Last Thursday we “honored” Alexis de Tocqueville on his 211th birthday by featuring lines that he is famous for but actually never wrote:

America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Not only did Tocqueville not pen these words, but it is a caricature of Democracy in America to claim, as Eric Metaxas has recently, that they constitute a “brilliant summation” of what Tocqueville believed.

Although it’s belated, I think a more fitting birthday gift would be to call attention to what Tocqueville actually argued in his classic work, so I thought I would give my best shot at distilling his complicated and often imprecise observations.  Before doing so, a caveat: There are scholars who focus their entire careers on Tocqueville’s writings, and I’m not one of them. What follows is Tocqueville as I understand him after several careful readings of Democracy in America and a fair amount of additional reading on the book’s context.  When I teach on Democracy in America this fall in my U. S. history survey at Wheaton, here is what I will convey to my students as I try to give them a context for the selections that I ask them to read:

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

* Tocqueville’s central focus: The implications of equality for democratic societies.  Indeed, as often as not, when Tocqueville refers to “democracy” it is equality that he is thinking about.  We are likely to think of democracy in purely political terms, as the process by which a society channels majority rule into political decisions, but Tocqueville’s focus is usually much broader.  He has in mind the larger “social state” of an age or a people.

A commitment to equality is the driving ideal of a democratic society, according to Tocqueville, even if it falls short of the mark (as it inevitably will).  Such a society will generally feature greater equality of condition than an aristocratic society, and even greater equality of opportunity.  It will be more open, more fluid.  The circumstances of your birth won’t be irrelevant to your future prospects, but neither will they wholly determine the life you will lead, as would be the case in a more traditional society.  By this definition, in Tocqueville’s view, the United States in the 1830s was one of the most egalitarian (and democratic) societies known to history.

(Tocqueville was fully aware of the prevalence of slavery in the American South and viewed its presence as a huge exception to almost every generalization he made about the United States.  The Frenchman spent only two weeks of his nine-month tour of the country in the states south of Tennessee, and it is fair to say that when he marveled at the extent of American equality, in his mind’s eye he was thinking of New England or the Midwest.)

* Tocqueville’s key historical conclusion: The gradual transition from aristocracy to democracy in the western world was a pattern that could not be reversed.  When French royalists hoped to turn back the clock and restore Tocqueville’s homeland to the absolutism of Louis XVI, they were on the wrong side of history.  Democracy, as Tocqueville defined it, was the wave of the future, and wise statesmen and philosophers would seek not to obstruct democracy but to channel its development in such a way as to maximize its blessings and minimize its dangers.

* Tocqueville’s essential moral insight: Democracy does not inevitably produce moral outcomes.  Tocqueville did not view greater equality as either intrinsically positive or negative in its implications.  Its consequences could be a blessing, a curse, or a combination of both.  Democracy would eventually prevail, but what kind of democracy would triumph was far from certain.  As he put it in the final sentence of volume II,

It is beyond the ability of nations today to prevent conditions within them from becoming equal, but it is within their power to decide whether equality will lead them into servitude or liberty, enlightenment or barbarism, prosperity or misery.

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.

* Tocqueville’s greatest concern: The threat that equality potentially poses to liberty.  Tocqueville confessed in a letter to the first English translator of Democracy in America, “I have . . . just one passion, the love of liberty and human dignity.”  The problem was that the rising equality that Tocqueville viewed as irreversible was not automatically conducive to either.  As the concluding sentence of his reflections warns, equality can lead to servitude as well as liberty, which is another way of saying that democracy can result in despotism instead of freedom.

Tocqueville felt deeply the truth of this possibility.  Three members of his extended family had gone to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and his parents had languished in a dungeon for months, all the time expecting the same fate.  In his homeland the rage for equality had led to anarchy and terror and finally to Emperor Bonaparte, not to the flourishing of “liberty and human dignity.”  Throughout Democracy in America, Tocqueville presents equality and liberty as in tension.  Their coexistence is possible, but not natural or inevitable.  Part of the problem is human nature itself.  Tocqueville believes that humans in a democratic age will value equality above liberty, and if forced to choose, they will forfeit the latter to perpetuate the former.  Which leads to the final key point:

* Tocqueville’s Central Problem: How to preserve liberty in a democratic age.  Although Tocqueville is writing of America, he is writing for France.  Years after the publication of Democracy in America, Tocqueville recalled to a family friend, “Although I very seldom spoke of France . . . I did not write a single page without thinking of France or without having France in a manner of speaking before my eyes.”  Tocqueville hoped to glean insights from the American example that might help his countrymen make a successful transition to democracy without reproducing the horrors of the French Revolution.  So if there was a question that animates his investigation, it is not “What makes America great?”  It is “What has allowed Americans to remain so free, given their passion for equality?”

So how would Tocqueville, writing in the 1830s, complete the sentence “America is free because . . .”? Would he have argued that America is free “because she is good”?  Eric Metaxas believes so.  In his recent book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Freedom, he insists that the message of Democracy in America is unequivocal. 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.”  (These are Metaxas’ italics by the way.)

There is a grain of truth to Metaxas’ assertion.  Tocqueville certainly believed that Americans’ values and ideals would have a major impact on the kind of democracy that would flourish here.  And he undoubtedly credited American values at the time as one factor helping to explain the survival of American liberty in the 1830s.  Tocqueville’s explanation of America’s enduring freedom was far more complicated than Metaxas allows, however, and we need to remember that a partial truth—simplistically and dogmatically asserted—is a distortion of the truth.  How did Tocqueville explain the persistence of American liberty?

Liberty continued to exist in the United States, Tocqueville maintained, due to three broad factors.  The least important of the three, though one that still “contributed powerfully,” was what I would label “circumstances.”  Tocqueville spoke instead of “the peculiar, and accidental, situation in which Providence has placed the Americans.”

Chief among these was simple geography.  Like the Founders, Tocqueville took for granted that power was a threat to liberty wherever it was located, which meant that a powerful government could just as easily limit Americans’ freedom as nurture it.  One of the reasons that Americans were so free, Tocqueville believed, was that government was extraordinarily small in the United States compared to the nations of Europe, and the main reason it was extraordinarily small was geographical.  The people of the United States required neither a large army nor the high taxes that a large army necessitated because of where God had situated them.  Our neighbors to the north and south were not a military threat, and the country was protected from the leading military powers of the world by a vast ocean.

A second providential circumstance was the great natural resources that Americans enjoyed.  In the 1830s, cultivable land was more abundant relative to the population in the U. S. than anywhere else in the world, and Tocqueville believed that it was easier for the average person to prosper materially as a result.  In Tocqueville’s words, “It was God himself who, by giving them a boundless continent, granted them the means to remain equal and free for a long time.”  All things equal, greater material prosperity meant less social conflict, and less social conflict meant less excuse for government to intrude on the people’s liberties to promote order and foster security.  In the United States “nature herself seems to work for the people,” Tocqueville marveled.

Especially relevant to Metaxas’ emphasis on American virtue is Tocqueville’s argument that the vastness of the United States actually rewarded character traits that in Europe would be considered threats to social stability.  “In Europe we habitually regard a restless spirit, immoderate desire for wealth, and an extreme love of independence as great social dangers.”  Tocqueville found all three traits in abundance in the American character, but concluded that, in a sparsely populated continent, they facilitated western expansion rather than undermining the social order.  “What a happy land the New World is,” Tocqueville concluded, where man’s vices are almost as useful as his virtues.”

George Caleb Bingham, "The Verdict of the People," 1854-55

George Caleb Bingham, “The Verdict of the People,” 1854-55

Were the circumstances that Tocqueville highlighted the result of American virtue?  Of course not.  Tocqueville labels them variously as “accidental,” “natural,” “providential,” and “circumstances independent of man’s will.”  From a Christian perspective, it makes sense to think of them as instances of unmerited divine favor, reflections of God’s grace rather than American goodness.

Pretty much the same can be said of the second group of explanatory factors that Tocqueville identified, which he grouped under the broad heading of “laws.”  In this category Tocqueville included, among other things, the federal structure of the American Constitutional system, which the Frenchman greatly admired, as well as the important role accorded the courts as a conservative check on the potential for majoritarian tyranny.  (I leave it to the reader to decide whether the judiciary fulfills that role today.)  These were expressions of what Tocqueville described as “the art of liberty,” that is, the ability of wise political leaders to craft laws and institutions that accommodated equality while promoting liberty and justice.

Tocqueville was quick to note, however, that the laws and institutions he most admired in America were the creation of the revolutionary generation, and  there had been a steady decline in the quality of American political leaders as the society had grown more democratic.  Voters in Jacksonian America were quick to praise the Founders but had no desire to vote for individuals like them in education and ability.  Tocqueville was struck by “the rareness of outstanding men on the political scene” and attributed it to the majority’s aversion to figures of extraordinary education or sophistication.  “The people are not afraid of great talents but have little taste for them,” he concluded.

So again we should ask: Were the factors that Tocqueville grouped under “laws” expressions of American virtues?  Do they provide evidence that Tocqueville believed that “America is great because she is good,” even if he failed to use those exact words?  Again, the answer must be, “No.”  Americans in the 1830s were beneficiaries of the wisdom and leadership of the Revolutionary generation.  Tocqueville admired the laws and institutions that the Founding generation had put in place, but he was under no illusion that the current generation of Americans deserved the credit.  When it came to the laws, they were reaping where they had not sown.

The third and final factor that helped to perpetuate liberty in the U.S. was a category that Tocqueville labeled “mores.”  Writers sometimes equate the term with “habits of the heart,” although Tocqueville defined it even more broadly.  He had in mind not only “the habits of the heart” but also “the differing notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits.”  In their role in the perpetuation of liberty in America, mores were more important than either circumstances or laws, but even here, with apologies to Eric Metaxas, we cannot find Tocqueville arguing that “the secret to American liberty was American virtue.”  Tocqueville found comparatively little virtue in 1830s America, if by “virtue” we mean what the Founders meant (and Metaxas means), i.e., self-denial for the common good.  In my next post we’ll look closely at how Tocqueville described the American character.

Back in a bit.

George Caleb Bingham, "The County Election," 1852

George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1852



  2. great insights Tracy! I too wonder with jack be nimble the implications for today- not to be presentist- but in what ways might those be true today- as we are such a larger country population wise and we don’t have the “release” of the western “frontier” – though it probably never existed like turner seemed to believe

  3. This well written blog essay reminds of two works on this topic. The first, if memory serves, was Frederick Jackson Turners essay(1893) where he discussed the closing of the frontier in 1890 and that implication for the formation of American character; such character traits as self reliance, mobility, and optimism were the result of the settling of new lands by trappers, farmers, etc. I am also reminded of David Potter’s People of Plenty which stated that all kinds of American habits including child rearing had been influenced by the fact that we were(and still are) a people with plenty of land and natural resources. It would seem that these works plus many others are similar to Tocqueville’s thesis about America. Americans as a good people were not addressed in these works.

  4. Jack Be Nimble

    Apart from Metaxas and his claims about American virtue, it would be an interesting exercise to take Tocqueville’s three categories (circumstances, laws, and mores) and, using his definitions, apply them to our modern American society. Perhaps in this way we may come to understand ourselves. We continue to wrestle with the issues of equality and liberty and how they may work against each other. I believe this exercise might be important considering our current election dilemmas.

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