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Thursday, October 23, 2008

American Exceptionalism as Seen by de Tocqueville

American Exceptionalism as Seen by de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from France to the United States of America in 1831 to see and understand what a great republic was like and how it functioned.  The book he subsequently wrote, Democracy in America, is considered by many as the best book ever written on democracy and its application in the United States of America.  During his travels, de Tocqueville investigated and made observations on virtually every aspect of life in America.  He concluded that, “America is great because she is good.  If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” 

In fact, de Tocqueville was amazed by the consensus of good that existed in this new land and the willingness of those of both meager and extravagant means to band together in “associations” to address and solve common problems.  He summed it up this way, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations…religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.  The Americans make associations to give entertainments, found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.  If it is proposed to inculcate some truth, or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society.”

In no sense was de Tocqueville naïve.  As an observer from France, he had a perspective that was distinct and unique from that of Americans themselves.  In regard to our shortcomings he said, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”  He saw religion and morality as the keystone of democracy and freedom.  Consider his words, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith,” and these, “Despotism can do without faith, but freedom cannot.”  He wrote of America at that time, “The Americans combine the notions of religion and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.”  And finally on the topic of Christianity he said, “America is…still the place in the world where the Christian religion has most preserved genuine powers over souls; and nothing shows better how useful and natural to man it is in our day, since the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as a Frenchman, he made the following observation on marriage in America, “Of the world’s countries, America is surely the one where the bond of marriage is most respected and where they have conceived the highest and most just idea of conjugal happiness.”

Even in 1831, de Tocqueville understood the danger of big, powerful government.  He wrote, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money,” and “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality.  But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

The United States of America, as de Tocqueville observed, has always been an exceptional nation.  The question is, will it remain so in our lifetime, and for future generations of Americans yet unborn?

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