Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Founding

Tocquevillean American Exceptionalism

We interrupt, or supplement, this Reagan moment for a review of two new works on Alexis Tocqueville, by Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield addresses Tocqueville's slighting of the Declaration of Independence:

Tocqueville was not friendly to philosophers or "theoreticians," as several letters confirm. In "Democracy in America," he ignored the political philosophy in the principles of America's founding, calling the Puritans and not, say, John Locke, America's "point of departure." He emphasized the practical work of the Constitution (based on theories, to be sure) and never even mentioned Jefferson's more theoretical and Lockean Declaration of Independence. Yet Tocqueville was interested in "theoretical consequences".... 

To this definition and endorsement of American Exceptionalism one might object, and doubters of that idea today do object, that a country maintaining slavery could not congratulate itself for being an example, let alone the exemplar, of political freedom or thoughtful choice to the rest of mankind. Tocqueville agreed, and in his letters on America after his visit he inveighed against the taint put by slavery on America's reputation around the world, particularly since other countries had already abolished it. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 he grew increasingly concerned; it was one thing not to abolish slavery where it was long established, quite another to extend it to new territories. This was a point made by Lincoln, but Tocqueville died in 1859 without learning of the man who would have shown him the greatness he most praised: great thought from the doer of great deeds.

But this begs the question:  Does Tocqueville's framework of aristocracy versus democracy, with equality as an historical force, provide us with the best means of understanding Lincoln?  Moreover, at least one of Tocqueville's letters testifies to his knowledge of Americans' passionate embrace of the Declaration (July 16, 1831).  Here Tocqueville recoiled at that "piece of humbug in some farce" by a lawyer making world history's "consummation in the United States, seated at the center of the universe."  Tocqueville left, "cursing the speechifier whose gab and famous national pride had dampened the vivid impressions the rest of the [Fourth of July] ceremony had made on me."  Might Tocqueville have been reminded of that lawyer and dismissed Lincoln as one of his ilk?  Did he not see the logos behind the passions?

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Discussions - 6 Comments

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Regarding "Americans' passionate embrace of the Declaration" what are we to make of the extended reading of the Declaration put together by Fox just minutes before the kickoff of the Super Bowl? Fox has had the Super Bowl before but had never done this.

The reading of the Declaration on our national Holy Day -- the Super Bowl -- must be seen as re-emphasizing Congress' reading of the Constitution at the opening of business last month. Although both are purely symbolic, I expect these exercises to be repeated in years to come since criticism of them will certainly reveal the cynicism of the Left to the average American. No political movement can afford to appear cynical.

Kudos to Fox for the idea.

fixed! sorry, and thanks

That is a fine article throughout, and as good a defense of Tocqueville as can be imagined. I love the last paragraph's comparison of genius with "method." I wonder, was Tocqueville too shocked by the French Revolution to appreciate the moderate American one, based on a more sobert political theory?

Whoops, that's "more sober political theory."

Thanks, I missed that, along with a lot of the commercials, and much of the game.

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