Tag Archives: democracy

ANDREW JACKSON: ROLE MODEL?

A few more thoughts about Andrew Jackson:

If you were following his itinerary last week, you will know that President Trump visited the grave of the nation’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson, on the way to a political rally in Nashville.  Mr. Trump counts himself “a fan” of Old Hickory, almost certainly not because of anything he has read about the Tennessean, but because adviser Stephen Bannon has convinced his boss that Jackson was an 1830s version of himself.  When Bannon lauds Mr. Trump as “Jacksonian,” he is expressing his wish/hope/vision/agenda that history will remember Trump as a “populist” leader who gave birth to an entirely new and permanent political party.

President Trump pauses after laying a wreath at the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

History will show whether he was right.  But in the meantime, I can’t help worrying about other aspects of the Trump-Jackson analogy.  In his regular column in the Washington Post last Thursday, Wheaton alum Michael Gerson lamented that the president had chosen “a deeply disturbing hero.”  I agree.

I should say at the outset that I am not an expert on Jackson.  The only real archival research I have done that even touches on Jackson remotely was decades ago.  During the summer of my first year in graduate school (not long after fire was invented), Chalmette National Historical Park hired me to conduct research in Tennessee on the role of the Tennessee militia in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.  I spent much of that summer at the Tennessee State Archives and the Hermitage (Jackson’s middle Tennessee plantation), poring over military records and copying—by hand—the muster rolls of Tennesseans who served in the Louisiana campaign.  (FYI: It was no picnic.  Only a handful of Tennessee soldiers became battlefield casualties, but over 10 percent died of disease during the few brief months of their service.  I digress.)

Having confessed this limitation, I’ll say on the other hand that I have been teaching on both Jackson and Jacksonian democracy for thirty years, and on balance I have found Jackson to be more scary than admirable.  Over the weekend my view was reinforced as I read H. W. Brands’ biography Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (Anchor Books, 2005).  Brands is a distinguished historian at the University of Texas, author of twenty-five books, and twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  His take on Jackson is deeply researched, engagingly written, and largely sympathetic.  And yet Jackson’s character flaws leap off the page.

Without doubt, Brands reminds us that Jackson had admirable qualities.  He was unquestionably courageous, had an iron constitution, an indomitable will, and an almost mystical attachment to the nation.  Yet as Brands sketches him, Jackson was also a man of great passion and monumental self-confidence, and throughout his life he found it impossible to believe that anyone who disagreed with him could be motivated by honorable convictions.  Any opposition to his will was always evidence of corruption or cowardice or both.  For example, when his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, was defeated in the presidential election of 1840, Jackson concluded, without evidence, that “Corruption, bribery and fraud has been extended over the whole Union.”  Yes, Jackson was a stalwart champion of popular democracy, but he was also utterly convinced that the people, unless they were misled by dishonest demagogues, would always agree with him.  As Brands puts it, “Jackson never had trouble detecting the authority in the voice of the people when they agreed with him, but when they disagreed . . . he concluded that they had been deceived by the ‘machinations’ and conspiracy’ of the enemies of democracy.”

Just as troubling is Brands’ blunt conclusion that “Jackson rarely respected authority per se.”  Twice during the War of 1812 Jackson, then a general of Tennessee militia, directly disobeyed orders from the Secretary of War.  After the War of 1812 had been concluded, Jackson again ignored express instructions from the War Department and led troops into Florida—which was then part of the Spanish Empire—provoking an international incident with both Spain and England that might easily have led to war.  Jackson captured Pensacola, after first threatening the Spanish governor that if he resisted he would kill every last Spanish soldier.  “I am informed that you have orders to fire on my troops entering the city,” Jackson informed the governor in a note.  “I wish you to understand distinctly that if such orders are carried into effect, I will put to death every man found in arms.”  Back in Washington, Jackson’s superiors recognized his widespread popularity and political utility, and the administration of President James Madison tried to control Jackson’s insubordination without openly rebuking him.  For his part, Jackson claimed to care less about the opinion of the “intermeddling pimps and spies of the War Department.”

Andrew Jackson, in an 1824 portrait by artist Thomas Scully

There is much more that I could add that is troubling, for example:

* Jackson’s enduring admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte, not only when the Corsican was leader of Republican France, but even after he had made himself Emperor;

* the duels Jackson fought and the resulting bullets that he carried in his chest and shoulder for much of his adult life;

* his extensive speculation in real estate and penchant for making what would be, in today’s money, six-figure bets on his race horses;

* his advertisement offering a $50 reward for a runaway slave and promise of “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred” (a punishment that would have almost certainly ended in the fugitive’s death); and

* his advice to his nephew, then a cadet at West Point, that if a superior should ever attempt “either to strike or kick you, put him to instant death.”

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Mr. Trump could find a better role model.

SETTING THE STAGE: THE MAYFLOWER COMPACT

The distinguished Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison once observed, “One price the Pilgrims have to pay for their popularity is the attribution to them of many things or trends popular now, but of which they knew nothing and cared less.” A case in point would be the popular belief that the Pilgrims brought with them a commitment to republican self-government, or even democracy. That we might think so is almost entirely due to the so-called “Mayflower Compact,” a document that we have loaded with far more significance than it should be made to shoulder.

On the same day that the Mayflower first dropped anchor near Cape Cod in November of 1620, forty-one adult males gathered in the ship’s great cabin and affixed their signatures to a 153-word statement. The text was set forth in an obscure 1622 pamphlet known as Mourt’s Relation, and although it was little thought of or referred to for the next century and a half, the day would come when many Americans would remember it as one of the nation’s founding documents, almost in the same category as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It read as follows:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France and Ireland Kind, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and honor of our king and country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, offices from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

“The Pilgrims Signing the Compact, on Board the Mayflower,” engraving after a painting by Tompkins Matteson, 1859.

We have tended to read this pledge selectively, zeroing in on the parts where the signers commit to form “a civil body politic” and agree to formulate “just and equal laws . . . for the general good of the colony.” Having recognized what looks to be a familiar feature in the Compact, we then often extrapolate with abandon, imputing to the Pilgrims values that belong in our world, not theirs. In reality, there appear to have been at least three motives behind the creation of the Compact, none of which involved a philosophical commitment to the right of self-government.

To begin with, there is reason to believe that the Pilgrims always expected that they would need to choose their own leaders in the initial stage of their colonial venture. At the same time, it also appears that they understood that this practice might be temporary—an aberration more than a right. In a letter that he wrote to his congregants just before their departure from England, the Pilgrims pastor in Leiden, John Robinson, seemed to take for granted that the passengers of the Mayflower would soon “become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government.” He exhorted his departing friends to show their civil governors “all due honor and obedience,” given that the magistrate bears “the image of the Lord’s power and authority.” They should be able to do this all the more willingly, he concluded, “because you are at least for the present to have only them [as your civil officers] which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.” The time might come, in other words, when the king would exercise his lawful prerogative to appoint governors over them.

A second factor stemmed from the simple fact that the Pilgrims would be settling outside the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company. King James had granted to that company the authority to coordinate colonial ventures along a portion of the Atlantic seaboard, and the Virginia Company, in turn, had granted to the Pilgrims a patent to settle in a particular portion of their recognized domain. By choosing a location beyond the boundaries of the company’s authority, it was quite possible that they were committing an illegal act in the eyes of the Crown. Hence it is no accident that the Compact begins with a description of the signatories as “the loyal subjects of our dread sovereign lord, King James.” They were covering themselves, in other words, by assuring James of their unquestioned loyalty. Furthermore, it is worth noting that they identify James as their king not by virtue of their consent, but “by the grace of God.” This puts the Mayflower Compact closer to an affirmation of the divine right of kings than of the right of self-rule.

Finally, both Mourt’s Relation and William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation make clear that a third factor prompting the creation of the Compact was a potential revolt brewing among a subset of the passengers. Bradford frankly admitted that the Compact was “occasioned partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers amongst them had let fall from them in the ship.” These dissidents were saying that they would do whatever they pleased when they arrived, as the Pilgrims’ patent applied only to Virginia, not to New England.

Picking up on Bradford’s candid admission, some historians have reduced the Mayflower Compact to little more than a power grab by the Leiden saints, a calculated effort to keep the non-Separatist “strangers” in line. This goes too far, in my opinion, but so does the insistence of Plymouth’s Pilgrim Hall Museum that the Mayflower Compact is “an early example of democracy in America” that has “remained an inspiration since 1620.” If so, it curiously left little mark on Plymouth itself. An early voting list from 1643 shows that less than half of the colony’s adult males were eligible to vote. (All women were excluded, of course, “as both reason and nature teacheth they should be.”)

In truth, the widespread acceptance of democracy—the unchallenged right of the people to rule—was still a good two centuries away, and to credit the Pilgrims with a democratic ethos is anachronistic in the extreme. The men and women who celebrated a bountiful harvest in the fall of 1621 had many virtues: they were devout, courageous, and determined. They just weren’t democratic.

TOCQUEVILLE ON TUESDAY’S RESULT

Count me among those who are still reeling from the outcome of Tuesday’s election.   Eventually, I want to write about what it all means, but I’ve got to do a lot of thinking.  Our social-media-driven age demands instant analyses—the simpler and shallower the better—and as Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has observed, almost the only response that’s unacceptable is the plea for more time to think and ponder and reflect before pronouncing.  I don’t care.

For now, all I can do is share what I read in my notes this morning from the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I spent much of the past summer with that nineteenth-century Frenchman.  I read three biographies about him, devoured his letters from America, and lingered for weeks over his two-volume classic Democracy in America, surely the most trenchant conservative assessment of American politics ever penned.

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

Alexis de Tocqueville, circa 1850

As a historian, I believe there are many good reasons to pay attention to the past, but one of the most important of those is the possibility of entering into a life-changing conversation about perennial human questions—“a conversation with the dead about what we should value and how we should live.”  Alexis de Tocqueville needs to be one of our conversation partners. He has much to say to us, if we are willing to listen.  And we do stand in need of a distinctively conservative critique, given that neither major party in America today is either able or inclined to offer one.

So what would Tocqueville think about the outcome of Tuesday’s election?  I’d be blowing smoke to say that I know for sure.  But below are some observations that Tocqueville shared after his visit to the United States in 1830-1831.  I find them eerily prescient.  You can read them and decide for yourself.

  • “Generally speaking, only simple conceptions can grip the mind of a nation. An idea that is clear and precise even though false will always have greater power in the world than an idea that is true but complex.”
  • “What democracy lacks . . . is not always the capacity to choose men of merit but the desire and taste to do so. . . . I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion. Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”
  • “Our contemporaries are constantly wracked by two warring passions: they feel the need to be led and the desire to remain free. Unable to destroy either of these contrary instincts, they seek to satisfy both at once.  They imagine a single, omnipotent, tutelary power, but one that is elected by the citizens. . . .  They console themselves for being treated as wards by imagining that they have chosen their own protectors.”
  • “For my part, I own that I have no confidence in the spirit of liberty which seems to animate my contemporaries. I see plainly that the nations of this age are turbulent, but it is not clear to me that they are freedom loving.”

Your thoughts?

ABRAHAM LINCOLN ON THE CHOICES BEFORE US

“Think of your forefathers!  Think of your posterity!”–John Quincy Adams

constitution

In his 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, a young Abraham Lincoln told his audience that the most serious threat to America’s political institutions did not come from a foreign invader.  “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected?” he asked.  “If destruction be our lot,” Lincoln warned, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher.  As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln grounded his argument on three main points:

1) The “strongest bulwark” of our democratic form of government is “the attachment of the People.”

2) Free government is never more vulnerable than when the public has concluded it cannot, or will not, protect them and champion their interests.  In such an environment, the majority may eventually conclude—recklessly, emotionally—that any change is better than no change since “they imagine they have nothing to lose.”

3) Such a negative environment is fertile ground for tyranny.  Ambitious individuals will inevitably arise from time to time, individuals who will “thirst for distinction” and who will attain it, if possible, at whatever cost.  When such a figure arises, “it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.”  When these attributes are not in place, the people may actually embrace the future tyrant and become active agents in their own downfall.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

This is the earliest known picture of Lincoln, taken in 1846, eight years after he addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois.

So how do we guard against such an outcome?  Key to Lincoln’s prescription was his realization that popular attachment to the government is not just something that happens when government does its job.  Lincoln insisted instead that attachment to the government is a political quality that the American people must constantly, consciously cultivate.  “How shall we fortify against” the loss of faith in government, Lincoln asked?  We do so, he maintained, by promoting respect for the rule of law and by replacing passion in the public square with reason.

“Every lover of liberty” should swear to honor the law, Lincoln lectured his lyceum audience.  The people should purpose to make “reverence for the laws . . . the political religion of the nation.”  This didn’t mean blind submission to every government edict, but it did a mindset that patiently addresses injustice within the rule of law, working to alleviate ills without violating the Constitutional forms necessary for liberty to flourish over the long run.

In addition to inculcating such “reverence,” Lincoln called on his audience to promote rationality.  Popular passions may have played a role during the American Revolution, Lincoln admitted, when the patriots of 1776 labored to establish liberty.  But passion is actually an obstacle to ordering and sustaining liberty, Lincoln maintained.   Repeatedly, Lincoln directed his audience to passion as the “enemy” of those who would live by the rule of law.  He speaks of “mob law,” the “mobocratic spirit, “the growing disposition to substitute the cold and furious passions” in the place of “sober judgment.”

Passion “will in future be our enemy,” Lincoln concluded, precisely because, when combined with a loss of “attachment” to the government, it leaves the public ripe for exploitation by the ambitious demagogue who “thirsts for distinction” and will do all within his power to attain it, “whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”

So what would Lincoln think of the 2016 presidential campaign?  Who knows.  But you don’t have to go too far out on a limb to conclude that he’d think we’re in danger.  What did he say is the greatest bulwark of our political institutions?  The attachment of the people to the government.  What did he conclude is one of the foremost obstacles to liberty?  A people guided by passion rather than reason.   And what should we look for when a people driven by passion lose faith in their government?  Danger.

Americans have no good choices when they go to the polls next Tuesday.  Through her own apparent dishonesty and dissembling, Secretary Clinton has done her fair share to engender popular disillusionment with the career politicians in Washington and thus weaken “the attachment of the people.”  But what Clinton has accomplished inadvertently, Donald Trump seeks to do intentionally, actively fueling contempt for government while channeling our darkest passions.  Fear and resentment, however justified, do not make a sustainable basis for democracy, but they can propel a demagogue to political power.

US-VOTE-CLINTON-TRUMP

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.”

“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.

A WARNING FROM THE PAST TO REPUBLICAN CONVENTION DELEGATES

Some more timely food for thought from Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.  As I meditated on the passages below, I couldn’t help but think about next week’s Republican gathering in Cleveland and its likely outcome.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

Tocqueville posed for this portrait around 1850, nearly two decades after his American odyssey.

To remind you, Tocqueville was a sympathetic critic of American democracy, and the two-volume work that he penned after his visit to the United States in 1831-1832 is widely hailed as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society.”  Among other things, he called attention to the dangers of excessive individualism and materialism in a democratic culture, identified the ever-present potential of the “tyranny of the majority,” and underscored the crucial importance of religious belief to the success of America’s democratic system.

The quotes below come from a section in volume I on the topic of “The People’s Choices and the Instinctive Preferences of American Democracy” (vol. I, part II, chapter 5).  Writing primarily for a French audience, Tocqueville began by noting that many Europeans assumed that one of the advantages of democracy is that free elections based on universal suffrage reliably selects individuals “worthy of public trust” into important public offices.  “For my part,” Tocqueville confessed, “I must say that what I saw in America gave me no reason to believe that this is the case.”

In the rest of this brief section the Frenchman theorized as to why this was true.  On the one hand, he reasoned, making wise decisions between alternative candidates required “enlightenment,” i.e., informed voters.  “Enlightenment” was not simply a euphemism for intelligence or education.  Tocqueville thought it depended primarily on the amount of time that voters were either able or willing to devote to educating themselves on the issues of a campaign and the strength and weaknesses of the rival candidates.  Regarding the latter, he noted, “What a lengthy period of study and variety of ideas are necessary to form an exact idea of the character of a single man!  The greatest geniuses fail at this, yet the multitude is supposed to succeed!”

Maybe even more important than this, according to Tocqueville, was a vice that democratic society seems to nurture: envy.  So strong was the passion for equality in America’s democratic society, Tocqueville believed, that democratic Americans detested all appearances of superiority among other Americans, up to an including those they elected to office.  “No form of superiority is so legitimate that the sight of it is not wearisome to their eyes,” Tocqueville observed.  “They do not fear great talents but have little taste for them.”

And the consequences of this mindset for American government?  “There is no escaping the fact that in the United States today the most outstanding men are seldom called to public office.”  This was partly due to the votes that the electorate cast on election day, but it also reflected a pattern by which the most qualified individuals refused to become candidates.  And why was this, Tocqueville asked?

While the natural instincts of democracy lead the people to banish distinguished men from power, an instinct no less powerful leads distinguished men to shun careers in politics, in which it is so very difficult to remain entirely true to oneself or to advance without self-abasement.

The bottom line for Tocqueville: “I am satisfied that anyone who looks upon universal suffrage as a guarantee of good choices is operating under a total illusion.  Universal suffrage has other advantages, but not that one.”

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.