These errors and abuses proved to be temporary and were corrected by later generations of settlers. The positive political contribution of the Puritans, however, proved to be of lasting and fundamental importance to America’s way of life: establishing and sustaining democratic self-government.
Puritanism, Tocqueville explains, “was not only a religious doctrine; it also blended at several points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories.” The Pilgrims came to establish religious communities, but their beliefs called for such communities to be instituted and administered by the consent of the governed.
The Mayflower Compact, for example, identified the purpose of the Plymouth colony as “the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian faith, and the honor” of “King and country.” It also, however, established the colony’s government on the basis of the colonists’ decision to “covenant and combine ourselves into a civil body politick” and to “constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony.” Other New England colonies similarly “began by drafting a social contract that was submitted to the approval of all interested persons.”
Puritan churches were governed democratically. “The greatest part of English America,” Tocqueville contends, was “peopled by men who, after having escaped the authority of the pope, did not submit to any religious supremacy.” Thus, they “brought to the New World a Christianity” that Tocqueville characterizes as “democratic and republican.” This fact “singularly” favored “the establishment of a republic and of democracy” in politics as well.
Although Tocqueville does not spell out the connection here, we can discern it easily enough. The Puritans no doubt regarded the government of their churches as the most important of their duties. It would naturally have occurred to them that if ordinary people are good enough to manage the community’s spiritual affairs without the approval of a pre-existing hierarchical authority, then they surely are good enough to manage its temporal affairs in the same manner. Moreover, their experience of managing their churches in this way would have fostered the habits and skills necessary to democratic self-government in the political realm.
We might be tempted to dismiss Puritanism’s political contribution to American civilization as worthy but not decisive. From our vantage point, the rise of self-government appears to be a worldwide movement carrying all nations on the path to democracy. Why, we might ask, should the Puritan founders of America get any special credit for going along with what history seems to be doing in any case?
Tocqueville takes care to remind us, however, that in establishing self-government, the New England settlers were not merely following the rise of modern democracy, but were pioneering it. The Puritans’ democratic political principles turned out to be those “on which modern constitutions rest” in the civilized world. Such institutions were not commonplace at the time they were planted in New England. They were “hardly understood” by “most Europeans of the seventeenth century” and were only “incomplete” even in England.
America, Tocqueville’s account thus reminds us, owes its democratic origins to its Puritan settlers. The North American English colonists were not uniformly religious, but it was the religious ones who established and nourished the spirit of self-government that later came to characterize the whole country. Moreover, we might add, this debt to the Puritans is owed not only by America, but also by much of the rest of the world. During parts of the 19th century, America was, if not the only democracy, then certainly the only large-scale, successful, and moderate democracy. Without its example, it is doubtful that the world would have moved as decisively in the direction of democracy as it finally did.
Religion and the Moral Foundations of Freedom
Besides recounting the historical debt that political freedom owes to Christianity, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. Here his argument may surprise us, because it emphasizes society’s need for certain shared beliefs in order for there to be common action. Freedom certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion, but that freedom in turn always rests on some intellectual foundation in which all citizens must partake. For Tocqueville, religion is best equipped to provide that intellectual foundation for society.
Modern Americans understand their society to be a free one, believe that they have an obligation to preserve it as such, and think—rightly—that such a society depends on freedom of thought and discussion. We sometimes talk, however, as if this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. This, Tocqueville contends, is a mistake.
On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.” Society is coordinated action, which requires common beliefs, but it is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at such beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.
Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.” All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.
Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” As the author of Democracy in America, Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs.
Here Tocqueville especially emphasizes religion’s contribution to sustaining public morality. Almost all human actions, he contends, “arise from a very general idea men have conceived of God, of his relations with the human race, of the nature of their souls, and of their duties towards those like them.” As a result, men “have an immense interest in making very fixed ideas for themselves about” such questions, “for doubt about these first points would deliver all their actions to chance and condemn them to a sort of disorder and impotence.”
Once again, Tocqueville notes the limited power of the individual human mind, which makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Therefore, he concludes, “general ideas relative to God and human nature” are “the ones it is most fitting to shield from the habitual action of individual reason and for which there is most to gain and least to lose in recognizing an authority.”
We might illustrate Tocqueville’s meaning with an example from recent American history. Fifty years ago, America had a strong national consensus about sexual morality, a consensus that rested on an almost universal respect for the moral teaching of the Bible. Since that time, this consensus has eroded in proportion as respect for the Bible as a source of religious truth has declined. The result, as Tocqueville predicted, is a form of public “disorder and impotence,” with Americans expending vast amounts of social energy fighting each other over political issues—such as the definition of marriage—that arise from disagreements about sexual morality.
Settled, common religious beliefs about morality are especially necessary, Tocqueville argues, for “free countries.” Without such beliefs, men are faced with a kind of intellectual and moral chaos that renders them incapable of preserving their freedom. “When religion is destroyed in a people,” he claims, “doubt takes hold of the highest portions of the intellect and half paralyzes all the others.” As a result, each citizen comes to have only “confused and changing notions” about the most important questions—such as the nature of his duties to himself, to others, and to the community.
Confronted with this uncertainty about the highest things, “one is reduced, like a coward, to not thinking about them at all.” “Such a state,” Tocqueville concludes, “cannot fail to enervate souls; it slackens the springs of the will and prepares citizens for servitude.”
There is a connection, Tocqueville’s argument reminds us, between solidity of conviction and energy of soul, or b...