The Roots of Tocqueville’s American Exceptionalism

Editor’s note: Dr. T. David Gordon will be a participant in an April 7-8 conference hosted by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College on American exceptionalism: “America: Still the Last Best Hope?”

It is not uncommon for people to suggest that the idea of American exceptionalism first appears in Alexis de Tocqueville’s two-volume classic, Democracy in America, which appeared in 1835 and 1840. Some even cite the following sentence: “The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one” (volume II of the 1972 Reeve translation [Knopf], p. 36). But is this proof?

Contextually, I believe we can find no proof for the idea of American exceptionalism in this sentence, which appears in Chapter IX, titled: “The Example of the Americans Does Not Prove That a Democratic People Can Have No Aptitude and No Taste for Science, Literature, and Art.”

Note what Tocqueville is saying: Although Americans have no aptitude or taste for science, literature, or art, this does not mean that democratic people in other circumstances would suffer from the same liability. That is, he concedes that Americans have no aptitude or taste for science, literature, or art, but argues that this is due to the particular American experience, and is no natural concomitant to democracy. He expressly concedes this in the chapter’s opening paragraphs:

It must be acknowledged that in few of the civilized nations of our time have the higher sciences made less progress than in the United States; and in few have great artists, distinguished poets, or celebrated writers been more rare. Many Europeans, struck by this fact, have looked upon it as a natural and inevitable result of equality; and they have thought that if a democratic state of society and democratic institutions were ever to prevail over the whole earth, the human mind would gradually find its beacon lights grow dim, and men would relapse into a period of darkness.

To reason thus is, I think, to confound several ideas that it is important to divide and examine separately; it is to mingle, unintentionally, what is democratic with what is only American.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of “exceptional” Americans. That is, far from saying that Americans were “exceptional” in any ordinary or praiseworthy sense of the term, Tocqueville argued that states could operate on democratic principles without becoming the rubes of America. What he argued, in the oft-misquoted sentence, is that the American experience has certain liabilities: mentioning the fierce, austere Calvinism of many of its Puritan forbears; the free land in the west which invited more to agrarian than artistic pursuits; and a growing market for goods that encouraged industrial more than artistic or scientific pursuits.

Having mentioned these peculiarities of the American experience, Tocqueville summarized them in a paragraph that contains the oft-misquoted sentence:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven.

What was “exceptional” about the American “position” is its peculiar history that had led it to its present (to Tocqueville) circumstance, in which the American mind was devoted to almost nothing but pragmatic/practical interests. Only his religion, Tocqueville sighs, occasionally relieves the American of his unseemly mundaneness and bids him to a “transient … glance” at more transcendent concerns.

The American is “exceptional,” in other words, in his lack of artistic or intellectual culture. But this is not damning with faint praise; this is damning with vigorous criticism. I might as well refer to a failing student as “exceptional,” because all the other students are passing the course. Or imagine a college advertising itself as an “exceptional” college, where it attempts “to divert minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts.”

Rhetorically, Tocqueville was trying to persuade others that democracy was a good form of government; and his problem, rhetorically, was that the American example appeared to provide counter-evidence. Tocqueville was embarrassed that a free people had employed their freedom for mundane or commercial pursuits; so in order to rescue democracy, Tocqueville argued that it only looks like a bad form of government in America because of America’s peculiar (“exceptional”) history. Freed from this peculiar history, Tocqueville argued, democracy would work fine.

Whether America ever was or is exceptional is a matter for more discussion, but Tocqueville’s own estimate of 19th-century America was mixed at best and negative at worst. He would have preferred that democracy had produced a more learned and refined culture. And that’s a side of Alexis de Tocqueville, and his view of America, we don’t often hear or understand.