We’re living a strange time in American history, and I don’t just mean the coronavirus era, I mean, the past twenty-thirty years. It seems that our overall appreciation as Americans of America has dwindled to nothing—-or even beyond nothing to disdain for our own country. Animosity between “groups” has grown and there seems to be an every growing disrespect for justice and law. Americans today are grossly uninformed and misinformed when it comes to politics and government, leading to an ever increasing flippancy and irresponsibility towards the treasure of liberty that we have.
Respect for justice and law, love of our country, vigilance in self-governance, and responsibility for our liberty are all unique and treasured traits that are quintessentially American. And there is no shame in calling certain traits American. Every culture has certain distinctive elements that make them unique and these are a few of ours.
So, I decided revisit this older post today to remind everyone what it really means to be an American. Sometimes we have to stop and remind ourselves why we love this country so much. Much like my recent post on George Washington, I’m going to remind us of what it means to be American by referencing a historical figure’s understanding of Americans.
Truly, who better to help remind us than Alexis de Tocqueville?
You’re going to see America through his eyes today. Read what he said about this country and reflect on what still exists of the value he saw. Then consider if we can restore what has been lost.
Who was Alexis de Tocqueville?
Alexis de Tocqueville was a French sociologist and political theorist who traveled to America in 1831 to study American prisons, but ended up leaving with a slew of other observations. These other observations turned into a well known book called, Democracy in America. In this book, Tocqueville details his observations, critiques and praises for the new nation and has been infinitely referenced and quoted ever since.
He said: “Everything about the Americans is extraordinary, their social state as well as their laws; but what is more extraordinary still is the soil that supports them” (267).
Yup, he even thought our soil was awesome.
About self-governance, respect and love of the law:
Tocqueville notes the uniqueness of the amount of self-governance that exists in America along with the unique beauty of federalism. Consider what he says, especially today as we struggle through frustration with the coronavirus and various other “issues”. We are first governed by our counties, and then our cities, and then our states, and then our federal government.
“In most European nations, political existence began in the higher regions of society and was communicated little by little and always in an incomplete manner to the various parts of the social body. In America, on the contrary, one can say that the township had been organized before the county, the county before the state, the state before the Union” (40)
He commented further about American’s overall education and ability to engage in self-governance.
fewer learned men are found than in America. Primary instruction there is within reach of each; higher instruction is within reach of almost no one…So therefore, in our day in America the aristocratic element, always weak since its birth, is, if not destroyed, at least weakened, so that it is difficult to assign it any influence whatsoever in the course of affairs.” (51)
This reality of fairly distributed power and education is so critical because it’s the people who hold the most responsibility over the way the country functions. No, we are NOT a direct democracy, and for good reason; but this does not change the fact that the buck stops with us. We, ultimately, will be ones who determine if this country falls to tyranny or if it stays free. It’s incumbent upon us, the citizens, to respect and protect the laws and fight to preserve liberty.
Remember what I said in a previous post? In the United States, we respect and love the law. This respect and love of the sovereignty of the law is the only reason the U.S. has been able to maintain order and civility without turning to tyranny.
“In America, the principle of sovereignty of the people is not hidden or sterile as in certain nations; it is recognized by mores, proclaimed by the laws; it spreads with freedom and reaches its final consequences without obstacle…The people reign over the American political world as does God over the universe. They are the cause and the end of all things; everything comes out of them and everything is absorbed into them” (55).
How far from the following description have we gotten? Americans used to see government as something necessary but never beyond a certain point. Americans, he noticed, cherished and craved to be responsible for their own lives and governance.
“What most strikes the European who travels through the United States is the absence of what is called among us government or administration. In America you see written laws; you perceive their daily execution; everything moves around you and nowhere do you discover the motor. The hand that directs the social machine vanishes at each instant.”
What a beautiful description of a healthy, vibrant country full of individuals invested in self-governance. And further:
“The same tendency may be remarked slightly in several other states. But, generally, one can say that the salient characteristic of public administration in the United States is to be enormously decentralized” (79).
Finally, the crux of their ability to take responsibility and govern themselves by holding their government accountable to law was that they did respect and honor the principle itself of justice and law.
“Often the European sees in the public official only force; the American see in him right. One can therefore say that in America man never obeys man, but justice or law.” (90)
“In Europe, the criminal is an unfortunate who fights to hide his head from the agents of power; the population in some way assists in the struggle. In America, he is an enemy of the human race, and he has humanity as a whole against him”. (91)
About the American Revolution:
“The revolution in the United States was produced by a mature and reflective taste for freedom, and not by a vague and indefinite instinct of independence. It was not supported by passions of disorder; but, on the contrary, it advanced by a love of order and of legality” (67).
Again, the passions of disorder that we see flaring up today are nothing like the mature taste for freedom out of love of order and legality that served to found this country.
Remember my writings on Hobbes and Locke? According to them, humans without government have a right to everything; however, this just results in violence and war. So, the people create government and law to free ourselves from such violence and war. In other words, law is what ultimately brings liberty. Thus the respect for law and civility is critical to a healthy, stable society.
Tocqueville saw and appreciated how Americans adopted this principle when entering the War for Independence.
“In the United States, therefore, they did not claim that a man in a free country has the right to everything; on the contrary, they imposed on him more varied social obligations than elsewhere; they did not have the idea of attacking the power of society in its principle and of contesting its rights; they limited themselves to dividing it in its exercise. They wanted in this manner to arrive at the point where authority is great and the official is small, so that society would continue to be well regulated and remain free.”
About American patriotism:
Personally, I just love his commentary and obvious disdain for how patriotic and proud Americans were of their country.
“The inhabitant applies himself to each of the interests of his country as to his very own. He is glorified in the glory of the nation; in the success that it obtains he believes he recognizes his own work, and he is uplifted by it; he rejoices in the general prosperity from which he profits. He has for his native country a sentiment analogous to the one that he feels for his family, and it is still by a sort of selfishness that he takes an interest in the state.”
Americans loved and had pride in their country…so much so that their patriotism was synonymous even with their love and pride of their own work. The interests of the country were their own interests. They built their country. They took pride in its success because it was their success and bemoaned its failures because it was their failure.
“The American, taking part in all that is done in this country, believes himself interested in defending all that is criticized there; for not only is his country then attacked, he himself is: thus one sees his national pride have recourse to all the artifices and descend to all the puerility of individual vanity.
There is nothing more annoying in the habits of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. A foreigner would indeed consent to praise much in their country; but he would want to be permitted to blame something, and this he is absolutely refused. America is therefore a country of freedom where, in order not to wound anyone, the foreigner must not speak freely either of particular persons, or of the state, or of the governed, or of those who govern, or of public undertakings, or of private undertakings; or, finally, of anything one encounters except perhaps the climate and the soil; and still, one finds Americans ready to defend both as if they had helped to form them.” (227).
How rare to find such an American today? We’ve reaped what those who came before labored for and yet we don’t cherish the country we inherited. Instead, many throw it away as if it is garbage to be disposed of and rejected.
About political parties and disagreements:
Let’s not forget how unique it is to be able to agree to disagree. Our disagreements do not turn into violent uprisings, be-headings or bloody overthrows. Why? Because as Americans, we all agree on the fundamentals…such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Such openness in conversation and disagreement is becoming more difficult to find today though.
“The struggle between these two opinions among Americans never took on the violent character that has often marked it elsewhere. In America, the two parties were in agreement on the most essential points. To win, neither of the two had to destroy an old order or overturn a whole social state. Consequently, neither of the two linked a great number of individual lives to the triumph of its principles.
Public opinion becomes infinitely fragmented over questions of detail. One cannot imagine the trouble they take to create parties: it is not an easy thing in our time. In the United States there is no religious hatred because religion is universally respected and no sect is dominant; there is no class hatred because the people are everything and no one yet dares to struggle with them; finally, there are no public miseries to exploit because the material state of the country offers such an immense scope for industry that is enough to leave man to himself for him to do prodigies.” (167, 169)
This is why, he says that, “America is perhaps at this moment, of the world’s countries, the one that contains within it the fewest seeds of revolution” (174).
“It is not impossible to conceive the immense freedom that Americans enjoy; one can get an idea of their extreme equality as well; but what one cannot comprehend without having already been witness to it is the political activity that reigns in the United States…An American does not know how to converse, but he discusses; he does not discourse, but he holds forth. He always speaks to you as to an assembly; and if he happens by chance to become heated, he will say ‘sirs’ in addressing his interlocutor” (232).
How many of you can read that last quote and not at least smile. That is the America we love.
About how Americans viewed government:
Americans knew the importance of government but also the threat. They knew even more the importance of staying vigilant and educated as to prevent governmental abuse.
“In the eyes of democracy, government is not a good; it is a necessary evil” (194).
“This is seen very clearly in the United States, where wages seem in a way to decrease as the power of officials is greater” (204).
“Furthermore, the people in America obey the law not only because it is their work, but also because they can change it when by chance it hurts them; they submit to it in the first place as an evil that is imposed by themselves and after that as a passing evil” (231).
Need I say more?
About the responsibility of liberty:
What many Americans today have forgotten, many Americans in 1831 were learning and treasuring. Liberty is nothing to take lightly. It requires diligence to maintain and knowledge and experience to use well. It requires responsibility and must be handled with the utmost care. It is not easily gotten nor easily learned. Most people, most societies don’t know how to handle liberty and when it is thrown upon them, end up squandering and losing it. Tocqueville notes how the citizens of America had to learn their liberty. He notes how some citizens were better at it than others because of experience.
“The truth is exposed in America itself. The states where citizens have enjoyed their rights longest are those where they know best how to make use of them. One cannot say it too often: there is nothing more prolific in marvels than the art of being free; but there is nothing harder than the apprenticeship of freedom. It is not the same with despotism. Despotism often presents itself as the mender of all ills suffered; it is the support of good law, the sustainer of the oppressed, and the founder of order. Peoples fall asleep in the bosom of the temporary prosperity to which it gives birth; and when they awaken, they are miserable. Freedom, in contrast, is ordinarily born in the midst of storms, it is established painfully among civil discords, and only when it is old can one know its benefits.” (229)
How far away from this principle have we gotten? Americans today throw their liberty around as if it nothing. We are spoiled and selfish. We demand more liberty and rights by whining for more government to give us those very things, instead of being independent, responsible citizens who take care of our problems separate from government in order to preserve the very rights we demand government give and protect. We now turn to government to fix everything.
What a shame and a waste of such a rare commodity.
About America and Christianity:
He notes the uniqueness of American religion and how, though it never pervades the government itself, it pervades and governs the mores of society. It establishes families and respect for justice and law.
“America is, however, 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, in the country in which it exercises the greatest empire is at the same time the most enlightened and most free” (278).
“Therefore one cannot say that the in the United States religion exerts an influence on the laws or on the details of political opinions, but it directs mores, and it is in regulating the family that it works to regulate the state. … In the United States religion not only regulates mores, but extends its empire over intelligence” (278- 279).
About what it would take for America to fall to despotism:
Tocqueville finally addresses what could bring such a great nation to its knees.
“The particular and accidental situation in which Providence has placed the Americans forms the first; the second comes from the laws; the third flows from habits and mores” (265).
Providence, laws, and mores are what Tocqueville attributes American success and vibrancy to…weaken or destroy these and we weaken or destroy the nation.
“I am persuaded that if despotism ever comes to be established in America, it will find more difficulties in defeating the habits to which freedom has given birth than in surmounting the love of freedom itself” (233).
Can you not tell just how spoiled we’ve been now that we are being forced by government to do things we consider out of the government’s realm of power? We have grown accustomed to liberty. We have built a habit out of being able to do what we want, when we want. We have built habits of governing our own lives. We are more attached to that than even the idea or love of liberty itself. This is more evident now, during this era of coronavirus mandates than ever before.
“If ever freedom is lost in America, one will have to blame the omnipotence of the majority that will have brought minorities to despair and have forced them to make an appeal to material force. One will then see anarchy, but it will have come as a consequence of despotism” (249).
Sometimes we really do have to stop and remember who we are and how blessed we are to be Americans.
I find reading these quotes both troubling and encouraging. He saw the unique value in us that we didn’t even see ourselves.
So, I’m happy to remember what makes us Americans. In today’s America, I still see shreds of the America Tocqueville wrote of but I’m also troubled to see that these shreds are only sparse remnants of so much lost.
Friends, let’s remember what made America America.
Sure, we can say things like, “Make America Great Again“…but in order to actually make America great again, we first have to remember why there’s an again in that statement.
The Liberty Belle