Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850
Today is Alexis de Tocqueville’s birthday (he would be 211) so it seems fitting to feature what are arguably the most widely quoted lines from his classic study of American society and politics, Democracy in America. Tocqueville’s tribute to America has been a favorite of American presidents (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bill Clinton), congressmen, cabinet officials, and other politically-oriented public figures such as Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson. And if you were listening carefully to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at last night’s Democratic National Convention—thanks to reader Gary Hotham for pointing this out—you may have noticed her implicit tribute to Tocqueville in the course of rebuking her Republican counterpart:
“You know, for the past year, many people made the mistake of laughing off Donald Trump’s comments – excusing him as an entertainer just putting on a show. . . . But here’s the sad truth: There is no other Donald Trump. This is it. And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good.”
The only problem with these numerous tributes to Tocqueville’s wise assessment of America—as I noted in my previous post—is that Tocqueville never wrote the lines that we attribute to him.
Now, thanks to the timely assistance of reader Lynn Betts (thanks, Lynn!), I am able to tell you that, it is almost certainly the case that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who traveled in the United States in 1834, three years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s more famous journey. In volume II, p. 226 of the second edition of their book A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches by the Deputation from the Congregational Union of England and Wales (London, 1836), we read where authors Andrew Reed and James Matheson wrote:
Universal suffrage, whatever may be its abstract merits or demerits, is neither desirable nor possible, except the people are the subjects of universal education and universal piety. America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.
Unless the reverends Reed and Matheson were themselves plagiarizing an earlier source, it seems almost certain that they are the authors of the lines so commonly misattributed to Tocqueville. But even here, note that the quote as commonly repeated differs in one significant sense from the original from Reed and Matheson. While the English visitors offered a tentative prediction, “America WILL BE great IF America is good,” the quote as politicians and pundits are fond of repeating it is dogmatically assertive: “America IS great because America IS good.”
Tocqueville would have been amused, but not surprised, by this telling modification. His letters home reveal more than a touch of impatience with Americans’ relentless boasting about their country. “We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food the people somehow stuff down their gullets” Tocqueville wrote to his mother five days after landing in the United States. “So far this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways. People here seem to reek of national pride.”
Over the course of his nine-month journey across the United States, Tocqueville actually found much to admire about American democracy, but his views can’t be reduced to the equivalent of a campaign slogan. In my next post I’ll have some thoughts on what Tocqueville really believed about the sources of American happiness.