Sunday, September 11, 2011

Democracy in America - Alexis de Tocqueville

Selections from Alexis de Tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859) was the author of the renowned study Democracy in America. His book became the means through which he became famous as a social philosopher and historian. This French statesman of noble birth grew up with a profound sense of the epochal, transitional character of his era. His aunt and grandfather were guillotined during the French Revolution and his father imprisoned during the bloody reign of terror. His father’s hair had gone completely white although he was only twenty-four years old when released from prison.

In May of 1831, Alex de Tocqueville with his companion and friend Gustave de Beaumont arrived in New York. Officially, the twenty-five year old French statesman was on a government mission to examine the prisons in America. Their families paid for the trip and not the French government. Hence, their real purpose on this adventure was to analyze the fledgling American nation as a framework for proposals for the advancement of liberty in France. These two companions traveled seven thousand miles in nine months. They conducted hundreds of interviews and compiled fourteen notebooks of information before returning to France. Among the illustrious men whom they interviewed was Charles Carroll secretary of the Continental Congress – the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. John Quincy Adams was also among the celebrated men whom they interviewed. Upon returning to France, the first volume of Democracy in America was published in1835 while the second volume was published in 1840.

Democracy in America has been described as “the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the relationship between the character and society in America that has ever been written.”

These two books are among the most quoted books written about America. They are among the best most accurate penetrating comprehensive studies of the fledgling nation of the America. De Tocqueville, a Roman Catholic, visited America during a deeply devout era of a nation which was predominantly Protestant. His personal testimony of the importance of faith and freedom in American democracy is compelling and most fascinating. His personal observations are not merely descriptions of American democracy. His book is a tribute to ‘democracy as destiny’ but also a most observant warning. Democratic freedom is both unstable and volatile and is inclined to collapse into statism or individualism.

The framers of the American Republic were not unanimous about precisely how faith and freedom were to be well-arranged in the public arena. It is extraordinary that a unity between faith and freedom emerged which was observed and recorded by de Tocqueville. The order between faith and freedom, as de Tocqueville saw it, was decisive and distinctive.

Freedom needs to be constrained and channeled through the influences of education, family, associational life and the precepts of the Christian religion. The vitality and stability of democracy is nurtured through the important relationship between faith and freedom.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a yardstick of how the fledgling republic grew and developed 50 years after the ratification of the Constitution.

Separation of Church and State

“It was religion that gave birth to the English colonies in America. One must never forget that. In the United States religion is mingled with all the national customs and all those feelings which the word fatherland evokes. For that reason it has peculiar power.”
“There is another circumstance equally potent in its influence. In America religion has, if one may put it so, defined its own limits. There the structure of religious life has remained entirely distinct from the political organization. It has therefore been easy to change ancient laws without shaking the foundations of ancient beliefs…”
“On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. My desire to discover the causes of this phenomenon increased from day to day. In order to satisfy it I questioned the members of all the different sects; I sought especially the society of the clergy, who are the depositories of the different creeds and are especially interested in their duration. As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I was more particularly brought into contact with several of its priests, with whom I became intimately acquainted. To each of these men I expressed my astonishment and explained my doubts. I found that they differed upon matter of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point…”
“I have said enough to put the character of Anglo-American civilization in its true light. It is the result (and this should be constantly kept in mind) of two distinct elements, which the Americans have succeeded in incorporating to some extent one with the other and combining admirably. I allude to the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty."

Influential Because Indirect

“The imaginations of the Americans, even in its greatest flights, is circumspect and undecided; its impulses are checked and its works unfinished. These habits of restraint recur in political society and are singularly favorable both to the tranquility of the people and to the durability of the institutions they have established. Nature and circumstances have made the inhabitants of the United States bold, as is sufficiently attested by the enterprising spirit with which they seek for fortune. If the mind of the Americans were free from all hindrances they would shortly become the most daring innovators and the most persistent disputants in the world. But the revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their designs; nor would they find it easy to surmount the scruples of their partisans even if they were able to get over their own. Hitherto no one in the United States has dared to advance the maxim that everything is permissible for the interests of society, an impious adage which seems to have been invented in an age of freedom to shelter all future tyrants. Thus, while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit what is rash or unjust.”

“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for it does not only impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion – but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society…”
“For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other; it is not a question with them of sterile beliefs bequeathed by the past and vegetating rather than living in the depths of the soul…”
“I have remarked that the American clergy in general, without even excepting those who do not admit religious liberty, are all in favor of civil freedom; but they do not support any particular political system. They keep aloof from parties and from public affairs. In the United States religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and by regulating domestic life, it regulates the states…”
“I have just pointed out the direction of religion on politics in the United States. Its indirect action seems to me much greater still, and it is just when it is not speaking of freedom at all that it is best teaches the Americans the art of being free.”
“There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States. They are all different in the worship they offer to the Creator, but all agree concerning the duties of men to one another. Each sect worships God in its own fashion, but all preach the same morality in the name of God. Though it is very important for man as an individual that his religion should be true, that is not the case for society.’ Society has nothing to fear or hope from another life; what is most important for it is not that all citizens should profess the true religion but that they should profess religion. Moreover, all the sects in the United States belong to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same…”
“I do not doubt for an instant that the great severity of mores which one notices in the United States has its primary origin in beliefs. There religion is often powerless to restrain men in the midst of innumerable temptations which fortune offers. It cannot moderate their eagerness to enrich themselves, which everything contributes to arouse, but it reigns supreme in the souls of the women, and it is women who shape mores. Certainly of all countries in the world America is the one in which the marriage tie is most respected and where the highest and truest conception of conjugal happiness has been conceived…”
“Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in the republic they advocate than in the monarchy they attack, and in democratic republics most of all. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”
“By their practice Americans show that they feel the urgent necessity to instill morality into democracy by means of religion. What they think of themselves in this respect enshrines a truth which should penetrate deep into the consciousness of every democratic nation.”

Religious Freedom and American  Democracy

"Every religion has some political opinion linked to it by affinity. The spirit of man, left to follow its bent, will regulate political society and the City of God in uniform fashion; it will, if I dare put it so, seek to harmonize earth with heaven."

"Most of English America was peopled by men who, having shaken off the pope's authority, acknowledged no other religious supremacy; they therefore brought to the New World a Christianity which I can only describe as democratic and republican; this fact singularly favored the establishment of a temporal republic and democracy. From the start politics and religion agreed, and they have not since ceased to do so..."
"Religion perceives that civil liberty affords a noble exercise to the faculties of man and that the political world is a field prepared by the Creator for the efforts of the mind. Free and powerful in its own sphere, satisfied with the place reserved for it, religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength."
"Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs, as the cradle of its infancy and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom."
"When a religion seeks to found its sway only on the longing for immorality equally tormenting every human heart, it can aspire to universality, but when it comes to uniting itself with a government, it must adopt maxims which apply only to certain nations. Therefore, by allying itself with any political power, religion increases its strength over some but forfeits the hope of reigning over all."
Habits of the Heart

"I have previously remarked that the manners of the people may be considered as one of the greatest general causes to which the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States is attributable. I here use the word customs with the meaning which the ancients attached to the word mores; for I apply it not only to manners properly so called - that is, to what might be termed the habits of the heart - but the various notions and opinions current among men and to the mass of those ideas which constituted their character of mind..."
"The customs of the Americans of the United States are then, the peculiar cause which renders that people the only one of the American nations that is able to support a democratic government; and it is the influence of customs that produces the different degrees of order and prosperity which may be distinguished in the several Anglo-American democracies. Thus the effort which the geographical position of a country may have  upon the democratic institutions is exaggerated in Europe. Too much importance is attributed to legislation, too little to customs. These three great causes serve, no doubt, to relegate and direct American democracy, but if they were to be classed by their proper order, I should say that physical circumstances are less efficient than the laws, and the laws infinitely less so than the customs of the people. I am convinced that the most advantageous situation and the best possible laws cannot maintain a constitution in spite of the customs of a country; while the latter may turn to some advantage the most unfavorable positions and the worst laws. The importance of customs is a common truth to which study and experience incessantly direct our attention. It may be regarded as a central point in the range of observation, and the common termination of all my inquiries. So seriously do I insist upon this head that, if I have hitherto failed in making the reader feel the important influence of the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, the customs of the Americans upon the maintenance of their institutions, I have failed in the principal object of my work."

Further observations which de Tocqueville declared:

“In the United States the sovereign authority is religious,…there is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”
“In the United States the influence of religion is not confined to the manners but it extends to the intelligence of the people…Christianity, therefore reigns without obstacle, by universal consent, the consequence is, as I have before observed, that every principle of the moral world is fixed and determinate.”
“The safeguard of morality is religion and morality is the best security of law as well as the surest pledge of freedom.”
“Christianity is the companion of liberty in all its conflicts-the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims.”
“They brought with them…a form of Christianity, to which I cannot better describe, than by styling it a democratic and republican religion…From the earliest settlement of the emigrants, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved.”

Alex de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont traveled through Chester County, New York in 1831. There, they observed a court case in which de Tocqueville wrote:

“While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (state of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all confidence of the court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment. The New York Spectator of August 23d, 1831, relates the fact in the following terms:
“The court of common pleas of Chester County (New York), a few days since rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God. The presiding judge remarked, that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction of all testimony in a court of justice: and that he knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.”

No comments: