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Why is America so polarized? Tocqueville has an answer

Alexis de Tocqueville

He admired the Puritan foundations of America, but also saw a profound weakness

Alexis de Tocqueville fashioned himself “a new kind of liberal.” He did not want the kind of liberalism that produced the French revolution, with its profound hostility to the Catholic Faith. American democracy, on the other hand, seemed to offer a different kind of liberty, and a different kind of liberalism. One difference that Tocqueville observed was Puritanism.

He was fascinated by a Puritan harmony between liberty and religion which was more fundamental than “revolution.” The Puritans saw the commonwealth (the common good) as something which was fundamentally moral, and thus related to God. An ordered liberty would support virtue, and aid citizens in avoiding the near occasion to sin. Tocqueville never believes that these Puritan beginnings explain everything about democracy in America, but he does say that something of this “Puritan seed” went forth into “the whole.”

First their principles began in New England, and then “spread into neighboring states” until “penetrating the entire confederation…they [now] exercise their influence beyond its limits, over the entire American world.” The Puritan seed is the part which is the key to understanding not only the geographical and political “whole” but Tocqueville goes further to suggest that while the Puritans don’t have a metaphysical “whole,” they offer the key to understanding American liberty.

“Go back to the beginning,” he writes, and you will find the “first causes of the prejudices, habits, dominant passions, of all that ultimately composes what is called the national character.” In the origins you can find explanations for “incoherent opinions” which are “like fragments of broken chains that are sometimes seen still hanging from the vaults of an old edifice and that no longer hold up anything.” The founding of New England “offered a new spectacle,” a new beginning in which the Puritans must be seen as a seed, as those who “carried democracy even within democracy.” They are the seed which God plants “with his own hands in a predestined land.”

Tocqueville paints a romantic vision of one hundred and fifty men, women, and children founding an outpost of heaven whether on the banks of the Hudson River in mid-Winter or where they eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. They form themselves into a political society in 1620, forming penal codes for moral order, a government intent on occupying “the realm of conscience.” The Catholic Tocqueville is somewhat embarrassed by how many sins the Puritans criminalized, but he reminds his French readers that such laws were not imposed from without by external coercion but “were voted by the free participation of all those concerned; and that the mores were still more austere and puritanical than the laws.”

Alongside this Puritan passion for penalty he notes that they were strongly stamped by a “narrow sectarian spirit and by all the religious passions that were excited by persecution and were still seething deep within their souls.” These are “generative principles” for the American creed, or what he sometimes called the “political catechism” of a great people.

One can detect both sympathy and disagreement with Puritan anthropology, but he admires their love of liberty largely for the way it differs from revolutionary views which had wrecked so much havoc in his own country. He cites approvingly Cotton Mather’s discussion of “holy liberty” in Magnalia Christi Americana. Tocqueville is struck by how this “holy liberty” is freedom for goodness, for truth, for justice, for God. In this sense, what makes Puritan liberty different from the liberty of 1789 is precisely that it is not liberty “for secular purpose,” but for holy purpose. Where France divorced liberty from religion, the Puritans united “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty.”

This seed, this germ, Tocqueville writes, is “the key to nearly the whole book.” So the Puritan seed was dispersed, fragmented, and scattered. Its children could favor different aspects of the originating spirit. It could combine with other species, if you will, and yet American diversity would always have this common root. Yet Tocqueville also sees something profoundly unstable in the Puritan seed — it is sectarian, and not “the whole.” The Puritan seed lacks a unifying principle, and cannot supply the American people with a stable, common creed.

In one of his more Catholic insights, Tocqueville believes the Puritan seed is made to be divided, to be diversified through a great plurality — yet moving in two directions. Tocqueville writes, “our descendants will increasingly divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely and others embracing the Church of Rome.”

Tocqueville is no Augustine for America, but he does have an important insight into American polarization. In the end, he thinks one part of America will view liberty as the flight from Christianity, and the other will see that a culture of freedom requires its full embrace.