Blurbs for *Democracy in America* Abridgment Are In

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Democracy in America has always been essential reading for students of American history, and well as of the history of political and social thought. But teachers on the secondary-school and undergraduate levels who might otherwise make generous use of Tocqueville’s luminous text have often been daunted by the length and expense entailed in assigning the whole book. For such teachers, and their students, this careful abridgment of the Democracy, trimmed to half its original length and framed by the editor’s thoughtful introductory essay, will prove to be just what the doctor ordered.

Wilfred M. McClay
G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty, and Director, Center for the History of Liberty
University of Oklahoma

Tocqueville’s unparalleled analysis of the American experiment — his praise of it, and his prescient warnings about a people detached from virtue and religion — should be required reading for every American citizen. This superb abridgment communicates the power of the original in a way that makes thinking with Tocqueville easier than ever. Recommended!

C.C. Pecknold
Associate Professor of Theology
The Catholic University of America

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is one of the most important books–indeed, perhaps the most important book for understanding American politics and society. John D. Wilsey’s abridgment succeeds in placing an accessible version of this magnum opus in the hands of students and general readers, while his Introduction provides a clear guide for understanding the work. By sharing Tocqueville’s ideas broadly, Wilsey has contributed to educating the American democracy.

Jonathan Den Hartog
Associate Professor of History
University of Northwestern-St. Paul, Minnesota

John D. Wilsey’s edition of Democracy in America brings Tocqueville’s essential text into the classroom. Focusing on democracy, liberty, and racial prejudice, Wilsey draws attention to the important themes that have made Tocqueville’s work required reading as both a historical artifact and a statement of political philosophy. With careful abridgment and an approachable introduction, Wilsey helps faculty and students alike understand the meaning of Democracy in America in its own time and today.

Emily Conroy-Krutz
Michigan State University, Department of History

Wilsey’s volume on Tocqueville’s notoriously complex Democracy in America does an excellent job of contextualizing for the modern reader.  He reminds readers of the importance of reading Tocqueville in a historically critical manner that takes into account Tocqueville’s own views of democracy, as well as the fact that his writings should be properly understood as a “window into Jacksonian America.” Wilsey’s consideration of Tocqueville’s predictions on what slavery and racial inequality might mean for the United States are another important contribution this volume makes to the considerable scholarship on Tocqueville.

Jessica M. Parr
Adjunct Professor and Project Coordinator for Public History, UNH-Manchester
Author of Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivalism, and the Making of a Religious Icon

Wilsey’s marvelous editing of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America is both timely and instructive, given our current political context and racial climate in twenty-first century America. Students, professors and the general reader will benefit from a renewed edition of Tocqueville’s prescient nineteenth century observations of our still-burgeoning Republic as well as from Wilsey’s skillful teasing out of Tocqueville’s views on race and slavery in a fresh, thoughtful and insightful introduction. This book will be a benefit to American classrooms and a “must have” for educator’s libraries for decades to come.

Otis W. Pickett
Assistant Professor of History
Mississippi College

John D. Wilsey has achieved something near impossible–the abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s masterpiece Democracy in America while retaining its core contributions to our understanding of Jacksonian America up to the present. In his introduction, Wilsey provides readers an excellent guide for understanding Tocqueville’s treatment of equality, democracy, liberty, and especially slavery. This volume is perfect for high school and college students, but any curious reader could pick up a copy to start his or her study of this classic text.

James M. Patterson
Assistant Professor of Politics
Ave Maria University

Framed by a thoughtful introduction to Democracy in America’s historical context and its core philosophical and social concerns, this volume deftly balances reader accessibility with coverage of essential elements of the original text.

Lloyd Benson
W.K. Mattison Professor of History
Furman University

Alexis de Tocqueville is the greatest political theorist of democracy, and Democracy in America is his greatest writing. Editor John D. Wilsey provides an excellent introduction to Tocqueville’s thought and a judicious abridgement of the book that trims it down to half its original size, while retaining Tocqueville’s most important thoughts on issues such as democracy, liberty, religion, and race. Highly recommended.

Bruce Ashford
Provost and Professor of Theism and Culture
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

 

 

Some Historical Context for Clinton’s Remarks on Exceptionalism

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J. William Fulbright

During the first half of 1966, rifts in the Democratic Party began to develop over American involvement in Vietnam. By then, about 250,000 US troops were engaged in operations against the Communists in Vietnam as a result of Congress having granted President Lyndon Johnson a blank check in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In televised hearings, speeches on the Senate floor, and public addresses in early 1966, Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that if the war in Vietnam continued indefinitely without prospects for victory or negotiated peace, domestic divisions over the war would become dangerously pronounced. There was also grave risk of the war escalating into a general Asian war involving China.

On April 21, Fulbright spoke to the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies on “The Arrogance of Power.” In this speech, he insisted that dissent against the government’s policies during the course of a war was not unpatriotic, but one of the purest expressions of patriotism. “To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment,” he said. “Criticism . . . is more than a right—it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe than the familiar rituals of national adulation.” Ultimately, Fulbright’s argument was moderate. Rather than advocating for a withdrawal from Vietnam, he underscored the necessity for serious reflection in the application of military power. That reflection must take place in government according to the pattern laid down in the Constitution—in the give and take of advice and consent which was supposed to occur between the legislative and executive branches of the government. Fulbright noted that as a first rate power, the United States is continually tempted to “confuse” its power “with virtue.” Furthermore, it is “particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations . . . to remake them in its own shining image.”

Less than a month later, Johnson responded to Fulbright with a speech of his own—“The Obligation of Power.” He delivered this speech to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, shortly after the completion of Robertson Hall at Princeton University on May 11. Johnson spoke of how Americans did not exercise power in a spirit of arrogance, but of “agony.” “We have used our power not willingly and recklessly ever but always reluctantly and with restraint,” said the president. “The United States of America has never sought to crush the autonomy of her neighbors.” (A strange statement, considering the events of 1846-1848, for example. But I digress.)

Johnson went on to insist that America was not a servant of its power, but the master of it. He warned against withdrawal from Southeast Asia, implying that doing so would not only send the message that America could not be trusted, but also that darker forces would enter and fill the vacuum left behind. Johnson said, “a great power influences the world just as surely when it withdraws its strength as when it exercises its strength.” In the Vietnam War, America was engaged in defending transcendent values—the triumph of right over might, the defense of the weak, and the championing of the principle of self-determination. It might be tempting to cut and run, but Johnson’s advice to dissenters against his foreign policy was to face reality such as it was. “That is all we expect from those who are troubled even as we are by the obligations of power the United States did not seek but from which the United States cannot escape,” Johnson said.

Both Fulbright and Johnson were calling on American exceptionalism, even though their appeals represented two distinct articulations of the idea. Fulbright said that “America is worthy of criticism,” and that its strength lay in diversity of cultures, nationalities, and points of view that were united “in an open, receptive, generous, and creative society.” Ultimately for Fulbright, it was precisely because of America’s greatness that the nation would be able to overcome the destructive allure of power.

In contrast, Johnson articulated a rigorously interventionist form of exceptionalism. He believed America was indispensable to freedom and justice in the world. “What nation has announced such limited objectives or such willingness to remove its military presence once those objectives are achieved? What nation has spent the lives of its sons and vast sums of its fortune to provide the people of a small thriving country the chance to elect the course that we might not ourselves choose?” Johnson asked.

Johnson’ brand of exceptionalism imagined a consistent (even inherent) judicious and humble exercise of power. Johnson’s America was innocent of the transgressions of empires past—even though it only takes a cursory look at American history to witness the emptiness of such a conception. Fulbright’s exceptionalism is celebratory of American ideals, but realistic enough to recognize that America is flawed, and vulnerable to great error. Fulbright identified one of the brilliant characteristics of American republicanism is the division of power in the national government, in order to check the willfulness of any one person or group of people in power. The Congress is to be a check on the President  because it is human nature to become enamored with power for power’s sake while cloaking irresponsible uses of power in the rhetoric of innocence, good intentions, and patriotism.

I was reminded of this feud between Fulbright and Johnson after reading the transcript of Hillary Clinton’s remarks on August 31 before the national convention of the American Legion. Her statements on American exceptionalism were surprising to many. Most of us are used to Republicans giving harangues on exceptionalism. But here we had the Democratic presidential nominee criticizing her Republican opponent for not believing in American exceptionalism! I’m looking around now to see if any pigs have taken flight. Haven’t seen any yet, but Election Day is still many weeks away.

Clinton (I am not on a first-name basis with the lady, so I’ll confine myself to the more formal use of her last name here) claimed that her belief in American exceptionalism was her “one core belief that has guided and inspired [her] every step of the way” in her political career. Her exceptionalism is based on American ideals, determination, and grit. Diversity is central to her articulation of exceptionalism too, but Fulbright’s emphasis on unity arising from diversity is conspicuously absent from Clinton’s version. She noted what a blessing it is to be an American, and correctly observed that the reason so many people around the world clamor to get here is because they also recognize what a blessing being an American is. But the flip side of this blessed state is the responsibility that attends it.

This is where Clinton’s exceptionalism is so much like Johnson’s as he articulated it at Princeton in May 1966. She called America “the indispensable nation” with a “unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress.” Similar to Johnson, Clinton maintained, “our power comes with a responsibility to lead humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.” And what if America were to withdraw its hand? Clinton said, “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum” that other nations—whose motives are presumably not as righteous as America’s—will inevitably fill.

Clinton’s exceptionalism, at least as she articulated it to the American Legion the other day, is Johnsonian. There is little moral reflection in her understanding of the proper uses of American power aside from flowery rhetoric about peace and progress. Ironically, she seems to have scant appreciation for the limits of American power despite her many experiences with those limits since her political career began in the United States Senate in 2001. Furthermore, her brand of exceptionalism is defined by American innocence, just as Johnson’s was. This is perhaps the strangest part, because when she first began talking about exceptionalism, she cast it in terms set forth by Lincoln, Reagan, and Robert Kennedy. Reagan did see America as an innocent nation, but by no means did Lincoln or Kennedy. Clinton’s calling on these figures was great for the emotional appeal, but for historical, philosophical, and civil religious reasons, their articulations of exceptionalism do not belong in the same category.

So far, I’ve left Trump out of this analysis. Part of this is because Trump has distanced himself from the term “American exceptionalism” as Clinton rightly noted. But he still deserves mention. After all, his campaign slogan (in case you didn’t know) is “Make America Great Again.” Trump’s exceptionalism seems to be birthed out of a desire to recover a golden age long gone. This feature of exceptionalism is also prominent historically, along with innocence and responsibility.

All this goes to show at least one important truth that I have spent a great deal of energy trying to argue over the years: American exceptionalism is a complex and ambiguous concept. When the term is used in political discourse, it seems that everyone assumes that we are all talking about the same thing. And over the years, I have seen a lot of ink expended on the thesis that American exceptionalism is irrelevant, nobody takes it seriously anymore, and that millennials in particular see it as a dead issue.

But American exceptionalism is clearly not dead. Historically, it has taken various forms. Moreover, whatever form it has taken in whatever historical context, exceptionalism has always been multi-faceted. And when exceptionalism is called forth in today’s political discourse, its meaning depends on both the person using the term as well as its contextualization.

For example, many have accused President Obama of being ambivalent about exceptionalism. Such people usually refer to comments he made early in his presidency about Americans, Brits, and Greeks all believing in their exceptionalism. But those people have either misunderstood him, not listened to him, or are mischaracterizing him for political purposes. Obama has referenced exceptionalism quite frequently during his presidency. One of the most notable references was in his speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march in March 2015. In the context of Bloody Sunday, he said, “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?” Self examination is central thread in Obama’s exceptionalism, but he is hardly the first American to recognize its importance. The American tradition of patriotic self examination goes back to the Puritans of the 17th century.

Obama certainly has embraced American exceptionalism during his presidency. It just isn’t Lyndon Johnson’s brand (or Clinton’s, at least as she articulated it in front of the American Legion). But it is consistent with an open, inclusive, idealistic exceptionalism espoused by Abraham Lincoln, who was perhaps the first American president to put  patriotism on a higher moral plane than a narrowly defined, temporal set of national interests.

American exceptionalism is not one “thing.” But it isn’t in the eye of the beholder either. Its parameters are definable, despite its complexity as a historical and contemporary national identity paradigm. While it has not always been called “exceptionalism,” the idea is alive and well. Always has been. Probably always will be.

Cover Art for *Democracy in America* Abridgment is Ready

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Looking good! Available early November.

A Tribute to My High School History Teacher, Dr. Doug Frutiger

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Dr. Frutiger’s note to me in my senior yearbook. It reads, “John, The daily handshake, the warm frown and the incessant ‘Why not, Frutiger’ or ‘No way, Frutiger.’ What will I do without them? Actually, I’m looking around the room and find that you’ve walked out of class. I wonder where you are. Well–maybe I’ll be OK without you next year. Hope you find something of value at Furman.” -Doug Frutiger

I graduated from the old North Fulton High School off Peachtree Road in Atlanta, Georgia in 1988. North Fulton ceased to exist when the Atlanta City School System, in all its wisdom, decreed its death through a merger with our bitter rival, Northside High School. This merger happened in the early 90s, and the result was North Atlanta High School. I know nothing about North Atlanta, but I am told it is an excellent school.

It must be, because many of my teachers–and we sat under exceptional teachers at North Fulton–went on to teach at North Atlanta for many years. I have especially fond memories of Mrs. Pringle, my algebra teacher; Mrs. Wright, my English teacher; and Mr. (now Dr.) Frutiger, my history teacher.

I was enrolled in North Fulton’s International Baccalaureate program, along with 25 or so other students, during my junior and senior year. I had Dr. Frutiger for world history junior year; economics and history of Canada and Latin America senior year. IB has always been unique and innovative, but it was seriously so during the 80s when I was in school. Dr. Frutiger was among the most inspiring teachers I have ever had in all my years lugging a backpack to class as a student.

He and I remain in contact through Facebook. He is always encouraging whenever I post updates on my writing and publishing. He is likely surprised I amounted to anything. The day I asked him to sign my senior yearbook, my good buddy John Speaks (currently a State Department official based in Turkey) and I decided to head off campus to secure a couple of C0-Colas at the Tenneco station adjacent to campus. This, of course, was a serious breach of school policy (we were likely inspired by Ferris Bueller). But Dr. Frutiger, understanding and merciful as he was, saw the humor in it. Luckily for us. We were set to graduate in a matter of days.

I’m not sure if he remembers this or not, but I remember the first day of class with him at the beginning of my 11th grade year. He gave a lecture on “Criteria for Civilization.” He listed 10 general criteria on the board and then we spent the remainder of class discussing them. I will never forget that lecture he gave in the fall of 1986. It challenged the most basic of my assumptions. As a teenager, I had always considered “civilization” in purely Western terms, but he masterfully argued that civilization is borne out of humanity, not a particular ethnicity or culture. It was the first time I ever thought outside of my Ameri-centric perspective. From the first day of class, and for the next two years, he challenged my thinking, helped me improve my writing, gave me the tools on how to think historically, and demonstrated by his example the life of a scholar and a thinker. He was the first teacher I ever had who was pursuing a PhD in history, and I remember wanting to be just like him–a teacher, a learner, a writer, and a historian.

Dr. Frutiger taught for many years after the joy of having me as his student (see the above note for an idea of how wonderful I was). He inspired hundreds, thousands of students by his life and example. I cannot thank him enough for his labors, and I hope that I can be an inspiration to my students in some small way like he was to me.

Considering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Historical Context

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Thomas Cole [Public domain], “The Arcadian, or Pastoral State,” via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for a new abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America? Then look no further. You will have to wait until early November for the release from Lexham Press, but my Democracy in America: A New Abridgment for Students will (hopefully) fill a need. Tocqueville’s Democracy is two volumes–the first volume was published in 1835 and the second followed in 1840. The entire work is about 305,000 words–my abridgment consists of 150,000 words. Many abridgments of Democracy are far too short, so my contribution is designed to offer an accessible abridgment that isn’t cut to the quick.

This September, I will be giving a lecture at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan entitled “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.” Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) is one of the most recognized names among readers of American political science, philosophy, and history. Most people who are familiar with his name also know that he wrote one of the most important books of modern times dealing with American social ideas and institutions—Democracy in America (1835/1840). While Tocqueville’s name is well known, and his book is frequently referenced and quoted, many who attempt to read the two-volume work find themselves disoriented in what seems to them a howling wilderness of minutiae and esotericism. Still others labor within the work as though it were a diamond mine, hacking away at it in search of usable quotes to deploy for narrow ideological purposes, or to cast Tocqueville as a prophet with warnings for present-day Americans to heed his clairvoyant wisdom. Finally, there are others who simply rely on experts to break it down into bite-sized pieces, in order that they may understand the gist of Tocqueville’s classic before moving on to more recent (and comprehensible) books.

Like any book, we should read Tocqueville’s Democracy with its historical context in mind. Tocqueville wrote his work as an outside observer, not as an American. He wrote as a critical bystander, not as an admirer. And he wrote as one who saw first hand the effects of revolution on his family and his country. Furthermore, he was describing a snapshot of an America that is long gone—Jacksonian America, to be precise. And also, Tocqueville thought of New England as the frame of reference for America. New England left a deep impression on Tocqueville, and so he saw most things outside of New England in relative terms.

Tocqueville’s Democracy is a classic for good reasons. It is an historical artifact, but it is not valuable only as such. But to fully appreciate, grasp, and utilize the work, we must understand how to receive it in our own times. When we join historical with philosophical thinking in our chewing of Democracy, then we may find ourselves most ready to digest and absorb it.

If you’re in Grand Rapids on September 29, drop by the Acton Institute for a noon lecture and Q&A. Would love to see you!

Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part IV

Easter is never over. Here’s Part IV–summarizing Parts I-III–

To Breathe Your Free Air

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Let’s summarize our findings in this last part of the series on whether or not the gospel accounts of the resurrection are contradictory.

I am going to list all the events that are pertinent to the resurrection in chronological order. You can use the key below to reference each event as narrated in the gospel accounts.

Directions: Each event is listed in chronological order according to the gospel accounts. References are cited by the following code

a—Matthew 28

b—Mark 16

c—Luke 24

d—John 20-21

e—Acts 1

f—I Corinthians 15

g—Acts 9

The appropriate citations that correspond to the specific reference are given in superscript following the event.

  1. Mary Magdaleneabd, the other Maryab, Salomeb went to the tomb at early dawnabcd on the first day of the week.abcd

2-4 occur while the women were en route to the tomb.

  1. There was an earthquake.a

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Are the Resurrection Accounts in the Gospels Contradictory? Part III

Here’s Part III of the four part series on the gospel accounts of the resurrection–

To Breathe Your Free Air

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We have considered the questions about what the angels were doing and saying on the morning of the resurrection. Let’s take a look at the troubling apparent contradictions found in Mary Magdalene’s activities, and also those of Jesus himself.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels. New Testament scholars call them by that name because they are very similar in their content. Anyone who has given a cursory glance at these three gospels can readily see how similar they are.

But John’s gospel is different than the others. It does not contain any parables. And it is more theological than the Synoptics. So, we would expect to see wide agreement between the Synoptics concerning the details of the resurrection—which we do, especially in the sayings of the angels to the women as they perplexedly stood in the empty tomb.

John says that “on the first day of…

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