Review: We the Fallen People

We the Fallen People, Robert Tracy McKenzie. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: An argument that we have witnessed a great reversal in American history from an assumption of fallen human nature to the inherent goodness of people, which the author believes could jeopardize its future.

“America is great, because America is good.” Have you heard that phrase? Likely, it was attributed to writer on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville. Except that Tocqueville never said it. Rather, he said, “I cannot regard you as a virtuous people.” And his two volume work, which many believe to be a paean of praise to American democracy is in fact much more guarded in its appraisal according to Robert Tracy McKenzie. He contends, along with Tocqueville himself, that this work is often misunderstood, if it has been read.

While there is a good amount of material about Tocqueville here, the real concern of this book is about a Great Reversal that occurred in American history concerning American goodness. He begins with the Founders and the writing of the Constitution. The young nation just wasn’t working. Dependence upon the good will of the states to contribute to the upkeep of a national government just wasn’t happening and the national government had no way to compel it. They were depending on virtuous behavior and it was not forthcoming.

In writing the Constitution, the framers started from a different premise, “taking human nature as they found it.” In biblical terms, they assumed a fallen people. On one hand, they created a federal government with a strong executive office to implement the laws passed by Congress. Congress had two houses, one that represented local interests, and one representing broader concerns to balance each other. They could override the executive’s veto. At the same time a third branch, the judiciary, could check laws that overreached the power of the Constitution. It both guarded against excessive influence of popular power, and any concentration of power within the government. They wouldn’t trust anyone too far. They assumed human fallibility and fallenness.

McKenzie proposes that a Great Reversal occurred with the election of Andrew Jackson, who presented himself as the people’s president. He represented himself singularly as the people’s representative. He described his victory as “a triumph of the virtue of the people.” The great reversal in all of this was a growing belief in the inherent goodness of the American people, and those they elect, an assumption that has continued to the present day. Accruing great power to himself, he encouraged the abrogation of treaties with the Cherokee people and their removal via the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. In a lesser discussed move, he worked to end the second Bank of the United States. Tracy sees in this Jackson’s use of populism, the People versus the Monster, although the Bank had engaged in no wrongdoing. It is this extension of the power of democratic majorities, a “we versus them,” where “they” are not worthy, that is deeply disturbing. Democracy provides no protection from abuse of power when unchecked by the structures and the underlying premises behind those structures conceived by the founders.

It was this that was Tocqueville’s concern, writing during this period. Tocqueville witnessed the rise of partisan politics in which Congress failed to check Jackson’s moves, nor did the judiciary. While he recognized the great energy and productivity of the country, and the breadth of freedom its white male citizens enjoyed–greater than in Europe–he also recognized how democracies could be turned to ill, depending on how majorities wielded their power. He recognized how people could exchange liberty and justice for safety.

At the same time, Tocqueville finds that it is not virtue but self-interest that can be a safeguard–the temporary denial of benefit for long term profit that produces a kind of discipline, and counters individualism with collaboration on shared self-interests like good roads. Tocqueville also believed religious piety of importance, not because of his religious views, but as an early sociologist and political thinker. Belief in an afterlife in which one gives account can serve as a partial, not total, restraint on egregious evil. Tocqueville saw the separation of church and state as a good thing, recognizing the loss of spiritual force churches experienced when intertwined with political power.

All of this challenges the rhetoric of American goodness and greatness. McKenzie believes there can be great danger in being blind to human depravity, whereas the recognition of this gives reason for the countervailing powers of government and punctures the pretensions of political leaders. In his concluding chapter, he not only applies this to our current political scene, but if anything, even more forcefully speaks to his concerns for the ways the church has allied itself with political power.

This also explains to me the efforts to sanitize the teaching of American history, expunging our sorry dealings with native peoples, our involvement with slavery from our earliest settlements, and the structures that continued to oppress blacks, other minorities, and women even after Emancipation. None of these things ought surprise those of us who believe in human fallenness, who also believe in the biblical remedies of repentance, just restitution, and reconciliation. But those who must hold onto the myth of our inherent goodness cannot admit these things–the only solution is suppression–a strategy that has been a heavy burden on our nation

This is a vitally important book for our time. It not only takes a deep dive into the Great Reversal of the Jackson presidency but also uses Tocqueville to challenge the stories we tell about ourselves. It calls us to be clear-eyed about the future of our democracy, and questions the naïve notion of our inherent goodness. Perhaps a severe mercy of the pandemic is that it has challenged such illusions. But do we still hide behind them by attributing wickedness to “them”? Or will we learn from Samuel Thompson, a Massachusetts delegate in a ratification convention in 1788, to whom McKenzie introduces us. He declared, “I extremely doubt the infallibility of human nature” and gave for the basis of his doubt “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.” Will we suspect our own hearts and put our trust not in rulers but in the God who searches hearts?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Greatest Thing de Tocqueville Never Said

512px-Alexis_de_tocqueville

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.