As Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings demonstrate, despite its flaws and failings, America remains the best case study for the greatest successes of democracy. This success comes from the ability to integrate—to the point of inseparability—the love of religion and the love of liberty.
Just as the continent of Europe was entering upon its phase of unrelenting monarchical absolutism at the beginnings of the seventeenth century, the American experiment of democratic and free colonization—opposite in almost every respect to the currents of Europe—was beginning. “And at that time these same principles”—such as natural law, natural rights, and natural liberty—“unknown or scorned by European nations, were proclaimed in the wilderness of the New World and became the future creed [a political catechism] of a great people,” Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) marveled. The American colonies, though deeply Protestant, had more in common with medieval liberty than with that of European modernity.
Though diverse, the American colonists had more in common with one another than not. Overwhelmingly Protestant, they also spoke the same language, and “the bond of language is perhaps the strongest and most durable that can unite men,” Tocqueville claimed. Further, the colonists all came from the Reformational troubles of Europe, and they “were all children of the same people.” Finally, the wilderness of North America homogenized the colonists, and “their political education was shaped in this rude school, and you saw more notions of rights, more principles of true liberty spread among them than among most of the peoples of Europe.”
Equally important, the American colonies—both North and South—proved that colonization could happen successfully even when haphazardly planned, or even when there had been a complete lack of planning. Drawing upon the work of Adam Smith, Tocqueville continued, the imperial pursuit of mineral wealth had led to nothing but societal catastrophe. “At this time, Europe was still singularly preoccupied with the idea that mines of gold and silver constituted the wealth of peoples,” Tocqueville claimed. “This destructive idea has done more to impoverish the European nations that embraced it and, in America, has destroyed more men than war and all bad laws put together.”
Each colony, even those founded in slavery, had within it a seed of true and pure democracy.
All the new European colonies contained, if not the development, at least the germ, of a complete democracy. Two causes led to this result. [Among the emigrants, unlike in the old societies of Europe, neither conquerors nor conquered were seen.] It can be said in general, that, at their departure from the mother country, the emigrants had no idea whatsoever of any kind of superiority of some over others. It is hardly the happy and the powerful who go into exile, and poverty as well as misfortune are the best guarantees of equality that are known among men. It happened, however, that on several occasions great lords went to America following political or religious quarrels. Laws were made in order to establish a hierarchy of ranks there, but it was soon noticed that the American soil absolutely rejected territorial aristocracy.
Because America’s origins were so recent and so open, Tocqueville gushed (yes, gushed!), the scholar could actually witness the beginnings and the middle of a country’s life, akin to witnessing the birth and middle age of a human being. America, by its very nature, offered the most “bourgeois and democratic liberty of which the history of the world” had failed to reveal.
Still, one had to take into account the differences of the northern and the southern colonies. The latter, encumbered by the horrific system of slavery, would suffer deeply. Slavery “dishonors work; into society, it introduces idleness, along with ignorance and pride, poverty and luxury,” Tocqueville argued. “It enervates the forces of the mind and puts human activity to sleep. The influence of slavery, combined with the English character, explains the mores and the social state [the character] of the South.”
In contrast, the New England societies were dynamos, setting not only North America, but the world, ablaze with her ideas and her verve. “The principles of New England first spread into neighboring states; then, one by one, they reached the most distant states and finished, if I can express myself in this way, by penetrating the entire confederation. Now they exercise their influence beyond its limits, over the entire American world,” Tocqueville explained. “The civilization of New England has been like those fires kindled on the hilltops that, after spreading warmth around them, light the farthest bounds of the horizon with their brightness.”
New England’s success came from its ability to integrate—to the point of completeness and inseparability—the love of religion, properly understood, and the love of liberty. Indeed, for the Pilgrim and the Puritan, its Calvinism was as much a series of theological tenets as well as political theories and practices. “The founders of New England were at the very same time ardent sectarians and impassioned innovators,” Tocqueville asserted. “Restrained by the tightest bonds of certain religious beliefs, they were free of all political prejudices. [Religion led them to enlightenment; the observance of divine laws brought them to liberty.]” Further,
In the moral world, therefore, everything is classified, coordinated, foreseen, decided in advance. In the political world, everything is agitated, contested, uncertain; in the one, passive though voluntary obedience; in the other, independence, scorn for experience and jealousy of all authority. Far from harming each other, these two tendencies, apparently so opposed, move in harmony and seem to offer mutual support. Religion sees in civil liberty a noble exercise of the faculties of man; in the political world, a field offered by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence. Free and powerful in its sphere, satisfied with the place reserved for it, religion knows that its dominion is that much better established because it rules only by its own strength and dominates hearts without other support. Liberty sees in religion the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its early years, the divine source of its rights. Liberty considers religion as the safeguard of mores, mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration.
Yet, Tocqueville cautioned, one must always take into account the contradictions inherent with any system. Democracy is no exception to the unevenness of human history and experience, and the rich, he feared, obtained more justice in America than the poor.
Despite these flaws and failings, America remained the best case study for the greatest successes of democracy.
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The featured image is “Winter Scene in Brooklyn” (c. 1819–1820) by Francis Guy (1760–1820) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.