Skip to comments.THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD (Did Alexis De Tocqueville really say this?)
Posted on 07/01/2010 1:09:32 PM PDT by SeekAndFind
Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America is a beloved, canonical text; the urge to quote from it is understandably great. Politicians ever seek to demonstrate familiarity with it, from Bill Clinton to Pat Buchanan. One of their favorite quotes runs as follows:
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 forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerc - and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution - and it vas 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. 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. In his wonderful primer on politics, Playing to Win, Jeff Greenfield presented a model stump speech complete with a fake quotation from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. "If you are worried about being found out," Greenfield wrote, "change 'Heraclitus' to 'The Poet.'" (See page 117 of Greenfield, if you'd like to check.)
Whatever its origin, the passage found its way into circulation. President Reagan used it in a 1982 speech, though his speechwriter hedged by attributing it to Eisenhower's quotation of Tocqueville. Two years later, Reagan declared that Tocqueville "is said to have observed that 'America is great because America is good.'" Thereafter, his speechwriters grew less careful, and several subsequent Reagan addresses quoted from the passage without any qualifications. At this point, it started showing up with greater frequency in political rhetoric.
In 1987, Rep. William Dannemeyer quoted the passage's final line, adding that "America ceased to be good in 1971, when America's promise to pay ceased to be good." He was referring to President Nixon's decision to close the gold window. Apparently, Dannemeyer disapproved.
The day after President Clinton's inauguration, Sen. Jesse Helms performed an ecumenical paraphrase on the line about churches: "As the remarkable French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1850s, the source of American virtue . . . will always be found in the churches and synagogues of America."
In 1994, Bill Clinton tapped the passage to temper his "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no" speech in Boston. "I believe fundamentally in the common sense and the essential core goodness of the American people. Don't forget that Alexis de Tocqueville said a long time ago that America is great because America is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, she will no longer be great."
And now, synthetic Tocqueville is appearing in the 1996 campaign. Pat Buchanan used the "America is great" line in the speech announcing his candidacy, and Phil Gramm invoked the flaming pulpits in his May address to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
It's a shame that politicians are using a knockoff product when the real thing is so fine. Democracy in America offers profound analyses of the roles of religion, morality, and voluntary action, though its insights are subtler than the purple prose of the counterfeit.
Why does faux Tocqueville thrive? It took only a modest effort to expose the quotation as a phony, so how could it have circulated so widely for so long? We could make a nasty crack about politicians who cannot tell Alexis de Tocqueville from Maurice Chevalier, but that would be irrelevant since they seldom write their own material anyway. The lyrics of politics come from staffers, whose tight deadlines often keep them from checking original sources. When they need a quotation (or a statistic or an anecdote), they lift it from a speech or an article by somebody else. That somebody probably got it from another piece, whose author got it from . . . you get the picture. Bad information tends to linger and spread.
Here is a personal brush. In 1992, I served on the staff of the Republican platform committee. We came across the "America is great" line in an old Reagan speech. Though we could not verify it, we still wanted to use it in the platform, so we attributed it to "an old adage."
Of course, after decades of repetition, it has in fact become an old adage. It just isn't Tocqueville's.
This is a great quote, but apparently Tocqueville didn't say it. So who did ?
Okay, so some of those words were not written by him, but which ones were?
This article sucks.
Likewise the spurious quote, “The American republic will endure until Congress realizes it can bribe the people with their own money” and its many variations.
And same with the Alexander Tyler (sic) “quote”: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury.”
I’d have to look in my copy again, but I thought I saw this (or at least part of it) when I read it...
Don’t know who wrote or said it, but it is a very nice passage. America, being made up of humans, is a mix of good and bad with extremes at both ends. I would say America is great, or was able to attain greatness, because it’s free. We will always have our good and bad aspects, but if we cease to be free we will cease to be great. Making America not so “great” is the primary objective of the current, and so far quite successful, effort to make us less free.
The internet has become a petri dish for this kind of stuff. Before, you actually had to pick up a book and read it, the whole thing. If you found a quote you liked, you excerpted it with proper attribution. Now, people just google key words and search for quotes that they believe foots the bill for a particular subject, and then they pray that the source material is accurate. Far too frequently, it isn’t.
Etext-No. Author Title Language
815 Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859 [Author]
Reeves, Henry, 1813-1895 [Translator]
Democracy in America Volume 1 English
816 Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859 [Author]
Reeves, Henry, 1813-1895 [Translator]
Democracy in America Volume 2
I got an odd sense of déjà vu as I started the article, and was about to cry plagiarism before I realized that it was a repost of an old one. :-)
That is why crediting facts to ‘the internet’ is worthless, and crediting them to wikipedia is not much better.
The spurious quote in question might be from the following, in Chapter XXII of DiA...
It never must be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society. In the United States religion is therefore commingled with all the habits of the nation and all the feelings of patriotism; whence it derives a peculiar force. To this powerful reason another of no less intensity may be added: in America religion has, as it were, laid down its own limits. Religious institutions have remained wholly distinct from political institutions, so that former laws have been easily changed while former belief has remained unshaken. Christianity therefore has retained a strong hold on the public mind in America; and, I would more particularly remark, that its sway is not only that of a philosophical doctrine which has been adopted upon inquiry, but of a religion which is believed without discussion. In the United States Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it. The Americans, having admitted the principal doctrines of the Christian religion without inquiry, are obliged to accept in like manner a great number of moral truths originating in it and connected with it. Hence the activity of individual analysis is restrained within narrow limits, and many of the most important of human opinions are removed from the range of its influence.But I think that many theocrats wouldn't like the quote because it pushes the separation of church and state so hard. It looks like someone just wrote some words that summarized some of the meaning and claimed it was the original. As has been said, it might have been a "note to self" that was erroneously copied...and then embellished by others.
It fascinates me how so many of the spurious quotes floating around are from "Christians." David Barton's lies, this one, etc., make me wonder what happened to the ol' "false witness" commandment. It makes me wonder if their faith is so weak that they believe there's not enough support for their beliefs without having to fabricate. Sad.
I was also saddened back when I first learned that the "reorganization" quote attributed to Petronius Arbiter was spurious.
BTW, another passage that might have contributed comes later:
Most religions are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. That is the greatest benefit that a democratic people derives from its belief, and hence belief is more necessary to such a people than to all others. When, therefore, any religion has struck its roots deep into a democracy, beware lest you disturb them; but rather watch it carefully, as the most precious bequest of aristocratic ages.
“The internet has become a petri dish for this kind of stuff. Before, you actually had to pick up a book and read it, the whole thing. If you found a quote you liked, you excerpted it with proper attribution.”
The internet has made it worse, but your “before” is a fantasy. Quite too few of the famous Dead White Males became famous because everybody read them. Big names like Montesquieu, von Clausewitz, Hegel, and Freud (with the exception of “Civilization and Its Discontent”) are notoriously for collecting dust on bookshelves. Their fame grew in much the same way internet “memes” (e.g. “It’s a trap!”) grow.
Scholars in particular and writers in general constantly quote eachother. They may be better trained than chatroom participants and political hacks, but academics, journalists, think-tankers, and the like are not of another world.
Or Webster's. Anyone can slap "Webster's" onto their book--it doesn't indicate relation to Webster's scholarship. For example, this quote is attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville in "Webster's Quotations, Facts and Phrases" published by Icon Group International, Inc.
“Before, you actually had to pick up a book and read it, the whole thing”
In case I wasn’t clear, my point is that a lot of people derive their knowledge of writers big and small not by reading whole books, but by reading excerpts in other (possibly lesser) articles and books. For instance, most people know of Darwin through the Neo-Darwinism of the mid and latter 20th century. Or maybe (just maybe) through recaps of Herbert Spencer’s popularization. Who the heck bothers with “On the Origin of the Species”? Likewise, our Schopenhauer is Nietzsche’s Schopenhauer, our Hegel is Marx’s Hegel, our Sophocles is Freud’s Sophocles, and (most relevant to us) our Edmund Burke is the 20th century American conservative movement’s (and especially Russell Kirk’s) Edmund Burke.
Obviously there was a time when people read more whole books, but there was never a golden age when everyone knew firsthand what everyone else was talking about.
Well, I think WWII was a large part of it. Note how this one is cited as 1941 origin. The Petronius Arbiter one is WWII era. WWII put many bored people together, mixing around, without much opportunity for references. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but it seems like there are several that have been tied to that era. (Of course, it could be some other cause, such as “more documentation is being examined from wartime vs peacetime” or whatever.) But if WWII was the petri dish, the Internet has spread the pathogen.
Most people have not read Alexis de Tocqueville, so they don’t realize that he wouldn’t have agreed with the quote. They just know that the man got to know the country and had keen insight...so it “sounds plausible.” Combine that with confirmation bias, and you have something people believe and want to spread.
And it bothers me that people who correct the errors get slapped and accused of opposing the sentiments of the spurious quotes themselves. See my tagline :-(
While I understand and agree with what you said about (many) people only knowing the classics through the interpretive works of others, I'm not entirely sure that there wasn't a "Golden Age" in our Republic, at least very early on.
If you read McCullough's "John Adams" (and I suspect you have), you can see countless letters and transcripts cited where Adams (and his colleagues) discuss in great detail not only contemporaries like Tocqueville and Adam Sith, but Socrates and Cicero and other Roman historians and statesmen. It's clear that the Founding Fathers were incredibly well read, and well read on the source material.
I'm not sure when that ended in American history, but it certainly did end, and the internet has only made it worse.
“If you read McCullough’s ‘John Adams’ (and I suspect you have), you can see countless letters and transcripts cited where Adams (and his colleagues) discuss in great detail not only contemporaries like Tocqueville and Adam Sith, but Socrates and Cicero and other Roman historians and statesmen. It’s clear that the Founding Fathers were incredibly well read, and well read on the source material”
It’s true that they were well-educated, especially concerning the now all but lost classical world. Which is all the more impressive when you appreciate how scarce were books. They were far-flung from the center of European culture. Large publishing projects weren’t often attempted on American soil. Books sifted across the Atlantic, in streams or drips. There were local and academic libraries, mail-order enterprises, lending circles, or friends and colleagues to borrow from. But nothing like what is available to us today.
Can we say “Fake but accurate”
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