By Editorial Staff
Published April 22, 2008
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville discovered the answer
Dr. W. Cleon Skousen
Editor’s preface: The French Revolution occurred almost simultaneously with the American Revolution. While sharing many similarities, there was one glaring difference. The French were not Christian and attempted to introduce a godless humanistic government. The result is amply recorded in history books. Instead of the liberty, justice, peace, happiness, and prosperity experienced in America, France suffered chaos and injustice as thousands of heads rolled under the sharp blade of the guillotine.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the renowned French jurist, lived through these bitter years. He felt compelled to come to America to see what caused such a deep contrast between the two nations. What is remarkable about his conclusions is that de Tocqueville was not known to be a Christian. We, the future leaders of China, would do well to learn from the objective work of Alexis de Tocqueville.
- Wang Jiapu
When the French jurist, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited the United States in 1831, he became so impressed with what he saw that he went home and wrote one of the best definitive studies on the American culture and Constitutional system that had been published up to that time. His book was called Democracy in America. Concerning religion in America, de Tocqueville said:
“On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things” (emphasis added).
He described the situation as follows:
“Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions … I do not know whether all 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 Europe, it had been popular to teach that religion and liberty were enemies of each other. De Tocqueville saw the very opposite happening in America. He wrote:
“The philosophers of the 18th century explained in a very simple manner the gradual decay of religious faith. Religious zeal, said they, must necessarily fail the more generally liberty is established and knowledge diffused. Unfortunately, the facts by no means accord with their theory. There are certain populations in Europe whose unbelief is only equaled by their ignorance and debasement; while in America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all the outward duties of religion”….
The Greatest Influence
[De Tocqueville] emphasized the fact that this religious undergirding of the political structure was a common denominator of moral teachings in different denominations and not the political pressure of some national church hierarchy. Said he:
“The sects [different denominations] that exist in the United States are innumerable. They all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man. Each sect adores the Deity in its own peculiar manner, but all sects preach the same moral law in the name of God…. All the sects of the United States are comprised within the great unity of Christianity, and Christian morality is everywhere the same … There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America.”
It was astonishing to de Tocqueville that liberty and religion could be combined in such a balanced structure of harmony and good order. He wrote:
“The revolutionists of America are obliged to profess an ostensible respect for Christian morality and equity, which does not permit them to violate wantonly the laws that oppose their designs … Thus while the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust”….
In one of de Tocqueville’s most frequently quoted passages, he stated:
“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 prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.”
From The 5,000-Year Leap: The 28 Great Ideas That Are Changing the World, by W. Cleon Skousen, National Center for Constitutional Studies, ©1981. Used with permission. Quotes within the excerpted text are from Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Dr. W. Cleon Skousen has a doctorate in law and has taught at the university level. He is the author of more than 40 books, and is currently writing The Majesty of God’s Law, tracing the sources of law in different civilizations. He is founder of the National Center for Constitutional Studies.
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