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.
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.
Bizarrely, 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.
I’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.”