Tag Archives: Alexis de Toqueville

The Secret to Greatness

Alexis_de_Tocqueville SketchThis is the 240th year of my nation’s independence. From those humble beginnings in 1776, America quickly became “great”. This anniversary also took place amidst a dismal train wreck of a presidential election year here. Among the many sound bites and slogans thrown around in the course of the national election, was one suggesting that we “make America great again.” As slogans go, it’s good; it’s short, catchy, memorable, and just vague enough for people to make out of it what they want to hear. But if America was once great, and we desire to make her great again, perhaps it would behoove us to look at what made her great the first time.

Alexis de Toqueville was a young Frenchman who wondered that same thing in 1831 when he arrived in the US. America and France presented an interesting contrast. While both had gone through revolutions during the previous 60 years, and both resulted in the formation of a republic, France’s revolution was a blood-drenched anarchic nightmare compared with America’s much more orderly (and stable) quest for freedom. So Toqueville came to America, selecting “the nation, from amongst those which have undergone it {democratic revolution} in which its development has been the most peaceful and the most complete, in order to discern its natural consequences, and if it be possible, to distinguish the means by which it may be rendered profitable” to his French people. [1]

What did he find? While there is a beautifully stirring quote popularly attributed to him summing up how America’s greatness is not found in all her various resources, but rather in her churches, I’ll refrain from quoting that here as it is, by all appearances, a false attribution. Nevertheless, the last sentence of that misquote, does, I think, hold a kernel of truth in it. It goes like this: “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.” If the candidates in a representative form of government like ours are reflections of the people, then it may be safe to say at this point that we have “ceased to be good,” and may never be great again, in spite of hopeful political slogans.

When it comes to “greatness”, might I suggest that we take a lesson from engineering design? No product or process can be expected to excel if it is used in ways contrary to its design intent. The highly-engineered sports car will likely disappoint the driver that attempts to take it off-roading. In my own field of structural design, the heavily-reinforced concrete underground shelter that is ideal in a tornado may become a water-filled coffin in a hurricane’s storm surge. The two events have different requirements, and the optimum solution for one may be counter-productive in the other event.

Our nation, this grand experiment in liberty and self-governance,  was designed by, and for, a peculiar citizenry. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[2] We are a nation designed to exemplify the truth and grace of God in this world, and we will not return to any kind of meaningful greatness until we return to fulfilling our design. As we have denied the Christian foundations of our nation, and rejected the Christian doctrines that established us and made us “a city on a hill”[3] and a light to the nations, we have slid further and further from true greatness. We would do well to remember the proverb that tells us that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” [Prov 14:34] True greatness will not be obtained from any political savior, regardless of the political party or ideals they represent. No matter who wins this election, America will continue toward becoming just another name in the history books of another broken and bygone nation if there is not a transformation of her people. Political change is always short-lived, and often today’s revolutionaries become tomorrow’s conservatives fighting to preserve what they fought for against the newest batch of revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the “status quo”. If you seek for salvation in political, economic, or cultural change, you will only find yourself in a depressingly vicious cycle. Only God provides the inner transformation of man, at his core, that stops the cycle and provides stability to an individual, and consequently, to a nation of transformed individuals. Until we address the “heart” issue at the heart of our national sickness, we are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic while we continue to sink.


[1] Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America, Introduction, Location 503, Kindle Edition.
[2] John Adams, “Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts”, 11 October 1798
[3] John Winthrop (Govenor of Plymouth Colony), “A Modell of Christian Charity”, sermon delivered c. 1630. The phrase is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, by Jesus (Matt 5:14).