The Weekly Standard
November 13, 1995By John J. Pitney, Jr.
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.