Updated: Sep 2, 2020
“A nation can not remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak.”
~Alexis de Tocqueville “Democracy in America” c. 1835
Sometimes we see ourselves most truly through a stranger's eyes. As a Millennial I am part of the selfie generation. (I'm the part of the selfie generation that joined an analog appreciation group and has a drawerful of expensive hoarded out of stock film rolls in the fridge. So I'm not your basic Millennial. But I come from a generation encouraged to rarely look beyond themselves.) Sadly the "selfie generation" seems to be diving mindlessly into a new label, the Selfish Generation. (I'll go in depth into that in a separate essay. That is a long and horrible story and my arguments are many and tedious, my facts all have supporting facts as well.) Right now I want to focus on the now, which means I want to focus on history.
It is inherently selfish to try and tear down history. Right now we live in an America where the shrieking mob is trying to tear down our shared history. Guess what? If you tear down your past you make it easier for people to tell lies in the future. And I fear a future of violent mobs and stupid lies.
History matters because we can understand ourselves better through the lens of history. We can see ourselves better through the eyes of others. If you are busy filtering your four hundredth selfie of the day maybe you don't have time to figure out who wore blue and who wore grey in a war whose soldiers are now all long buried, but you should. Because that matters a little bit more than your fake eyelashes. Plus, if you see yourself in the frame of history maybe you'll have a shade more self confidence and a shade less fear. When I see my contemporaries march and burn and gyrate in the streets I do not see people with self confidence. I see people with so much fear and hate they are nearly choking on their own bile. I see people easily distracted. I see people who have been fed a bill of goods for their whole lives. I see people who are so self absorbed they don't realize that as they pick out their outfits for protest night --"protest night" outfits are a bit like "date night" outfits, all the cool boys and girls share pics with each other in advance of meeting up with their "protest partner," all the cooler boys and girls try and pretend they really just care about the "Movement" and it doesn't matter they don't have a date to protest with-- that they are doing the bidding of others. Possibly the people who actually do represent everything they scream their hate at.
Historically it is better not to assume that simply because something was printed two hundred years ago and quoted ever since that it has a deeper meaning. Some quotes become perennial quotes not because they concisely explain an instant in time, but because they are good quotes.
Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States barely half a century after the “experiment” began. Today he is still perhaps the most quotable “observer” of early 19th century post-colonial America. His book, “Democracy in America” is quotable, intriguing, sprinkled with strong opinions and snide witticisms, by turns deeply flattering and subtly condescending.
“America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement.”
“The great privilege of the Americans does not simply consist in their being more enlightened than other nations, but in their being able to repair the faults they may commit.”
“Nothing conceivable is so petty, so insipid, so crowded with paltry interests, in one word, so anti-poetic as the life of a man in the United States.”
Over one hundred and seventy years after it was first translated into English (de Tocqueville was a French national and wrote in French) it is still in print and still lauded as one of the best portraits of the early American state. It was also based on less than a year of actual on the ground observation.
Should we dismiss de Tocqueville for not really knowing America? His quotes seem to capture the spirit of America so perfectly. (At least sometimes.)
“In the United States it is not easy to make a man understand that his presence may be dispensed with; hints will not always suffice to shake him off. I contradict an American at every word he says to show him that his conversation bores me; he instantly labors with fresh pertinacity to convince me.”
Americans are strivers. We are bores. We are not genteel. Until recently we have always cared more about facts than feelings. We have always cared more about actually doing the right thing rather than merely appearing to do the right thing. "Seemliness" was a trait of the English Gentry and the pseudo intellectuals of the Continent. Building things, doing things was an American thing. (Personally, I still hope we have what it takes to build things.)
“The practice which obtains amongst the Americans of fixing the standards of their judgement in themselves alone, leads them to other habits of mind. As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding."
Should we simply take all the observations of professional observers with a spoonful of salt? Most people, even if they don’t have a proverbial axe to grind, have preconceived opinions and are quick to make facts fit theories. (It is often much much easier to force a handful of facts to fit a theory than it is to come up with a more customized explanation for a series of events.)
What de Tocqueville did succeed in pinpointing is that the United States in its first half century, was very much a nation of individuals, a confederation of states. The United States was a nation with laws (and an occasional democratic impulse). Notably the United States was not a democracy. (As a Frenchman of a certain generation de Tocqueville understood the bloody chaos and eventual authoritarianism of a truly untempered democracy.) The sometimes crude, anti-hierarchical, block-headed and perpetually commercial attitude of the Americans of the 1830s may have grated on de Tocqueville’s aristocratic French nerves, but he admired the fact that Americans —despite their differences— somehow made it work.
“The revolution of the United States was the result of a mature and dignified taste for freedom, and not of a vague or ill-defined craving for independence.”
Americans did make the Republic work. The Republic was an expression of American individuality. And Americans would never give up arguing. There would be a bloody civil war. (As early as the 1830s de Tocqueville could see the gap widening between slave states and non slave states.) But, in general, the United States worked because of an acceptance of the idea that the country was a confederation and that individuals had unalienable rights.
For its first half century, the United States succeeded by balancing the rights of the individual with the duties of the state and the powers of the confederation. Government, as it expanded in those early decades, provided practical services and protection to the individual citizens; a postal service, roads and a navy prepared to defend the sovereignty of American citizens and American ships on the high seas.
The United States survived because early Americans were willing to focus on the larger picture rather than tear each other apart to create a “more perfect union” of complete agreement. A willingness to focus on the practical created the governing structure of the United States. A complex and near religious belief in the idea of America kept the heart of America beating through those first seventy years.
Now, in the burning heat of the Summer of 2020 we should perhaps remember de Tocqueville's most important quote. “A nation can not remain strong when every man belonging to it is individually weak.” We face weakness. We face intellectual weakness, moral weakness. The mob is weak. Pity them, they were taught to be that way. When twenty men have to beat one man in the street because they fear the one man's ideas? Those twenty men are all individually weak. When the mob is powerful, the people who are part of the mob are weak. We can not allow our country to fall to the weak minded. The frightened and the frightening. Have the courage to speak your mind, or we will all have so much more to fear in the future. Don't be weak. Be American. Be the best of us.