“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE AMERICA IS GOOD”–PART ONE

I need to share one more reflection inspired by Democracy in America before I set aside Alexis de Tocqueville for the rest of the summer.  We’ve heard a lot recently about making America “great” again, and that calls to mind a famous quote popularly attributed to that French commentator.  Have you heard this before?

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. . . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. . . . .in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there.  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.

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 widely appraised as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society,” but it is also extremely long (typically 800-900 pages, depending on the edition) as well as extremely complex.  This combination of traits explains why so many politicians (or their speechwriters) feel compelled to quote it without actually reading it.  “America is great because America is good” is a case in point.  Tocqueville never wrote anything remotely resembling that in Democracy in America Bartleby’s dictionary of quotations traces the quote to a 1941 book titled The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, by Sherwood Eddy, a theologically liberal Christian socialist and missionary, who claimed to be quoting Tocqueville.  Wikiquotes has identified an earlier source, a 1922 letter to a Presbyterian magazine called the Herald and Presbyter (vol. 93, no. 36, p. 8).  According to the letter, an official with the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, the Rev. John McDowell, included the quote in a Sunday sermon and attributed it to Tocqueville.  Where Rev. McDowell got the quote is not known, although this much is certain: he didn’t get it from Alexis de Tocqueville.  Even so, a host of public figures have insisted that Tocqueville said these words.

If you don’t believe me, Google the phrase “America is great because she is good” and see what comes up.  Among those who have repeated the quote verbatim in speeches or essays, you’ll find presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.  (Although it’s not clear whether Richard Nixon ever used the quote in a public address, Charles Colson recalled that Nixon was extremely fond of it and used it frequently in meetings.  “I got goose bumps whenever he used that quote,” Colson confessed in his book Loving God.)   It’s also been a favorite phrase of congressmen, cabinet officials, and a variety of political commentators and would-be officeholders, including Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson.  It shows up in highly reputable venues, including The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Forbes.  “America is great because she is good” is arguably the most widely repeated observation that Alexis de Tocqueville never made.

MetaxasBizarrely, in his recent book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas acknowledges that the quote is a fabrication but repeats it anyway on the grounds that, ironic as it may seem, the quote best captures what Tocqueville actually argued.  Indeed, he calls the spurious quotation a “brilliant summation” of Democracy in America, because “we know from the rest of his book that he [Tocqueville] saw clearly that it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work. . . . For him it was inescapable: The secret to American freedom was American virtue.”

It’s hard to imagine a less accurate summation of Democracy in America, and hard to believe that Metaxas has actually read “the rest of the book,” or at least read it closely.  I don’t mean to pick on Eric Metaxas.  A blogger who doesn’t know me from Adam has hinted recently that I am simply one of those “evangelical historians [who] identify with evangelicalism but evangelicals not as much,” and that I have been critical of Metaxas because I want to create some distance between my “public persona” and the prevailing values of American evangelicals.

I am not sure why this writer feels compelled to speculate as to my motives, but here they are: I am an evangelical Christian, born and raised in the Bible Belt, and my heart’s desire, as a Jesus-follower who is also an academic historian, is to be in conversation with other Christians who are interested in what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past.  Eric Metaxas may be the most prominent openly Christian public intellectual in the United States today, and without a doubt his books and other writings will reach far more readers than those of any Christian academic historian.  If I am going to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy, I need to read what they are reading and engage them about it.  It’s that simple.

When it comes to Democracy in America, the tragedy of “America is great because she is good” is two-fold.  First, it misses what Tocqueville was actually arguing by about a mile and a half.  It’s not just that Tocqueville never used those exact words.  He didn’t believe anything close.  Second, what Tocqueville did believe about American values—especially concerning the extent of “virtue” among the people and the role of religion in American democracy—is something that every American Christian who cares about the public witness of the Church needs to hear.  What Tocqueville actually argued should be deeply convicting to us.  Metaxas and others have distilled and distorted his telling critique into a political slogan to be used against our political opponents.

Tocqueville LettersI’ll be back soon to share what Tocqueville actually argued, but before closing I’ll leave you with a teaser.  Tocqueville wrote numerous letters to friends and family back in France during his nine-month stay in the U. S.  Tocqueville’s Letters from America was one of the first titles I read this summer, and I was struck by how he used his extensive correspondence as an opportunity to think out loud, so to speak, to work through the meaning of what he was seeing and hearing as he traveled across the country.  Here is an excerpt from a letter to his friend Ernest de Chabrol, written from New York City on June 9, 1831, in which Tocqueville wrestles with the underlying cause of American happiness:

For openers, my dear friend, imagine a society compounded of all the nations of the world: English, French, Germans. . . . People each having a language, a belief, different opinions; in a word, a society lacking roots, memories, prejudices, habits, common ideas, a national character . . . and a hundred times happier than ours.  More virtuous?  I doubt it.  What binds such diverse elements together and makes a nation of it all?  Self-interest.  That is the key.

In my next post we’ll discuss what Tocqueville called “self-interest, rightly understood.”

17 responses to ““AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE AMERICA IS GOOD”–PART ONE

  1. Tracy – this “quote” continues to make the rounds. I’ve just encountered it in the “History Enthusiasts Group” on LinkedIn. I left a comment there with a link to this post and the series it began. Let’s see if anyone there cares to follow up.

  2. Something’s not adding up. The blog stays with a paragraph ending “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

    Then you say that de Tocqueville never said “America is great because America is good”. Is your objection merely based on the exact wording of what was or was not said, or is the quote at the to of the page actually from someone else? Please elucidate.

  3. Pingback: "America Is Great Because She Is Good" - Again - The Raven Foundation

  4. Pingback: “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE AMERICA IS GOOD”–AGAIN | Faith and History

  5. Just a note that a contributor (sbh) made regarding a source for the quote commonly attributed to Toqueville:

    “As I’ve pointed out in various places in the past, the original quotation is taken from a letter of Andrew Reed, who visited the United States in the early 1830s and wrote home about it: “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.” (Andrew Reed and James Matheson, A narrative of the visit to the American churches (1835), volume 1, p. 285). It was often quoted during the nineteenth century. At some point around 1900 (I don’t have my notes available) it was misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, who also traveled to the United States and wrote about it.”

    • Lynn: Thanks so much for this citation! I had not been able to trace it further back than the sermon quoted in the 1922 Presbyterian publication that I cited. TM

    • Dear Lynn: Your citation may be slightly off. I went searching for the quote you shared, and found it not in volume I but in Volume II, p. 226. You’re almost certainly correct that this is the origin of the lines misattributed to Tocqueville. Thanks again, TM

      • Thanks, as I posted on the “Part II” piece, I can’t take credit; it was provided by a commenter named “sbh” on Warren Throckmorton’s blog on this topic. But I’m glad you found the correct citation!

  6. Popularizers can be problems or produce works for lay readers that are understandable by average readers. But,. Is it too much to expect that a popularizer like Metaxas would be able to master the basics of the topics on which he writes? One only need have an authority in the field or even a graduate student check basic facts or consensual interpretations. I have read the work on Bonhoeffer by Metaxas which seems to distort or ignore some of the realities of Bonhoeffer’s own works or skepticism by the time he was in prison. I myself would rather read academics who are also popularizers such as CS Lewis or New Testament scholar N.T. Wright

  7. 27 July 2016

    The problem with Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is that we have come to regard it as some great last word about who we are as America. And public thinkers want to have him on their side and so Eric Metaxas use of de Tocqueville for his book. But Democracy in America was one man’s impression of America. Full of stimulating and insightful comments. But it was written at a certain time in our history and it may not speak to our current state of being. One must take him with a grain of salt – or whatever will help one be realistic about the book.

  8. I will now check out Democracy in America and give it a read. Thanks for providing the impetus for me to read it. Thanks also for your posts as I always find them illuminating.

  9. Prof. McKenzie, I do know you from Adam, I read your blog regularly and have invoked it at other times positively.

    My point is that so many academics go after non-academics and play the expert card. Metaxas. Barton. Jim Wallis not so much. It doesn’t seem to me like a fair fight. The sign of an intellectual — I suppose and could be wrong — is not to worry about popularizers.

    At the same time, if you’re going to identify with the evangelical movement, then you’re going to have to live with folks like Metaxas as representing your “worldview.”

    • I’m afraid I don’t understand your comment.
      Are you saying that an expert in a field should ignore occasions when popularizers are in error?
      (He does, after all, explain his reasoning quite completely in the very next paragraph.)
      Thanks for clarifying.

    • 29 July 2016

      1/ re: “if you’re going to identify with the evangelical movement, then you’re going to have to live with folks like Metaxas as representing your ‘worldview.'”

      Living with them is one thing. Agreeing that they represent my worldview is another. Or that they are the representative of the evangelical world view is another.

      2/ re: “The sign of an intellectual — I suppose and could be wrong — is not to worry about popularizers.”

      And if the popularizers are wrong why shouldn’t they be corrected? Why should they keep leading people astray? Wouldn’t that be a prime responsibility of any intellectual? Or expert on any matter? I would think people like Eric Metaxas would appreciate the correction.

  10. Jack Be Nimble

    Self-interest is such an interesting concept. When Moses was instructing the Hebrews as they were about to enter Canaan, he couched the whole concept of obedience to God’s laws in terms of self-interest. If they would be faithful to God and obey His laws, they would prosper and live long in the land. Of course, the opposite would happen if they were unfaithful and disobedient. The added bonus was the by following these laws, even without God’s special blessing, they would enjoy a much superior way of life. It just made good sense for them to live based on God’s design. Of course, we all know that they blew it rather significantly!

    We moderns often equate self-interest with selfishness. We make the assumption that life is a zero sum game and if one person gets rich then someone else must have fallen into poverty. Nothing could be further from the truth in God’s economy. In Israel part of self-interest was to care for the widow, the orphan, the impoverished, and the foreigner. Self-interest was not selfishness because it encompassed the whole community, nor merely the individuals within it. I wonder if that is something Tocqueville saw in the American character as he toured the land. Thanks for a provocative blog and I’m looking forward to the next entry.

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