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The American Spirit: Religion and Freedom in DeTocqueville's America

The American Spirit: Religion and Freedom in DeTocqueville's America

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Published by Sarah A. Chase

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Sarah A. Chase on Aug 08, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Chase 1
“I have already said enough to put the character of Anglo-American civilization in its true light. It is the product (and this point of departure ought constantly to be present in one’s thinking) of two perfectlydistinct elements that elsewhere have made war with each other, but which, in America, they havesucceeded in incorporating somehow into one another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of the
 spirit of religion
and the
 spirit of freedom
” (Tocqueville, Democracy in America).
When Alexis deTocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in Americain 1835, the epoch of Puritan New England was already a distant memory. TheAmericans were past the Great Awakening of the early 17th century that broke up thePuritan stronghold over New England and liberated many of the states from church law.The churches had already opened their doors to a variety of persons, some of whom heldvery non-traditional beliefs. The Puritan churches had gradually backed down from their  privileged status and allowed other religions to establish contacts within society. The oldconservative churches eventually, although not totally, gave in to the new versions of Protestantism that had been spread by “New Light” preachers throughout New England.What Tocqueville discovered was a country where a humanized civil religion prevailedover the vestiges of a puritanical dominion.Tocqueville was pleased with what he observed in America and was prompted towrite that in this country the “
 spirit of religion
” and the “
 spirit of freedom
” had cometogether with a sort of harmony that had heretofore never been witnessed. Marveling atthe success of the Americans, Tocqueville devoted his studies to understanding thegenerative facts and principles behind the triumphs of their unique democracy -- mainlyfreedom and equality. Ultimately stating that “the nations of our day cannot have it thatconditions within them are not equal,” Tocqueville added that equality itself could leadhumanity to “servitude or freedom, to enlightenment or barbarism, to prosperity or misery” (Tocqueville, 676).Democracy in America provides a description of a working democracy and
Chase 2analyzes how it will reveal itself in the modern world. Tocqueville remained consistentin his belief that the destiny of humanity would rest on the choices made by democraticnations. By discovering the nature of American democracy, Tocqueville believed it possible to “ponder the future” of democracy everywhere (Tocqueville, 15). Examiningthe “spirit of religion” and the “spirit of freedom” is the crucial step in ascertaining theheart of American democracy.The first chapter of Democracy in America is limited to a discussion of the“external configuration” of North America (Tocqueville, 19). In this first chapter Tocqueville discusses America’s geographical attributes, such as its rivers, mountains,and forests. His description of the continent hints at a divine plan for the arrangement of these natural phenomena. Yet, he says that the first inhabitants, the Native Americans,were incapable of maximizing the lands potential. They were merely biding their time,
 as if the land already knew that it was ordained for a people that “were going to give theworld a spectacle for which the history of the past had not prepared it” (Tocqueville, 27).The subsequent chapter, entitled “On the Point of Departure,” is “the seed of what is tofollow and the key to almost the whole work” (Tocqueville, 29). Early Puritanism, which blended together religious and political life, is what Tocqueville observed to be the secretto preserving freedom and democracy in America. Much more than a religious doctrine,Puritanism “blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republicantheories” (Tocqueville, 32). The Puritans’ religious propensity for democratic principlesand self-made religious and political law led to violent persecution in England. To securetheir safety and freedom they would have to leave.
1 “Providence, in placing them in the midst of the New World, seemed to have given them only a shortlease on it; they were there, in a way, only
in the meantime
” (Tocqueville, 27).
Chase 3
New England’s God
The Puritans set forth for the New World with the vision that they would be the people who could make an “idea triumph” (Tocqueville, 32). The idea they longed for was of a society where they would all be free to worship their God in peace and to livetheir lives in accordance with the strict doctrines of Puritanism. Each of them, equal byclass, equal by heritage, and equal under God knew that they would find in America aland where their principles would be safe to prosper and where they would be free toworship as they saw best. Sharing a common disgust for religious persecution andfollowing the guidance and the strength of their religious doctrines, the early colonistsarrived in a world that was far removed from all that the habits and traditions they hadknown in Europe and all that they had scorned about the shaky and violent make-up of European society. The cold and rocky shore of New England was a welcome sight to a people who had faced death and ruin for the sake of an idea.Tocqueville frequently incorporates the writings of the early colonial historian Nathaniel Morton in order to illustrate the strong Biblical and political convictions of thefirst settlers. One section of the quoted Morton text sums up the peculiar situation of thefirst settlers: “but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and lookednot much upon these things, but lifted up their eyes to heaven, their dearest country,where God hath prepared for them a city” (Tocqueville, 34). Tocqueville concludes fromhis colonial studies that Puritanism is as “much a political theory as a religious doctrine”(Tocqueville, 35). His theory is amply supported by the actions of the Puritans. Their first undertaking in the New World was the establishment of a working society, whichwould rely upon a precious mixture of divine and actual law. To these laws the Puritans

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