Did Alexis de Tocqueville think that “America is great because Americas is good,” as scores of politicians and pundits over the years have insisted? Did he conclude that “the secret to American freedom is American virtue,” as Eric Metaxas has recently claimed to be the Frenchmen’s “inescapable” conclusion? What did Tocqueville really believe about the American character, and why should we care if he has been misrepresented?
In my last post I reviewed the three main categories that Tocqueville identified to explain why liberty had endured in the United States in the presence of unprecedented equality. He began by pointing to the crucial importance of “providential” circumstances “independent of man’s will,” most notably the propitious geographic situation of the United States and its vast store of natural resources. More important still were the system of laws inherited from the Founders, especially the overarching structure of American federalism, the safeguards built into the national Constitution, and the key role played by the American judiciary at both the state and national levels. Finally, Tocqueville underscored the paramount importance of what he labeled “mores,” the habits of heart and mind that shaped the ways that Americans interacted with each other and with their government.
The first two categories had little to do with Americans’ character, and as I mentioned last time, to the degree that they helped to explain the perpetuation of liberty in the U. S., Tocqueville seems to be saying that American freedom has much more to do with divine grace than human goodness. The third category is different, however. In turning to mores—to what Americans believed and how what they believed affected how they behaved—Tocqueville is indisputably arguing that part of the reason that liberty is flourishing in America is because of American values. But what were those values?
Before answering that question, I have to stop and interject what is my single most favorite quotation from Democracy in America. It’s an observation that speaks volumes about Tocqueville’s reading of human nature and also explains why Americans have found it so hard to hear what Tocqueville had to say. Here’s the quote, which I feature on the syllabus of just about every course that I teach:
A false but clear and precise idea always has more power in the world than one which is true but complex.
Tocqueville’s sketch of the American character is nothing if not complex, and to condense it to the simplistic assertion “America is good” makes an effective political slogan but misrepresents his argument badly.
Remember that the central focus of Democracy in America is Tocqueville’s quest to understand the consequences of equality on society and politics. When it comes to the American character, he is most interested in those traits that either are shaped by American equality or shape equality’s effects on American liberty. He has much to say on the topic—almost the entirety of volume II is relevant—but here are the character traits that I would say Tocqueville finds paramount: Generalizing broadly, Americans as Tocqueville describes them are materialistic and acquisitive, independent-minded, individualistic (up to a point), rationally self-interested, and religious. Let’s take each in turn, and as we consider each, ask yourself how each might be viewed in the light of orthodox Christian teaching.
Within days of setting foot in America, Tocqueville had concluded that the United States was far more materialistic than any of the nations of Europe. “Here we are truly in another world,” he marveled in a letter to his brother Edouard. “Political passions are only superficial. The one passion that runs deep, the only one that stirs the human heart day in and day out, is the acquisition of wealth.” Some of his initial impressions had changed by the time he sat down to write Democracy in America, but this one only hardened. “I know no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts,” he informed his readers. A “breathless cupidity” drove Americans “to nothing but the pursuit of wealth.” Related to this was a persistent discontentment that propelled the typical American to a relentless striving for things. “Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit.”
Tocqueville also observed among Americans an “extreme love of independence.” A love of independence could be an admirable trait in Tocqueville’s mind. By his own admission, Tocqueville’s greatest “passion” was the “love of liberty,” and Americans’ love of independence could certainly foster that. But Tocqueville subscribed to the classical view that moral virtues and vices come not in pairs but in threes. Someone with too little love of independence was “servile,” with a mindset befitting a slave, but someone with an exaggerated love of independence could resent even legitimate authority. Such a person was “recalcitrant,” and recalcitrance was one of the character traits that St. Augustine positioned at the very heart of human nature after the Fall. In Tocqueville’s view, Americans’ passion for equality predisposed them to scorn any authority other than the unassailable moral authority of the majority. This caused them to be resentful of any intellectual, political, or religious authority not actually awarded by the people themselves.
Americans were also prone to individualism, according to Tocqueville. Modern-day Americans often view individualism positively, as an expression of admirable self-reliance and initiative, but Tocqueville saw it in a very different light. Aristocracy “linked all citizens together in a long chain from peasant to king,” Tocqueville explained, whereas democracy “breaks the chain and severs the links.” Equality placed citizens side by side but “without a common bond to hold them together.” Owing nothing to anyone, expecting nothing from anyone, men and women gradually withdraw from society into the cocoon of the family. In Tocqueville’s view, individualism eats away at community and undermines civic life. Happily, Americans in the 1830s largely offset this tendency with a penchant for joining forces with others to accomplish specific tasks. Americans were “constantly joining together in groups” to work toward common goals, whether it was the erection of a hospital, the improvement of a school, or the promotion of some moral or political goal.
That they could join forces with their neighbors to accomplish tasks that they couldn’t accomplish alone reflected another of the character traits Tocqueville emphasized: the degree to which Americans were motivated by the rational calculation of self-interest. The pursuit of self-interest can be impulsive, reckless, and actually detrimental to wellbeing in the long run, or it can be rational, dispassionate, and prudent in a way that brings long-term benefits. The latter is what Tocqueville meant by “self-interest, properly understood,” and he argued in vol. II of Democracy in America that it was a doctrine that prevailed almost universally among the people of the United States.
While Eric Metaxas insists that Tocqueville believed that “the secret to American freedom was American virtue,” Tocqueville begins his chapter on the “doctrine of self-interest, properly understood” with the contention that the idealization of virtue (defined as the denial of self for the good of the whole) was a hallmark of aristocratic societies, not democratic ones. In democratic ages, he contends, the ideal of self-sacrifice for the good of others gradually gives way to the belief that the denial of self in the near term can actually further self-interest in the long run. Americans no longer spoke of the beauty of virtuous sacrifice, Tocqueville found. Instead, they praised the usefulness of prudent self-denial. If they had a true guiding star among the heroes of the Revolution, it was Benjamin Franklin, whose “Poor Richard’s Almanack” had shown Americans the path to health and wealth through hard work and thrift.
Self-interest properly understood did not lead Americans to classical virtue, Tocqueville acknowledged, “but it does create a multitude of citizens who are disciplined, temperate, moderate, prudent, and self-controlled.” In many ways such character traits were a blessing to the larger society, but they originated in self-interest, not in virtuous self-denial as a noble act in and of itself. Americans were no less selfish than the French, Tocqueville reckoned, but American selfishness was “enlightened” in a way that French selfishness was not. “Instead of blindly yielding to his first desires,” the typical American “has learned the art of combating them and has become accustomed to easily sacrificing the pleasure of the moment to the permanent interests of his entire life.”
Finally, Tocqueville described Americans as surprisingly religious. “When I arrived in the United States, it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention,” he informed his readers. To his surprise, the country that was “the freest and most enlightened” in the world, was also the country where religion’s “influence is greatest.” What Tocqueville had to say about religion in America is so important, and at the same time so complicated, that it will take an entire post to distill his observations.
I’ll turn to that in my next post and (finally) wrap up this series on the oft-repeated claim “America is great because America is good.” In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. In characterizing Americans as acquisitive and materialistic, independent-minded and individualistic, rationally self-interested and religious, was Alexis de Tocqueville making the case in the 1830s that “America is good”?