“America Is Great Because She Is Good” Parts 1 and 2

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

While the Raven Review was on vacation in July, Dr. McKenzie was reading and blogging on Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. Before Hillary Clinton even used a quote often misattributed to de Toqueville in her acceptance speech, Dr. McKenzie was tracing the origin and meaning of that quote. No, de Toqueville never said, “America is great because she is good,” but who did say it? Or, more accurately, who said a similar quote with an important distinction, and what was meant by it? In a two-part series (both parts reprinted here, the first abridged with a link to the original), Dr. McKenzie explores this famous misquote. The gap between the rhetoric and the reality of the quote shows that we as a nation need to work on critical self-reflection, breaking down myth to build a better reality.

Part 1

I need to share one more reflection inspired by Democracy in America before I set aside Alexis de Tocqueville for the rest of the summer.  We’ve heard a lot recently about making America “great” again, and that calls to mind a famous quote popularly attributed to that French commentator.  Have you heard this before?

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there. . . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there. . . . .in her rich mines and her vast world commerce—and it was not there. . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it was not there.  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 she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Democracy in America is widely appraised as “the most perceptive and influential book ever written about American politics and society,” but it is also extremely long (typically 800-900 pages, depending on the edition) as well as extremely complex.  This combination of traits explains why so many politicians (or their speechwriters) feel compelled to quote it without actually reading it.  “America is great because America is good” is a case in point.  Tocqueville never wrote anything remotely resembling that in Democracy in America Bartleby’s dictionary of quotations traces the quote to a 1941 book titled The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, by Sherwood Eddy, a theologically liberal Christian socialist and missionary, who claimed to be quoting Tocqueville.  Wikiquotes has identified an earlier source, a 1922 letter to a Presbyterian magazine called the Herald and Presbyter (vol. 93, no. 36, p. 8).  According to the letter, an official with the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, the Rev. John McDowell, included the quote in a Sunday sermon and attributed it to Tocqueville.  Where Rev. McDowell got the quote is not known, although this much is certain: he didn’t get it from Alexis de Tocqueville.  Even so, a host of public figures have insisted that Tocqueville said these words.

If you don’t believe me, Google the phrase “America is great because she is good” and see what comes up.  Among those who have repeated the quote verbatim in speeches or essays, you’ll find presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.  (Although it’s not clear whether Richard Nixon ever used the quote in a public address, Charles Colson recalled that Nixon was extremely fond of it and used it frequently in meetings.  “I got goose bumps whenever he used that quote,” Colson confessed in his book Loving God.)   It’s also been a favorite phrase of congressmen, cabinet officials, and a variety of political commentators and would-be officeholders, including Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson.  It shows up in highly reputable venues, including The Atlantic, The New Republic, and Forbes.  “America is great because she is good” is arguably the most widely repeated observation that Alexis de Tocqueville never made.

Bizarrely, in his recent book If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas acknowledges that the quote is a fabrication but repeats it anyway on the grounds that, ironic as it may seem, the quote best captures what Tocqueville actually argued.  Indeed, he calls the spurious quotation a “brilliant summation” of Democracy in America, because “we know from the rest of his book that he [Tocqueville] saw clearly that it was the ‘goodness’ of America’s people that made America work. . . . For him it was inescapable: The secret to American freedom was American virtue.”

It’s hard to imagine a less accurate summation of Democracy in America, and hard to believe that Metaxas has actually read “the rest of the book,” or at least read it closely.  I don’t mean to pick on Eric Metaxas.  A blogger who doesn’t know me from Adam has hinted recently that I am simply one of those “evangelical historians [who] identify with evangelicalism but evangelicals not as much,” and that I have been critical of Metaxas because I want to create some distance between my “public persona” and the prevailing values of American evangelicals.

I am not sure why this writer feels compelled to speculate as to my motives, but here they are: I am an evangelical Christian, born and raised in the Bible Belt, and my heart’s desire, as a Jesus-follower who is also an academic historian, is to be in conversation with other Christians who are interested in what it means to think both Christianly and historically about the American past.  Eric Metaxas may be the most prominent openly Christian public intellectual in the United States today, and without a doubt his books and other writings will reach far more readers than those of any Christian academic historian.  If I am going to be in conversation with Christians outside the Academy, I need to read what they are reading and engage them about it.  It’s that simple.

When it comes to Democracy in America, the tragedy of “America is great because she is good” is two-fold.  First, it misses what Tocqueville was actually arguing by about a mile and a half.  It’s not just that Tocqueville never used those exact words.  He didn’t believe anything close.  Second, what Tocqueville did believe about American values—especially concerning the extent of “virtue” among the people and the role of religion in American democracy—is something that every American Christian who cares about the public witness of the Church needs to hear.  What Tocqueville actually argued should be deeply convicting to us.  Metaxas and others have distilled and distorted his telling critique into a political slogan to be used against our political opponents.

Read More…
Part 2
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 she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
Today [July 29] is Alexis de Tocqueville’s birthday (he would be 211) so it seems fitting to feature what are arguably the most widely quoted lines from his classic study of American society and politics, Democracy in America.  Tocqueville’s tribute to America has been a favorite of American presidents (Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bill Clinton), congressmen, cabinet officials, and other politically-oriented public figures such as Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Ben Carson.  And if you were listening carefully to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at last night’s Democratic National Convention—thanks to reader Gary Hotham for pointing this out—you may have noticed her implicit tribute to Tocqueville in the course of rebuking her Republican counterpart:
You know, for the past year, many people made the mistake of laughing off Donald Trump’s comments – excusing him as an entertainer just putting on a show. . . . But here’s the sad truth: There is no other Donald Trump.  This is it. And in the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn’t get: that America is great – because America is good.

Now, thanks to the timely assistance of reader Lynn Betts (thanks, Lynn!), I am able to tell you that, it is almost certainly the case that the quote originated with two English Congregational ministers who traveled in the United States in 1834, three years after Alexis de Tocqueville’s more famous journey.  In volume II, p. 226 of the second edition of their book A Narrative of the Visit to the American Churches by the Deputation from the Congregational Union of England and Wales (London, 1836), we read where authors Andrew Reed and James Matheson wrote:

Universal suffrage, whatever may be its abstract merits or demerits, is neither desirable nor possible, except the people are the subjects of universal education and universal piety. America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.

Unless the reverends Reed and Matheson were themselves plagiarizing an earlier source, it seems almost certain that they are the authors of the lines so commonly misattributed to Tocqueville.  But even here, note that the quote as commonly repeated differs in one significant sense from the original from Reed and Matheson.  While the English visitors offered a tentative prediction, “America WILL BE great IF America is good,” the quote as politicians and pundits are fond of repeating it is dogmatically assertive: “America IS great because America IS good.”

Tocqueville would have been amused, but not surprised, by this telling modification.  His letters home reveal more than a touch of impatience with Americans’ relentless boasting about their country.  “We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food the people somehow stuff down their gullets” Tocqueville wrote to his mother five days after landing in the United States.  “So far this is the only respect in which I do not challenge their superiority; they, on the other hand, reckon themselves superior in many ways.  People here seem to reek of national pride.”

Over the course of his nine-month journey across the United States, Tocqueville actually found much to admire about American democracy, but his views can’t be reduced to the equivalent of a campaign slogan.  In my next post I’ll have some thoughts on what Tocqueville really believed about the sources of American happiness.

Back soon.

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: Hillary Clinton’s Full Nomination Speech at the 2016 DNC by The Daily Conversation

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 


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