March 2012 – In 1840, a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville published the second volume of his two part work known as Democracy in America, based on his travels through the United States in 1831. Tocqueville was a political thinker, historian and journalist.
He was curious about this New World to which many Europeans were immigrating, and so he set out to observe and experience American life.
I encourage anyone to read this work. It’s a very compelling account of life in America in that snapshot of time. There is much to learn about history from reading this outsider’s view because of his comparisons of America to Europe. The popularity of Democracy in America was in large part because it was so comprehensive, and it was considered objective and fair by most historians and readers. There was no political or philosophical ax to grind. Tocqueville wrote about the great, the good, the bad and the ugly. Although I have not finished both volumes in their entirety, I was struck by this particularly poignant passage which opens chapter 15 in volume two:
In the United States, on the seventh day of every week, the trading and working life of the nation seems suspended; all noises cease; a deep tranquillity, say rather the solemn calm of meditation, succeeds the turmoil of the week, and the soul resumes possession and contemplation of itself. Upon this day the marts of traffic are deserted; every member of the community, accompanied by his children, goes to church, where he listens to strange language which would seem unsuited to his ear. He is told of the countless evils caused by pride and covetousness; he is reminded of the necessity of checking his desires, of the finer pleasures which belong to virtue alone, and of the true happiness which attends it. On his return home, he does not turn to the ledgers of his calling, but he opens the book of Holy Scripture; there he meets with sublime or affecting descriptions of the greatness and goodness of the Creator, of the infinite magnificence of the handiwork of God, of the lofty destinies of man, of his duties, and of his immortal privileges. …
I have endeavored to point out in another part of this work the causes to which the maintenance of the political institutions of the Americans is attributable; and religion appeared to be one of the most prominent amongst them. I am now treating of the Americans in an individual capacity, and I again observe that religion is not less useful to each citizen than to the whole State. The Americans show, by their practice, that they feel the high necessity of imparting morality to democratic communities by means of religion. What they think of themselves in this respect is a truth of which every democratic nation ought to be thoroughly persuaded.
To Tocqueville the emphasis on the Christian religion in America permeated the whole society, advanced individual and corporate morality and was the glue that held the country together.
Nearly 40 years before Tocqueville, no less a man that President George Washington had said the same thing in his Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of man and citizens.
If America does not soon have a Christian revival on a large scale, we will slowly die and history will record us only as the great nation that was.