The situation in the United States exploded that prejudiced assumption. America, as Tocqueville described it, was simultaneously “the most enlightened and the freest” of nations and “the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Far from being an obstacle to political liberty, religion “teaches the Americans the art of being free,” Tocqueville concluded. To understand his reasoning, we need to go back to Tocqueville’s greatest concern about democracy in the United States, namely the potential for the majority to run roughshod over the rights of the minority. In Federalist #51, James Madison had famously acknowledged that, “if a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.” Tocqueville agreed. Unlimited power is always dangerous, he argued, and in the United States the power of the majority was potentially unlimited. To make his point, Tocqueville posed and answered a series of questions:

When a man or party suffers an injustice in the United States, to whom can he turn? To public opinion? That is what forms the majority. To the legislative body? It represents the majority and obeys it blindly. To the executive power? It is appointed by the majority and serves as its passive instrument. To the police? They are nothing but the majority under arms. A jury? The jury is the majority with the right to pronounce judgment . . .

The conclusion was ominous: nothing in the American political system in and of itself provided an adequate barrier against the tyranny of the majority. “When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on any power whatever, be it called a people or a king, an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I say there is the germ of tyranny.”

And yet—and this is the crucial observation that so intrigued Tocqueville—the majority did not fully utilize its power to oppress the minority. Acknowledging the enormous exception of southern slavery, Tocqueville believed that, on the whole, in America the potential for injustice vastly exceeded its presence. To use Tocqueville’s terminology, in America the majority was omnipotent but not tyrannical. Why was this, Tocqueville wondered?

To the degree that justice prevailed in the United States, Tocqueville concluded that this had less to do with Americans’ form of government than with their values, what he sometimes referred to as their “habits of the heart.” In terms of political significance, the most significant habits of the heart were “habits of restraint” grounded in Christian doctrine. In the United States “Christianity reigns without obstacles,” he observed. As a result, “the human spirit never sees an unlimited field before itself; . . . from time to time it feels that it must halt before insurmountable barriers.” When one believes in God, not everything is permitted.

Tocqueville marveled that

“no one in the United States has dared to profess the maxim that everything is allowed in the interests of society, an impious maxim apparently invented in an age of freedom in order to legitimate every future tyrant. Thus, while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.”

This, more than any other reason, is why Tocqueville determined that “religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions.” With Tocqueville it was axiomatic that freedom is endangered whenever power exists without obstacles to restrain its course. The American form of government presented few such obstacles to the omnipotence of the majority. It was the values of the American people, preeminently their religious values, which constituted the most effective check against tyranny. If religion “did not give them the taste for liberty,” he concluded, “it singularly facilitates their use thereof.”

The principle was not limited to the Americans, Tocqueville hastened to add.  When the French Revolution had erupted two generations earlier, the friends of liberty had foolishly coupled their assault against monarchy with a campaign against Christianity.  Their decision had been well-intentioned but tragically misguided.  “Despotism may be able to do without faith,” Tocqueville observed, “but freedom cannot.”  Religion is actually more necessary in a republic than a monarchy.  “How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened?  And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”

Nearly two centuries later, the question still confronts us.

Back in a bit with more.


I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of senior math majors at Wheaton College about what it means to study history Christianly. I had fifteen minutes to tackle this small, simple question (ha!), and so rather than drench them with a flood of details, I focused on two basic goals: to challenge their understanding of what history is and present them with a radically different alternative.

Toward that end I began by inviting them to do a word association with me. “What words immediately come into your minds when I say the word history?” I asked them. Their responses were almost exactly what I had expected. First came wars, followed by kings, dates, facts, memorization, and then finally the descriptor that most were probably thinking but were too polite to share: boring. Welcome to my world.

I wince at such responses but I can’t say that I blame them. As a culture, we tend to think of history as simply a body of knowledge to be mastered—sort of like multiplication tables, but with less practical value. At the bottom of such a view is a fundamental misunderstanding that equates history with the past. And so I proceeded to introduce these young mathematicians to C. S. Lewis’s marvelous comparison of history to a thundering, deafening waterfall of “billions upon billions” of individual human moments, “any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond imagination.” Once we really feel the weight of this truth, it becomes obvious that history can’t be equivalent to the past.

Alright, then what is it? History is not the past but the effort to make sense of that vast, almost infinite expanse—to analyze, interpret, and partially reconstruct it. We undertake this project not for the sake of the past itself, but rather to see the present more clearly and meet the future more wisely. One of the ways that we do this, as I mentioned last time, is to think of history as a “conversation with the dead,” an opportunity to enter into dialogue with those who have gone before us as part of a quest for a heart of wisdom.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

One of the conversation partners I want my students to get to know is Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who visited the United States in 1831 and 1832 and recorded his reflections in a two-volume classic, Democracy in America. As promised, in this post I want to give you a taste of what Tocqueville had to say about how the democratic culture that he observed was shaping the politics and society of the young United States. Democracy in America is a long, complicated, multifaceted work, and I don’t pretend for a moment to offer a comprehensive assessment. What follows is like those tiny samples at Costco—it’s meant to whet your appetite, not fill you up.

It is probably best to think of Tocqueville as a sympathetic critic of American democracy. He believed that democracy represented the wave of the future, and he found much in American democracy to learn from and admire. And yet, as he explained in his introduction to volume II (released five years after volume I), he believed that “many people are ready to advertise the new benefits which democracy promises to mankind, but that few are prepared to point out the distant perils with which it threatens them.” For that reason, he acknowledged, “My attention has been directed principally against those dangers.”

Chief among those dangers, Tocqueville believed, was the possibility of a loss of liberty due to the “tyranny of the majority.” In the very first sentence of volume I, Tocqueville related that “no novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.” And both reinforcing and benefiting from that comparative equality was an unparalleled extent of popular political power. “The people rule in the American political realm as God rules the universe,” Tocqueville marveled. “The people are the end-all and be-all; everything is derived from and absorbed by the people.”

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

One of Tocqueville’s great strengths was his even-handedness, so he was quick to acknowledge that the democratic culture he encountered offered important advantages. Compared to the more aristocratic systems that still dominated Europe, America’s democratic system produced laws that were more broadly aimed at promoting the general welfare. The extensive granting of the vote to white males also had the effect of increasing patriotism. This was because “the most powerful way . . . in which to interest men in their country’s fate is to make them take a share in its government.”

The resulting veneration of country impressed Tocqueville but also irritated him. “Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans,” he wrote. “A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that he is absolutely refused.”

Partially offsetting these advantages of democratic government were a variety of less attractive features. One of these was the enormous power of the majority over popular opinion. In a pronouncement that typically shocks my students, Tocqueville contended that freedom of opinion was more restricted in the United States than in the monarchies of Europe. Or as he put it most baldly, “freedom of opinion does not exist in America.”

It was not that Americans were physically restricted from speaking their mind, much less intimidated by the threat of imprisonment or torture. Indeed, they were technically free to say anything that they pleased. The problem, Tocqueville believed, was that in America the decision of the majority had assumed an unassailable moral authority. Once the people had clearly made up their mind on an issue, the individual who dared to challenge their verdict would become, figuratively speaking, an outcast. The message was clear: anyone who wanted to influence political life needed to praise the wisdom and virtue of the people’s decision. As Tocqueville put it, in America “the majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.”

This trait directly affected the quality of American politicians, and not for the better, in Tocqueville’s opinion. To make his point, the Frenchman developed an elaborate metaphor drawn from the world of European monarchy. If the people reigned supreme in the United States, Tocqueville reasoned, then they are analogous to the monarch. Politicians, in turn, he likened to “courtiers,” the term for aristocrats who lived at the king’s court, dined at the king’s table, and told the king whatever he wanted to hear.

"County Election," by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

“County Election,” by George Caleb Bingham, 1852

Admittedly, American politicians did not address the electorate by saying “Sire” or “Your Majesty,” Tocqueville conceded, but that was a “distinction without a difference. They are forever talking of the natural intelligence of the people whom they serve,” and by “sacrificing their opinions they prostitute themselves.” Understanding that it is political suicide to tell the people that what they want they cannot have, these American “courtiers,” in Tocqueville’s view, fawned and flattered shamelessly. Adulation will always follow power, he reasoned. If the number of truly distinguished statesmen had plummeted since the time of the American founding—and Tocqueville believed that it had—the ever increasing power of the majority was to blame.

What concerned Tocqueville most, however, was the possibility that the majority might use its power to tyrannize the politically vulnerable. When Tocqueville spoke of tyranny, he meant not simply absolute power—which he often referred to as despotism—but rather the exercise of power that resulted in oppression or injustice. “In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise . . . from their weakness, but from their strength,” he reflected. “I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”

As a Christian, what strikes me most is the understanding of human nature that underlies Tocqueville’s commentary on democratic institutions. Because of our fallen natures, unlimited power is always “in itself a bad and dangerous thing,” whether it is wielded by the one or the many. As Tocqueville reasoned,

A majority taken collectively is only an individual, whose opinions, and frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another individual, who is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach? Men do not change their characters by uniting with one another, nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with their strength.


In my last post, which seems like a year ago, I wrote about the populist strands I see pervading the current Illinois state gubernatorial race and how they reminded me of a famous political contest from nearly two centuries ago, the presidential election of 1828. In that election, the supporters of General Andrew Jackson championed their candidate as a man of the people, in contrast to his supposedly elitist rival, incumbent John Quincy Adams.

By 1828 Jackson was one of the wealthiest men in America (the fruit of savvy land speculation and effective political networking), but you would never know that by listening to the claims of his supporters. To “Jacksonians” (who would soon begin to use the label Democrat), Jackson was a man of the people whose humble roots, limited education, and minimal political experience all were strong arguments in his favor. Adams, in contrast, suffered from the liabilities of a prominent family name, a Harvard degree, and a lifetime of political service. As Jackson’s campaign managers put it, the contest came down to a choice between “Adams, who can write,” and “Jackson, who can fight.” The people chose the fighter in a landslide.

I concluded the post by promising to discuss the implications of that choice, and now I am back to make good on that pledge. To be honest, I am still working through my own thinking on the question, and I don’t pretend to have any profound pronouncements to make. Instead, I would rather direct you to an assessment of American politics in the age of Andrew Jackson that is still one of the most insightful commentaries on the relationship of liberty, equality, and religion that I know of. The work I have in mind is Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Democracy in America is one of those books that is cited much more than read. We’ve almost all heard of it. It rates a paragraph or two in most U. S. history textbooks, and A.P. instructors may occasionally assign a tiny portion of it. But apart from political science majors and American government teachers, it is a rare American who knows much of anything about this important work. We’re the poorer because of it.

I like to frame the importance of history in terms of metaphors. History is a form of memory and is critical to our sense of who we are. It also functions as a mirror, enabling us to see ourselves with new eyes and greater clarity. It is  certainly a story as well, a grand narrative in which we situate our lives, defining where we have come from, what we believe in, and where (we hope) we are headed. But history also is potentially a rich, even life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”

So as a historian, one of the things I want to be doing regularly is entering into conversation with the best that has been thought and said in the past. And as a history teacher, one of the things I need to be doing regularly is introducing my students to the conversation partners that they most need to meet. Alexis de Tocqueville is one of those conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen.

“Time converts more people than reason,” Thomas Paine observed at the beginning of Common Sense. What he meant was that most of us tend to accept as “natural” the way that the world is when we come into it. When Paine sounded the call for independence in 1776, he was writing to Americans who had lived their entire lives under monarchy. They accepted that form of government, Paine was convinced, less because of its merits than because it was all that they had ever known.

When we see any human institution or custom as natural or inevitable, it’s really hard for us to think about it deeply. Why agonize over something that can’t be any other way than it is? Part of what Paine did in Common Sense was to take his readers back to the origins of the English monarchy in an effort to help them see it—really see it—so they might think critically about it.

This is potentially one of history’s greatest benefits. It allows us to go back in time to a moment when institutions and customs that we now take for granted were new and strange and even controversial, when the matter wasn’t settled, when the outcome wasn’t inevitable. And by listening in on the conversation from that time, what we once saw as utterly familiar can begin to seem strange to us, and this, in turn, can both inspire and enable us to think about it. This is true, as Paine recognized, because we give what is familiar the benefit of the doubt; the strange we feel forced to explain.

This is part of why C. S. Lewis so strongly advocated the reading of old books. In an assertion that first seems counter-intuitive, Lewis argued that old books have the potential to help us understand the present better than works from our own day. On the whole, contemporary works reinforce our blind spots rather than exposing them, and the truths that they teach us are often “truths which we half knew already.” By comparison, old books have a greater capacity to challenge and change us. Where they are wrong, they are unlikely to harm us. Where we are blind, however, they may open our eyes.

Revisiting a classic work like Democracy in America is one way “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” in Lewis’s memorable phrase. Tocqueville was writing at a time when democracy was still a novel experiment in the world. Its future was uncertain. Its impact was unclear. And although he was writing about democracy in a very specific historical context (he arrived in the United States at the midpoint of Andrew Jackson’s first term as president), his investigation was driven by questions as relevant today as they were in the 1830s: How do you reconcile the rights of individuals with the needs of society? How do you maximize individual freedom while promoting stability and order? How do you simultaneously advance liberty and ensure justice, and what role does religious belief play in that delicate balancing act?

I can’t recommend Democracy in America highly enough.   In my next two posts I plan to share some of my favorite passages from the book, focusing on what Tocqueville had to say about (1) the effects of democratic culture on society and politics and (2) the role of religion as a bulwark against tyranny.  In the meantime, you might consider ordering a copy, if you don’t have one lying around, and spending some time with it.  The full text can be rather daunting–most editions come in at somewhere around 800 pages–but there are several good abridged editions also available.  (The edition featured in the Bedford Books series of St. Martin’s Press is my favorite of this type.  It features an excellent brief introduction by distinguished historian Michael Kammen, followed by a lean sampling of the meatiest chapters adding up to about a fifth of the original.  You can read about the edition here.)

Democracy in America

If you do decide to read the book for yourself, may I share a word of exhortation and a little bit of context before you get started?  First the exhortation: as much as possible, take seriously the idea of entering into a conversation with the author.  Hospitality is a historical as well as a Christian virtue.  As you would with any other guest that you invite into your home, purpose to treat Tocqueville considerately.   Invite him to speak.  Listen to him respectfully.  Don’t respond defensively, indeed, don’t respond at all until you have thought carefully about what he has to say.

Now for the context.  Anytime you pick up a historical document, it is a good idea to find out all that you can about the author, the author’s audience, and the author’s purpose for writing.  Here are a few details that are helpful to know:

Alexis de Tocqueville was the third son of an aristocratic French family that traced its noble lineage at least as far  back as the Norman conquest of England in 1066.  In 1831, at the age of twenty-six, Tocqueville was commissioned by the French government, in tandem with another young aristocratic Frenchman, Gustave de Beaumont, to travel to the United States to investigate and report on the American penitentiary system.  Tocqueville and Beaumont arrived in the U. S. in May of 1831, and for the next nine months they explored the country, traveling by stagecoach, steamboat, and on horseback from the urban northeast to the edge of the western frontier and back again.  Upon returning to France, they filed their report on penitentiaries and then Tocqueville began to pen a much broader set of reflections on American politics, American institutions, American culture, and the American people.  The first volume of Democracy in America was published in 1835, and volume II followed five years later.  The first American translation of volume I appeared in 1838.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville’s audience was always first and foremost his fellow countrymen.  He wrote about America but not for America, at least not primarily.  Indeed, understanding the French context is crucial to understanding the book.  Writing to the English translator of his work,  Tocqueville explained,

I came into the world at the end of a long revolution, which after having destroyed the former state of things had created nothing lasting in his place.  Aristocracy was already dead when I began to live, and democracy was not yet in existence.

As the French Revolution of 1789 gave way to the Great Terror of 1793, Tocqueville’s grandfather went to the guillotine and his parents, then young adults, went to the dungeon and barely escaped with their lives.  By the time that Tocqueville was born a dozen years later, Napoleon Bonaparte was emperor of France.  The implications of these events were clear: proclaiming  liberty was not the same thing as preserving it, and the establishment of political equality guaranteed neither liberty nor justice.  These lessons haunted Tocqueville his whole life long, and Democracy in America cannot be understood apart from them.

You should know that though Tocqueville was an aristocrat in temperament and lineage, he both foresaw and accepted that democracy represented the wave of the future.  He hoped to refine the trend, not resist it.  If he was critical of what he saw in America–and he often was–he was on the whole a sympathetic critic.  He was fascinated with the United States because he believed it to be the freest nation in the world, and he always hoped that his native France could learn from the American example.

Finally, we should respect just how seriously Tocqueville approached his subject.  The stakes were almost incalculably high, he believed.  “The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst,” Tocqueville wrote in the very last paragraph of volume II.  “But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness.”