Category Archives: Jacksonian Democracy

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”–CONCLUDING THOUGHTS AND A SOLEMN RECOMMENDATION

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

For the past three weeks I’ve been writing about the best remembered lines from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I’d like to wrap up the series with a recommendation: I propose an immediate moratorium on the aphorism “America is great because she is good.”  Let’s banish it to the place where tired clichés go to die.  At best it’s a meaningless platitude; at worst, it muddles our thinking about democracy and makes self-righteousness sound profound.  We’re better off without it, and here are five reasons why:

(1) Let’s start with the simplest—Alexis de Tocqueville never wrote these words. (You know this by now if you’ve been following along.)  That doesn’t make the statement itself false, but it does make the quotation spurious.  That won’t stop speechwriters from using it, but the rest of us can at least cry out “Check your sources!” the next time we hear it a political rally.

(2) “America is great because she is good” isn’t only misattributed; it’s also misquoted. The problem isn’t just that somewhere along the line we mistakenly put someone else’s words into Tocqueville’s mouth. We’ve also garbled the lines that we’ve incorrectly ascribed to him.  It seems likely that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who visited the U.S. three years after Tocqueville did and also published their impressions.  But the reverends Andrew Reed and James Matheson predicted that “America will be great if America is good,” an assertion that’s much less congratulatory than the one we’ve grown fond of.

I can imagine what some of you are thinking about now: “Relax already!  Stop making mountains out of molehills!   So no one wrote the exact words that we remember.  Big deal.  If the gist is correct—if the underlying observation is true—isn’t that what really matters?”

Perhaps.  But what exactly does the statement “America is great because she is good” mean?  Eric Metaxas, who knows that the quote can’t be found in Democracy in America but still pronounces it “a brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s analysis, equates it with the belief that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work.”  But Tocqueville didn’t argue that at all and, with apologies to Metaxas, it is hard to see how anyone who has read Democracy in America carefully and in its entirety could think that he did.  Tocqueville certainly concluded that popular beliefs contributed significantly to the survival of American liberty, but he explicitly denied that Americans were any more virtuous than the masses in France, where liberty was languishing.  He even went so far as to doubt that virtue would ever be common in a democratic society—“self-interest properly understood,” hopefully, but not virtue.  So we’re back to square one: what does it mean to insist that “America is great because she is good”?  This bring me to reason #3:

(3) Taken at face value, the assertion is so vague as to be meaningless. It contains two critical terms that cry out for definition. What does it mean to say that “America is great?”  Do we mean that America is powerful?  Does it have something to do with the unemployment rate or the material standard of living, the nature of our trade agreements or the quality of our airports?  Does it have anything to do with justice, mercy, dignity, or respect?  Is it dependent in any way on the extent of equality or of freedom?

In like manner, what in the world do we mean when we say that “America is good”?  When the rich young ruler addressed Jesus as “good teacher,” Christ corrected him: “No one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:18).  What exactly are we claiming when we insist that America is “good”?  Obviously, the standard of measurement is not what Jesus had in mind, but what is the standard of measurement, and who gets to decide?

These are questions that every free society should grapple with regularly—in our homes, in our schools, in our churches, and yes, in our endless presidential campaigns.  The claim that “America is great because she is good” could be a useful starting point for that national conversation, but only if we wrestle with it and push back against it.  As it commonly functions, however, “America is great because she is good” doesn’t inspire deeper thought or provoke productive conversation.  It becomes a substitute for thought that ends conversation.  We hear it, cheer, and move on.

That’s the best-case scenario.  What is far scarier is the possibility that we might take the adage seriously and come to believe it.

(4) From the perspective of orthodox Christianity, “America is great because she is good” badly muddles our thinking about democracy. For all their emphasis on the importance of virtue to the survival of the republic, the Framers of the Constitution proceeded from a skeptical view of human nature in erecting the framework of government for the new nation. “What is government itself but the greatest of all commentaries on human nature?” James Madison famously asked in Federalist #51.  “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Although the Framers hoped that virtuous leaders would often hold office, they by no means took that for granted.  On the contrary, they assumed that humans were predominantly self-interested (as did Tocqueville).  This meant that unlimited power was always a threat to liberty—whether it was wielded by a king, by elected representatives, or by the people directly—and they instituted a series of checks and balances into the constitutional system to curb that possibility.

The Framers’ skeptical view of human nature was a casualty of the democratic revolution that unfolded during the first half-century of American independence.  The democratic ethos that dominated the American mentality by the 1830s took for granted the unassailable moral authority of the majority.  The conviction that majority rule invariably promotes moral outcomes is nonsensical unless it rests on a positive view of human nature, an unstated assumption that men and women are, at bottom, basically good.

I fear that “America is great because she is good” reinforces this view, a view that flies in the face of orthodox Christian teaching and undermines the very foundation of the gospel and the glory of the Cross.  As Christians, we are free to give our qualified support to democracy, but we must do so for the right reasons.  In his little-remembered essay “Membership,” C. S. Lewis reminds us that the best argument for democracy is not human goodness, but human fallenness.  “There are two opposite reasons” for endorsing democracy, Lewis wrote:

You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice.  That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy.  On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.  That I believe to be the true ground of democracy.

“America is great because she is good” perpetuates a false doctrine of democracy.

(5) It follows that “America is great because she is good” promotes self-congratulation rather than gratitude. As more than one commentator on this blog has observed, a close reading of Tocqueville’s analysis points more to divine grace than human virtue. In explaining the flourishing of American liberty in the 1830s, Tocqueville credited “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will,” laws and legal practices inherited from earlier generations, and a range of moral and intellectual habits, including a hefty dose of self-interest.  In place of such complexity, the quote that we so love substitutes a simplistic formula with little room for God’s unmerited favor.  A works-based righteousness is lurking here.  For the Christian, “Lord, I thank you that I am not as other men are” is as unbecoming in politics as in any other arena of discipleship.

Thanks for reading.

TOCQUEVILLE ON AMERICAN CHRISTIANITY: PART FIVE OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

So what did Alexis de Tocqueville really think of American Christianity, and why should American Christians care?

For the past couple of weeks, I have been writing about a reassuring adage popularly attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, namely that “America is great because she is good.”  This line has long been favored by politicians and pundits, and just this summer it’s cropped up in places as disparate as Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention and a policy statement by the Harvard Republican Club.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

If you’ve been following the series, you know by now that Tocqueville never penned these exact lines—they’re almost certainly plagiarized (though inaccurately) from the writings of two British Congregational ministers who visited the United States shortly after Tocqueville did.  More importantly, Tocqueville didn’t argue anything as simplistic as the bumper-sticker slogan we’re fond of attributing to him.  Tocqueville didn’t write as a partisan.  He wanted his analysis of what was then the most democratic nation on earth to be useful to a world moving fitfully in the direction of ever greater democracy, but he bristled at the prospect of his painstaking analysis being hijacked in the service of a particular political or religious faction.  This is why one of the most prominent features of Democracy in America is its complexity.  There’s a good reason why it’s more than eight hundred pages long.

Tocqueville visited seventeen states and conducted more than two hundred interviews during his nine-month tour of the United States, and then he meditated and reflected on what he had seen and heard for the better part of another decade as he sought to make sense of it all.  He concluded that there were numerous factors that helped to explain the flourishing of liberty in the United States.  Least important, though still hugely significant, were “a thousand circumstances independent of man’s will that ease the way for the democratic republic in the United States.”  Even more important were laws and political practices inherited from an earlier time, some brought to American shores by 17th-century Puritans, others codified by the Revolutionary generation in the structure of American federalism and the specific features of the U. S. Constitution.  More important still were what Tocqueville labeled “mores,” by which he meant “the whole range of intellectual and moral dispositions that men bring to the state of society.”  In sketching the latter, Tocqueville described Americans as acquisitive and materialistic, independent-minded, individualistic, rationally self-interested, and religious.

Clearly, this does not boil down to a conclusion that “it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work,” as Eric Metaxas curiously insists in his recent summary of Democracy in America.  But rather than leave it at that, we need to dig deeper into what Tocqueville actually believed about American Christianity.  It’s in Tocqueville’s description of the role of religious belief in Jacksonian America that the casual reader will most likely be led astray.  Why is this?

The main reason is that, when it comes to the Frenchman’s views on American Christianity, there are really two Tocquevilles.  There’s the Tocqueville who underscores the importance of Christianity to American democracy, and the Tocqueville who raises questions about the influence of democracy on American Christianity.  This is a historical problem, obviously, in that it makes it harder for us to figure out what Tocqueville is actually saying.  But there’s a sense in which it’s also a moral problem.  All things equal, we—and here I mean Christian readers—will like the first Tocqueville better.  The first Tocqueville pats us on the back, tells us that democracy can’t survive without us, and hands us any number of effective quotes to hit our unbelieving neighbors over the head with.  The second Tocqueville is a less pleasant conversation partner.  He’s less impressed with American Christianity and seems to suggest that there was a fair amount of conforming to the world among Jacksonian-era believers.

Put simply, the first Tocqueville congratulates us, the second wants to convict us. Because of this, Democracy in America lays bare one of the great temptations that we face when we study history: the temptation to use the past as ammunition rather than learn from it and be changed by it.  Consciously or unconsciously, we’ll be inclined to highlight the passages that reinforce what we already believe (or want to believe) and tune out the inconvenient parts that don’t advance our agendas.  With regard to Democracy in America, if we’re not careful we’ll be all ears for the Tocqueville we want to hear and deaf to the Tocqueville we may need to hear.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.  The word "individualism first appeared in the English language in this book.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838.

Let’s start with the first Tocqueville, the one who many American Christians will be glad to listen to.  Without doubt, Democracy in America offers one of the most eloquent arguments for the importance of religious belief to political liberty ever penned.  The “spirit of freedom” and the “spirit of faith” were intimately intertwined in America, Tocqueville maintained, and it was no coincidence that the United States was simultaneously “the most enlightened and the freest” of nations and “the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls.”  There was a general principle at work: democracies need religion if they are to survive and flourish.

Let’s review his reasoning: One of Tocqueville’s greatest concerns was what he called the “tyranny of the majority.”  “The people rule in the American political realm as God rules the universe,” Tocqueville found, and with this unchallenged popular power came the potential to abuse the politically vulnerable.  When Tocqueville spoke of tyranny, he meant not simply absolute power—which he often referred to as despotism—but rather the exercise of power that resulted in oppression or injustice.  “In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise . . . from their weakness, but from their strength,” he reflected.  “I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny.”

And yet—and this is the crucial observation that so intrigued Tocqueville—the American majority did not fully utilize its power to oppress the minority.  Acknowledging the enormous exception of southern slavery, Tocqueville believed that, on the whole, in America the potential for injustice vastly exceeded its actual extent.  To use Tocqueville’s terminology, in America the majority was omnipotent but not tyrannical.  Why was this, Tocqueville wondered?

Here is where mores come in.  Americans, Tocqueville found, had inculcated “habits of restraint” that, becoming second nature, reminded them daily in conscious and unconscious ways that not everything you have the power to do is good to do.  Some of these “habits of restraint” were expressions of what Tocqueville called “the doctrine of self-interest properly understood,” which I wrote about in a previous post.  Americans had learned that denying themselves short-term pleasures often maximized their long-term well-being.  This helped to create “a multitude of citizens who are disciplined, temperate, moderate, prudent, and self-controlled.”

But Americans’ religious beliefs were also a crucial source of these “habits of restraint.”  In the United States “Christianity reigns without obstacles,” he observed, which is why

No one in the United States has dared to profess the maxim that everything is allowed in the interests of society, an impious maxim apparently invented in an age of freedom in order to legitimate every future tyrant.  Thus, while the law allows the American people to do everything, there are things which religion prevents them from imagining and forbids them to dare.

This contribution was so critical that Tocqueville concluded that, although “religion . . . never intervenes directly in the government of American society,” it nevertheless functioned as “the first of their political institutions.”  If religion did not give Americans “their taste for liberty,” he concluded, “it does notably facilitate their use of that liberty.”  Yes, we like this Tocqueville.

But what about the second Tocqueville, the one that’s far less reassuring?  Let’s listen to him for a while.  To begin, it’s important to note that Tocqueville’s focus was always on the external, political consequences of religious belief in America.  He commented on American religion in much the same way that a political scientist or sociologist would. This meant, among other things, that he overtly declined to say whether he thought Americans’ religious beliefs were either true or genuine—“for who can read the bottom of men’s hearts?”—although he did hazard the conviction that “hypocrisy must be common.”

Whether Christianity was true or American Christians’ faith was authentic were both irrelevant for his purposes.  “Though it matters a great deal to each individual that his religion be true,” he explained, “that is not the case for society.  Society has nothing to fear from the other life, and nothing to hope for, and what matters most to it is not so much that all citizens profess the true religion as that each citizen profess some religion.”

Tocqueville LettersAnd yet in private moments Tocqueville revealed considerable skepticism of American Christianity.  In Democracy in America Tocqueville recalled that “it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention.”  But in his personal letters home he shared considerable misgivings about what he was observing.  Less than two months into his stay, he shared his reservations in a lengthy report to an old family friend.  “I even doubt that religious opinions hold as much sway as I originally thought they did.”

Americans were admittedly very strict in their observance of the Sabbath, and Tocqueville saw numerous other examples of external religious zeal, but he remained unconvinced.  “Unless I’m sadly mistaken, these external forms conceal a reservoir of doubt and indifference,” he conjectured.  “Faith is obviously inert,” he went on.  “What was once a strong impulse is growing feebler by the day.  Enter any church (I refer to the protestant kind) and you will hear sermons about morals; not one word about dogma—nothing at all likely to fluster one’s neighbor or awaken the idea of dissent.”   The conclusion to the young Frenchman was clear: “On the whole, religion doesn’t move people to the depth of their soul.”

Tocqueville was more circumspect about what he shared in public, but he still peppered Democracy in America with observations that should give us pause.  For example, even while emphasizing the compatibility between Christianity and political liberty, Tocqueville hinted that Americans had so conflated the two that they tended to support Christianity as an expression of patriotism.

“In the United States, religion never ceases to warm itself at patriotism’s hearth,” he observed.  He spoke with numerous missionaries to the American West during his journey and found that “eternity is only one of their concerns.” Carrying Christianity to the frontier was one means of spreading American values and protecting America’s borders.  “If you were to question these missionaries of Christian civilization,” he related, “you would be quite surprised to . . . find politicians where you had thought there were only men of religion.”

This emphasis on Christianity’s earthly benefits was widespread, according to Tocqueville:

American preachers refer to this world constantly and, indeed, can avert their eyes from it only with the greatest of difficulty.  Seeking to touch their listeners all the more effectively, they are forever pointing out how religious beliefs foster liberty and public order, and in listening to them it is often difficult to tell whether the chief object of religion is to procure eternal happiness in the other world or well-being in this one.

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

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

In Tocqueville’s view, Americans had effectively married the “doctrine of self-interest properly understood” with their commitments to Christianity.  Not only did they “adhere to their religion out of self-interest,” but the self-interest they had in mind was as much about earthly benefit as heavenly reward.

It is no coincidence that Tocqueville uses his observation on American preachers referring constantly to this world as a segue into his chapter “On the Taste for Material Well-Being in America.”  The central theme of that chapter is that “love of well-being has become the national and dominant taste, and a sub-theme is that Americans have combined the passion for well-being with religious sentiment, with the result that “the people want to be as well off as possible in this world without renouncing their chances in the next.”

Finally, we need to listen to Tocqueville’s observations about American Christianity in light of what he has to share about American values more broadly.  Tocqueville tells us that Christianity “reigns” in America “by universal consent,” but he also tells us that Americans’ near universal motive is self-interest, that they are skeptical of any authority (even within the church) not granted by the people themselves, and that there is “no other country where the love of money occupies as great a place in the hearts of men.”  What are we to make of this?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

In the end, I think we need to listen to both Tocquevilles, the one that underscores the centrality of faith to freedom and the one that reminds us that political influence doesn’t always go hand in hand with spiritual vitality.

I’ll be back in a bit with some concluding thoughts on “America is great because she is good.”

TOCQUEVILLE ON THE AMERICAN CHARACTER: PART FOUR OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

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?

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

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.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville's classic, published in 1838.  The word "individualism first appeared in the English language in this book.

Title Page of the first American edition of Tocqueville’s classic, published in 1838. The word “individualism” first appeared in the English language in this book.

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”?

THE DANGER OF RELIGIOUS ALLIANCES WITH SECULAR POWER–A TIMELY WARNING FROM A LONG TIME AGO

It was a glorious afternoon in Wheaton and I took advantage of the perfect weather to spend several hours at St. James Farm, a former horse and dairy farm that is now a 600-acre public forest preserve.  I took a cold drink and my copy of Democracy in America and had a grand time.

I’ll return in a day or two to my series on the aphorism “America is great because America is good,” but I was so struck by a passage from Tocqueville on a different subject—in this case, lines that the Frenchman actually wrote—that I had to share them with you right away.  The passage in question comes from a section in vol. I titled “On the Principal Causes of Religion’s Power in America.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville begins by noting that European philosophers had been predicting since the eighteenth century that religious zeal would inevitably fade as liberty and enlightenment increased.  The opposite pattern seemed to hold in America, however.  In America Tocqueville found “the freest, most enlightened men living in the happiest circumstances to be found anywhere in the world,” and yet religion also seemed to flourish.  “When I arrived in the United States,” he relates, “it was the country’s religious aspect that first captured my attention.”

Surprised by this discovery, Tocqueville interviewed a variety of clergymen about what he had discerned, and “to a man, they assigned primary credit for the peaceful ascendancy of religion in their country to the complete separation of church and state.”  This prompted him to ask further questions about the role that the clergy played in America.  “As I listened,” Tocqueville related,

I learned that in God’s eyes no one is damnable for his political views so long as those views are sincere, and that there is no more sin in erring about matters of government than in being mistaken about how to build a house or plow a furrow.

Interesting.  Tocqueville continues,

I saw them [the clergy] carefully mark their distance from, and avoid contact with, all parties as zealously as it if were a matter of personal interest.

In the rest of the chapter, Tocqueville compares religion’s great vitality in the United States with its moribund state in France and explains the difference by comparing the separation of church and state that existed in the United States with the close alliance of church and state that had characterized France prior to the French Revolution.  When French advocates of political liberty had struck at the French monarchy, they had naturally seen the Catholic Church as an ally of the Crown and an enemy of the cause of freedom.  He then generalizes,

When religion allies itself with a political power, it increases its power over some but gives up hope of reigning over all.  As long as a religion rests solely on sentiments that console man in his misery, it can win the affection of the human race.  But when it embraces the bitter passions of this world, it may be forced to defend allies acquired through interest rather than love, and it must reject as adversaries men who love it still even as they do battle with its allies.  Religion cannot share the material might of those who govern without incurring some of the hatred they inspire. . . . But when religion seeks the support of worldly interests, it becomes almost as fragile as any temporal power.  Alone, it can hope for immortality; linked to ephemeral powers, it shares their fortune and often falls with the fleeting passions that sustain them.

I don’t know about you, but when Tocqueville writes of Christians being “forced to defend allies acquired through interest rather than love,” my mind goes to the awkward (and I believe horribly misguided) alliance of evangelicals with Donald Trump.  Tocqueville believed that such an alliance had greatly weakened the spiritual influence of French Christians.  “In Europe,” he writes.

Christianity allowed itself to become the close ally of temporal powers.  Today those powers are collapsing, and Christianity finds itself buried, as it were, beneath their debris.  A living thing, it has been lashed to cadavers.

Democracy in America is not Scripture and Alexis de Tocqueville was not a prophet, yet this passage has me wondering what long-term effect evangelical leaders’ support for Donald Trump will have on the Church’s witness to a lost world.

St James Farm II

USING TOCQUEVILLE TO SELL YOGURT

The last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking out loud with you about the most famous lines from Democracy in America that Alexis de Tocqueville  never wrote.

Alexis de Tocqueville did NOT observe that “America is great because America is good,” but that has not stopped a host of politicians and pundits from putting those words in his mouth.  The line has been a favorite of speechwriters since the Eisenhower administration.  Just last week Hillary Clinton worked it into her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, and on the Republican side of things, Eric Metaxas claimed in his just-released book If You Can Keep It that the line is a “brilliant summation” of Tocqueville’s belief.  The claim seems to be everywhere.

Am I imagining things, or are there echoes of Tocqueville’s spurious declaration in Chobani’s new ad campaign timed to coincide with the summer Olympics?  Kudos to my daughter Callie for noticing the ad below at the supermarket yesterday.

Notice the slogan. Despite Chobani's claims to the contrary, it does not come from Alexis de Tocqueville's oft-forgotten work "Greek Yogurt in America."

Notice the slogan. Despite Chobani’s claims to the contrary, it does not come from Alexis de Tocqueville’s oft-forgotten work “Greek Yogurt in America.”

 

 

GOD’S GRACE OR AMERICAN GOODNESS? PART THREE OF “AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”

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

“AMERICA IS GREAT BECAUSE SHE IS GOOD”—PART TWO

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

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:

Hillary Clinton II“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.

Back soon.