The Greatest Thing de Tocqueville Never Said


Alexis de Tocqueville. Artist Théodore Chassériau [PD US + France]

I’m writing this on July 29. It is the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America. Each day, I post on my Bob on Books Facebook page a literary birthday of the day, and a quote by that person. I am learning that one must verify the source of quotes one finds on Google–many that are attributed to individuals for whom there is no record of them actually saying what is attributed to them. I discovered this to my chagrin with de Tocqueville. He was reputed to have said:

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

My chagrin is that I made this discovery after posting the quote, which cannot be found in his works. Note to self: always double-check the source of quotes!

It has become popular to quote this with all the “make America great again” rhetoric, perhaps as a counter, asserting that only a “good” America can be a “great” America. It turns out that a number of U.S. presidents including Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton quoted it attributing it to de Tocqueville. Hilary Clinton used the quote in her debate with Donald Trump. So I am in famous company. I’ll leave you to decide if that company is “good.”

A friend’s comment got me to thinking further about this quote. At first glance, it seems like an elevating idea that our greatness is a reflection of our goodness. And indeed, some of our ideals, including the equality of all human beings (at least all “men”), equal protection under the law, inalienable rights, and so forth, are good ideas. I think our “first freedoms” are good ideas.

The truth though is that we have never entirely lived up to these “good” ideals, and what is not good is the pretense that we have. In fact, the pretense may be more dangerous than our failures because it prevents us from honestly facing them. Despite our beliefs in equality, for the initial part of our history, we considered blacks to be three-fifths of a person for representation, and in a number of states, merely property to be bought and sold. We protected property rights, except that of the original inhabitants of the land. With them, we repeatedly broke treaties and seized lands. We interned our own citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, even the families of those who served in our military.

We actually are a better nation when we recognize the ways we have not been good, and take steps to rectify them. Often, these steps are ones we take with the children or grandchildren of those wronged. In some instances, we’ve never fully faced the wrongs we’ve done, or even denied the wrongs.

It seems to me that we are at our most dangerous when we are blind to the ways we have not been or are not good. When people of the north sat in their churches and railed against slavery while benefiting from the cotton trade, there was a blindness to our complicity with evil. When slave owners sang hymns to God after coming from beating their slaves, there was a blindness to participation in evil.

I think rather than boasts of greatness or goodness or rating ourselves against other nations, I would be content if we would spend more time measuring ourselves against our good, but imperfect, ideals. And rather than pointing at others and how they might be better, it seems a healthier and more honest stance would be to look at those ideals and how each of us might be better. Oddly enough, that might be a “better” that is actually pretty good–good for us, good for the nation, and good for our reputation in the world.

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