Alexis de Tocqueville was a 19th century French diplomat, political scientist, and historian who is best known for his two-volume work “Democracy in America” (published in 1835 and 1840), in which he offered his observations on American politics, society, and culture gleaned from his travels across the U.S. in 1831-32.
One of the most oft-quoted passages purportedly from “Democracy in America” is the following, which has been frequently cited (in whole or in part) across the years by politicians, newspapers, books, and websites as a testament to the moral virtuousness of Christianity and/or American democratic institutions:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America 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.
However, these words do not appear in the pages of “Democracy in America,” nor do they appear in any other writing or recorded utterance contemporaneously traceable to de Tocqueville. Numerous sources have been debunking the de Tocqueville attribution for over 25 years, as seen in the following excerpt from a 1995 article by John J. Pitney, Jr., associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College:
These lines are uplifting and poetic. They are also spurious. Nowhere do they appear in Democracy in America, or anywhere else in Tocqueville.
The authenticity of the passage came into question when first-year government students at Claremont McKenna College received an assignment: Find a contemporary speech quoting Tocqueville, and determine how accurately the speaker used the quotation. A student soon uncovered a recent Senate floor speech that cited the “America is great” line. He scoured Democracy in America, but could not find the passage. The professor looked, too — and it was not there.
Further research led to reference books that cautiously referred to the quotation as “unverified” and “attributed to de Tocqueville but not found in his works.” These references, in turn, pointed to the apparent source: a 1941 book on religion and the American dream. The book quoted the last two lines of the passage as coming from Democracy in America but supplied no documentation. (The author may have mistaken his own notes for a verbatim quotation, a common problem in the days before photocopiers.) The full version of the quotation appeared 11 years later, in an Eisenhower campaign speech. Ike, however, attributed it not directly to Tocqueville but to “a wise philosopher [who] came to this country …”
One may conjecture that Eisenhower’s speechwriter embellished the lines from the 1941 book and avoided a direct reference to Tocqueville as a way of covering himself. Speechwriters do such things from time to time.
Similarly, Ralph Keyes wrote in his 2006 “Quote Verifier” book that no definitive documentation has turned up that traces the origins of these words to de Tocqueville himself:
Like presidents Eisenhower and Reagan before him, Bill Clinton was fond of attributing these words to Alexis de Tocqueville. Many another political figure, news commentator, and patriotic orator has cited this observation, said to have been made by American’s most famous tourist. Library of Congress researchers call the attribution “unverified.” They did find the complete quotation, attributed to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in a 1941 book called The Kingdom of God and the American Dream by evangelist Sherwood Eddy (1871-1963) … Who actually wrote these words remains a mystery. Sherwood Eddy gave no source for his de Tocqueville attribution. According to biographer Rick L. Nutt, Eddy tended to work from memory. Perhaps he’d read the 1908 copy of The Methodist Review in which de Tocqueville was quoted as saying he’d searched in vain for the sources of America’s distinction until he entered a church: “It was there, as I listened to the soul-equalizing and soul-elevating principles of the Gospel of Christ as they fell from Sabbath to Sabbath upon the masses of the people, that I learned why America is great and free, and why France is a slave.” These uncharacteristic words are not de Tocqueville’s either.
I went at your bidding, and passed along their thoroughfares of trade. I ascended their mountains and went down their valleys. I visited their manufactories, their commercial markets, and emporiums of trade. I entered their judicial courts and legislative halls. But I sought everywhere in vain for the secret of their success, until I entered the church. It was there, as I listened to the soul-equalizing and soul-elevating principles of the Gospel of Christ, as they fell from Sabbath to Sabbath upon the masses of the people, that I learned why America was great and free, and why France was a slave.
A book published in 1835 by Andrew Reed and James Matheson, two British ministers who visited sister churches in the United States in 1834 to promote peace and friendship and then wrote about their travels, contains what may be the seed from which this quotation germinated: “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud.”
Whatever the ultimate source, it appears this statement about how “America is great because she is good” evolved over a long period of time independently of anything de Tocqueville actually wrote, and as part of that evolutionary process it retroactively (and falsely) became attributed to him.