What a 19th century French Aristocrat can teach us about America


This is perhaps the most cited book in the world. I have seen it cited even when there is no need to do so, because the aura of quoting Tocqueville, the 19th century French aristocrat is irresistible. With his magnum opus Democracy in America, written after his visit to America in the 1830s’, Tocqueville entered the hall of immortals and this book is widely considered both by liberals and conservatives as an authoritative book on American history. While there is deep questioning in America regarding democracy and its efficacy and study after study showing that components that build democracy are in decline, this book is a peek into the past that offers us rich insights and lessons.democracy

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” These are the words with which Tocqueville begins his book. Here, he is talking about the equality that he saw among ‘free White men’, of his era, given that slavery was still very much part of the American social makeup. One can forgive him for this and look at the where he is coming from – the nobility of France, a deeply hierarchical society. This is one of the most significant takeaways from this book. This insight into the equality of Americans is also one of the most insightful observations that he makes. While inequality in America did exist in his time and it seems to have only increased in our times, the absence of  aristocracy and a perception of equality among all people is  part of the psychological makeup that is hard to find in any other part of the world.

He goes on to say “The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.” This goes to elaborate his earlier statement about the equality of conditions in America. He did note that the paradoxes in America were quite obvious. Racism while proclaiming equality. A great sense of individualism and the presence of conformist ideas alongside, a deeply religious society that was also extremely materialistic. The sense of local governance and direct democracy that Tocqueville witnessed in his travels across the states was something he marveled at, while there was a Constitution that was over 50 years old at that time. He made a careful note of all these paradoxes and  analyzes them.

The key problem that he wanted to solve, by writing this book is how democracy could survive and thrive, without falling to the changing mores of a majoritarian agenda. He felt this could be the antidote for France, with its hierarchical society. Having emerged from the French revolution only a generation ago, France then was in clear danger of falling back to autocratic leanings.  Not only France, but the whole world could learn from America’s experience, he wrote. He also undertakes a careful review of the judicial system of America, as it forms the backbone of the democratic system. “The courts correct the aberrations of democracy,” Tocqueville points out. He gives a detailed breakdown of how the local courts are aligned with the courts higher up and those are in turn responsible for the national jurisdiction. The system of checks on the Executive branch of government through the judiciary is made amply clear through his analysis.

Probing into why Americans thought of each other as equals, he writes “It may safely be advanced, that on leaving the mother country the emigrants had in general no notion of superiority over one another. The happy and the powerful do not go into exile, and there are no surer guarantees of equality among men than poverty and misfortune. It happened, however, on several occasions, that persons of rank were driven to America by political and religious quarrels.” The immigrants who made America their home were in exile, often fleeing religious persecution. This, combined with the English language and customs made them tolerate each other. The Founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson personified this notion of equality in all forms – including enshrining it in the constitution as the First Amendment, that sought to restrict the establishment of any one religion and also barring the state from prohibiting the practice of any particular religion. The wisdom of this basic clause cannot be overstated. When many countries around the world are grappling with issues of secularism, separation of religion and state and the role of the ‘state religion’, such problems are present to a much lesser degree in the U.S. than anywhere else. While it is hard to distill all the key points that Tocqueville made in a short essay, suffice it to say that this book deserves to be read, as it provides us a glimpse into the soul of America of the 19th century.

What lessons, if any does Tocqueville’s analysis have for us? I would argue that by relooking at the character of America in its formative years, we get a glimpse of the struggles that the nation and its people went through. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a mirror – in that it offers us an opportunity to look at our country yet again, with fresh eyes. Despite the historical element, many aspects of his analysis still hold true. While essentializing the ‘American character’ is not my purpose and I presume that Tocqueville also did not set out to find this, one can read into his work this quest for how the average American made sense of his life, his country and his or her own surroundings. To this extent, this is a powerful sociological document that offers us rich insights into how ordinary people, priests, criminals, tradesmen and

He does critique the institution by saying “Slavery, as we shall afterwards show, dishonors labor; it introduces idleness into society, and with idleness, ignorance and pride, luxury and distress. It enervates the powers of the mind, and benumbs the activity of man. The influence of slavery, united to the English character, explains the manners and the social condition of the Southern States.” (p.47)

A comparison with that era and our times can offer us benchmark of sorts. As a student of philanthropy, I was intrigued to learn of the history of civil society organizations. Americans are constantly forming self-help groups or some sorts of associations, Tocqueville pointed out. This trend seems to have continued, as we see the nonprofit and civil society sector to be one of the most vibrant in America. Americans given about $300 billion, as individuals to charity every year. Of this, about $100 billion goes to religious institutions, further demonstrating the importance of religion in the American public imagination. This is shifting slowly, but despite the demographic shifts, decreasing influence of Church on individual and societal morality, there is still a general understanding that religious institutions are key to American social life.

As America is changing and its fundamental values are being questioned by various discourses related to immigration, wealth inequality, gender relations etc. this book offers us some insights into how America has dealt with these issues in the past and what wisdom this holds for the future. Despite its formidable size, at over 800 pages, this is a book worth your time and attention.

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg


If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.




[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013