Here Is the Real Message of De Tocqueville's Democracy in America

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Here Is the Real Message of De Tocqueville's Democracy in America


Yes, this conservative understands de Tocqueville! Does Joshua Mitchell understand him is a more appropriate question ("Do conservatives really understand de Tocqueville? Jan. 11."

There is a strident group of writers who diligently avoid reporting the true source of America's strength. Mr. Mitchell seems to be among them. De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" has less to say about democracy, as we understand it today, than about the genesis of the spirit that gave rise to the success of our Republic. It tells us about educating for individual self-government which is prerequisite for effective local, state and federal government. Mr. Mitchell misses an opportunity to inform his readers that the way out of our moral mess is a return to the truths de Tocqueville reported.

In the early years of our Republic, the wonder of the civility, industriousness, and tranquility of American society was everywhere a topic of conversation in Europe. Curiosity brought de Tocqueville to America. As he tells us, "The cause of their greatness is the object of my inquiry." Then, he says, "Other peoples of America have the same physical conditions of prosperity as the Anglo-Americans, but without their laws and manners; and their people are wretched. The laws and manners of the Anglo-Americans are therefore the efficient cause of their greatness."

The question is, if "the laws and manners are that efficient cause" of America's greatness, from where are the laws and manners derived? Let de Tocqueville answer: "It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States religion is therefore commingled with all the inhabitants of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism; whence it derives a particular force... In America religion has, as it were, laid down its own limits. Religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions... Christianity has therefore retained a strong hold on the public mind in America; and, I would more particularly remark, that its sway is not only that of a philosophical doctrine which has been adopted upon inquiry, but of a religion which is believed without discussion... Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established, that no one undertakes either to attack or defend it... The greatest part of British America... brought with them into the New World a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than by styling it a democratic and republican religion. …

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