When one thinks of early political commentators of the United States, students of history may think of Alexis de Tocqueville. Born in 1805, Alexis eventually became a magistrate in Paris, before sailing for the United States in 1831. His objective was to study the American penal system to determine how to implement the same ideas in France, a task few in the world today would want to replicate. Throughout his nine months traversing the whole of the United States, de Tocqueville not only saw the prisons, but he experienced the whole culture of America. From this journey came two works. The first being a report based off the trips primary purpose: “On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France,” which was published in 1833. In 1835, he released his magnum opus entitled Democracy in America, a two-volume work (volume two being published in 1840) analyzing the social, political, and economical landscape of America.
The common quote “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great” is often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, however, it is merely a misattribution. In reality, the quote came from two English ministers, Andrew Reed and James Matheson, who were touring the country about the same time Alexis de Tocqueville’s was in the United States. Therefore, because the quote came from two ministers it is unsurprising that they might include a moral warning to the United States about how to remain a great nation. Perhaps most amazingly, even the misattribution is wrong, as the two ministers actually wrote “Religion is requisite to the welfare of any people; but they [Americans] have made it emphatically necessary, not only to their prosperity, but to their political existence. . . . AMERICA WILL BE GREAT IF AMERICA IS GOOD. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.”
As to Alexis de Tocqueville, did he completely dismiss America’s religious nature? He did not; de Tocqueville instead greatly illuminated and expounded on the role of religion in America, echoing to some degree the same sentiment that the two British ministers did. Below are several passages from his Democracy in America:
“In America, religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been at certain periods in the history of certain peoples; but its influence is more lasting.”
“In the United States the sovereign authority is religious, and consequentially hypocrisy must be common; but there is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no great proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation on the earth.”
“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must nevertheless be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of free institutions. 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 the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion, for who can search the human heart? 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.”
“In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united, and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
“No true power can be founded among men which does not depend upon the free union of their inclination; and patriotism and religion are the only two motives in the world which can permanently direct the whole of a body politic to one end.”
“When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the intellect, and half paralyses all the rest of its powers.”
One should note several interesting things from this group of political and religious commentators. Both the English and the French saw the America of the 1830s as a deeply religious nation, and both attributed the freedom of religion from state control to both America’s political greatness and American’s spiritual greatness. Perhaps both group's takeaway was the uniqueness of America’s religious nature.
It was seemingly unheard of to have religion completely separated from the control of the government (no State Church or Established Church). De Tocqueville himself was taken aback at how prominent religion was and how it played an indirect role in American government. That was America’s great religious secret.
Today, religious and political commentators may have to say something different about the United States. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted almost 200 years ago, “The two great dangers which threaten the existence of religion are schism and indifference,” both of these things being clearly evident in religious circles today. The British ministers left their final determination of America’s religious and moral nature for a future date, dictating it was up to the Americans of tomorrow if they would continue working toward greatness.
 Andrew Reed and James Matheson, A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches (New York: Harper-Brothers, 1835).
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. I and II (New York: George Adlard, 1839).
written by Josh Yohe
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