Democracy In America

Alexis de Tocqueville was an eminent French representative of the liberal tradition of the mid-1800s. As such he was very active in French politics. He came to America to study the penal system but stayed for some time to study the nation from the perspective of a detached social scientist. His book released in 1835 entitled, “Democracy in America” is considered a classic early work in sociology. It reveals his perspective on the developing nation. These insights into our heritage are worth considering.
His observations led him to conclude America had not embraced socialism or feudalism as in Europe. It was the different attitudes regarding money. In Europe the common people had no hope and therefore no aspiration to gain it. The privileged felt it was their right to have wealth. Their inherited entitlement resulted in lethargy regarding trying to gain it. The ethos in America was different. In America money was an object to be sought. Here the people all felt they could gain wealth through industrious hard work. This resulted in a productive people.
He also wrote of the character of our society.
“Upon 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.”
“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.”
“I sought for the key to the greatness and genius of America in her harbors…; in her fertile fields and boundless forests; in her rich mines and vast world commerce; in her public school system and institutions of learning. I sought for it in the democratic Congress and in her matchless Constitution.
“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 America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Today there is a correlation between the diminution of morality in our present society and the flickering flame in many pulpits. The popular health, wealth, and prosperity version of the gospel has replaced calls for a faith commitment resulting in morality, virtue, and integrity. Personal gain has replaced an appeal for a culture of responsible ethics that benefit all of society. A moral world is rarely addressed.
de Tocqueville wrote of the interrelation between two phases of American life. “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.”
His belief that the two were mutually dependent resulted in this conclusion:
“The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law as well as the surest pledge of freedom.”