Category Archives: history

Talking Tocqueville at the Acton Institute


Just returned home from Grand Rapids, Michigan where I was honored to give a talk on “How to Read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America” for the Acton Lecture Series. I lectured for about half and hour and then we had a great Q&A session afterwards about the role of voluntary associations in public life, religion and politics, the frontier and American identity, racial prejudice and slavery, and thinking historically about Tocqueville’s classic work. The audience was exceptionally well read, as evidenced by one person who brought along her copy of George Wilson Pierson’s Tocqueville in America to the lecture and referenced it in her question.

My host for the event was Trey Dimsdale, my former colleague at Southwestern’s Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He accepted a position at Acton this past July as Program Outreach Director. Trey had a big year this year–he finished his Ph.D. residency at Southwestern (AOS, ethics), passed the Texas Bar exam, and moved himself and his family from Ft. Worth to Grand Rapids in a U-Haul with no power steering and no cruise control.

My lecture was focused on the importance of grasping the historical context of Democracy in America as a necessary discipline for appreciating the many insights and perspectives Tocqueville offered in his classic work. Tocqueville was born into an ancient, yet only moderately wealthy, aristocratic line in 1805 and died in 1859. His great grandfather went to the guillotine during the Terror, and his father and mother were imprisoned and scheduled for execution. They were released from prison only after the execution of Robespierre. The experience of the Revolution lingered over the family for decades, and Tocqueville’s perspective on America was shaped by his family’s experiences. He was also deeply impacted by the rise and fall of Napoleon and the July Revolution of 1830 which toppled the restored Bourbon monarchy and raised Louis-Philippe to power. Perhaps the most salient feature of French political, social, economic, and religious culture during Tocqueville’s life was instability. When Tocqueville came to America, one of the features that struck him was the comparative stability of American culture, even though the United States was born out of a revolution.

We also have to understand that Tocqueville visited America during a ten month window of time in 1831-1832. That world is long gone. Tocqueville is often considered to be something of a prophet, because there are some uncanny warnings and prognostications in his work that we clearly recognize in contemporary times. It is also tempting to be nostalgic about the America that Tocqueville saw in the early 1830s. Tocqueville strenuously believed in human freedom, that persons were responsible for their own choices and actions. Although he believed that the spread of democracy was being directed by God, and hereditary privilege would soon be irresistibly supplanted by a providentially directed world movement of equality, he rejected historical determinism. He never considered himself anything more than a studious observer of America–an America that, while he admired many characteristics about its people, institutions, and habits, still did not escape his criticisms. One of his most penetrating censures was how Americans tolerated slavery, and more importantly, race prejudice. “Slavery recedes,” Tocqueville said of free blacks in the North, “but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable. . . . Thus the Negro is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labor, nor the affictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be; and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.” Nostalgia for 1831 America is misguided for many reasons–but with regard to reading Democracy in America, we completely miss the point of the book if we pine for a recovery of the past.

So it was a great visit. Ben Domenech of The Federalist will be up next, speaking on “The Rise of American Populism.”


Considering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America in Historical Context


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!

New Abridgment of Tocqueville’s *Democracy in America* Forthcoming

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) , french jurist and political thinker, painting by Chasseriau (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

I’ve been out of the blogosphere the past several weeks because I have been finishing up my abridgment of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic work, Democracy in America for Lexham Press. My project was specifically to take a Goldilocks approach to editing this book–to produce an abridgment that was not too short, not too long, but “just right.” Tocqueville’s two volume work comes in at just over 300,000 words, and I brought it down to 150,000. I hope it will serve as a useful resource for students in high school and college, but more importantly, I hope that it is accessible to the broader public.

I included a 9000 word introduction to Tocqueville’s work. In the introduction, I gave a brief biography of Tocqueville and also touched on some of his major themes. Equality of condition, despotism, liberty, manners, religion, exceptionalism, and interest rightly understood figure prominently in Democracy. These are, indeed, some of the things for which the book is most famous. But Tocqueville’s chapter on race–chapter XVIII of Volume I–is the longest chapter in the book. And while Tocqueville admitted that race was a secondary topic in the book, he was unable to simply ignore it. I find it interesting also that Tocqueville’s views on race, which were quite forward thinking for his time, are often slighted or ignored altogether by many who have analyzed his work. One abridgment that I am aware of does not even include chapter XVIII–which I found to be a profound weakness.

One of the ways I hope the abridgment will be useful is that I did not cut any chapter out in either volume I or II. I also did not cut any of Tocqueville’s sentences short. I tried to make logical cuts at appropriate points in the prose, without disturbing Tocqueville’s overall development of his ideas.

More on this project later, but the good news is that I recently submitted the manuscript to the publisher. It should come out in late 2016 in three formats–electronically, as part of the Logos Bible Software platform; paperback; and cloth bound hardback.

In the meantime, head over to The American Conservative and see my op-ed on Tocqueville and the importance of manners in a democracy, and what they say about the status of our national character and value-assumptions.

Chapel Hill Bound for First @AAIHS Meeting


W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, Courtesy of AAIHS

I am really looking forward to attending the first conference of the African American Intellectual History Society later this week at UNC-Chapel Hill. The university is my wife’s alma mater, so it will be fun to relive some old memories there. Looking forward also to harassing some old friends over in Wake Forest at Southeastern Seminary. And I’m excited to stop in and check in with my mother and father-in-law to make sure they’re behaving.

But I am truly honored to be a member of this society and also to have the opportunity to present a paper on a panel on W. E. B. Du Bois and American history alongside three good friends with sharp minds. Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity (NYU Press, 2015) and Edward Carson, co author of Historical Thinking Skills: A Workbook for European History (Norton, 2016) are two of my co-panelists. My third co-panelist is a former student of mine, Vondre Cash, who graduated from Southwestern’s Darrington extension in 2015. While he remains incarcerated at Darrington, he is recording his presentation and I will play it for our audience when his turn comes up to present. I am really excited for him, as he joins the scholarly conversation on Du Bois. Sinitiere’s paper is entitled “Environmental Intellectual: W. E. B. Du Bois and Nature”; Carson’s is “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Editorial Influence on Negro Migration and the Western Color Line;”and Cash’s paper is entitled “Unresolved Problem of the 20th Century: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Continuing Struggle for the Social Regeneration of African Americans.”

My paper is entitled “What, Then, Is The American? Crèvecoeur and Du Bois on American Identity.” I am contrasting two views on American identity, arguing that Crèvecoeur’s view was defined by broad opportunities for material advancement (the American dream), while Du Bois’s view was informed by a generously spiritual notion of human personhood.

See information about the conference and download the conference program here. If you are in the area, please join us.

John Fea’s (@JohnFea1) New History Podcast Fulfills a Necessary Public Function

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If you enjoy history, want to keep up with new books in history, learn how to think historically, and hear from the many of the best historians in the world, check out award-winning historian John Fea’s new podcast “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.”

Many of you are familiar with Fea’s work. He serves as chair of the history department at Messiah College. He is author of several books–including most recently his newly released history of the American Bible Society, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford, 2016). Prior to this book, he gave us Why Study History: Reflections on the Importance of the Past (Baker, 2013), Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: An Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2011), and The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). He also co-edited Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010) with Jay Green and Eric Miller. Fea’s Was America Founded was a finalist for the prestigious George Washington Book Prize in 2012 (watch for the second edition of Was America Founded to come out later this year). And I was deeply honored that he wrote the foreword to my book, American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion.

Fea is not only a prolific writer of books–he also regularly engages the public through his widely read historical blog, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home.” His analysis of current events in politics, academia, faith, and the state of the historian’s craft are always edifying and profound. He is also the biggest fan of Bruce Springsteen I have ever seen. (That fact will become obvious when you hear the opening of each episode).

Fea brings his expertise and engaging personality to the forefront in his new podcast. He is joined by producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling, who was one of Fea’s students at Messiah College and is now working on his dissertation. (Hermeling’s presence on the podcast is a testament to Fea’s effectiveness as a teacher and advisor to students). During the first segment of each episode, Fea and Hermeling have conversation together about their teaching, research, and small personal details. They are obviously good friends, and enjoy a fine rapport as two historians interested in engaging the public with important historical issues. In the second segment of each episode, Fea interviews a featured historian on his/her work.

Fea and Hermeling have produced four episodes to date. In Episode 1, James Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, talked with Fea on #EverythingHasAHistory. Episode 2 featured Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade. Fea and Williams discussed the history of the culture wars since the latter half of the 20th century. In Episode 3, Fea engages Yoni Applebaum in a fascinating conversation about history and politics. Episode 4 came out on February 28–Fea and Hermeling welcomed Sam Wineburg to discuss teaching history in a STEM dominated context.

As Fea explained in Episode 1, his boyhood dream was to become an investigative journalist. He became a historian after graduating from seminary because, as he said, he loves telling stories about the past. What makes Fea’s podcast engaging is that he combines elements of these two vocations as he discusses issues with Hermeling and with his guests. Every episode has featured famous historians who have done important work–but Fea’s questions are not only about their work and interests. His questions bring history out into the open, so to speak. He brings the importance of history to bear on issues of interest to society as a whole, as well as to specialists, through his conversations with his guests.

In this way, Fea’s podcast serves a distinct public function. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote extensively about what he termed “interest rightly understood” in his Democracy in America. Tocqueville did not think Americans were all that virtuous, but they were pragmatic enough to make a number of small sacrifices of their personal interests to help advance those of their communities. Fea acknowledges that many people don’t particularly like history, and he often addresses the objection from students and parents that a history major is not useful in our technology laden society. But people are interested in politics, sports, religion, movies, etc. And if the public can adopt a historical perspective on what interests them by thinking historically, then everyone benefits.

In Chapter XVIII of Volume I of Democracy, Tocqueville wrote,

The majority of [Americans] believe that a man, by following his own interest rightly understood, will be led to do what is just and good. . . . they judge that the diffusion of knowledge must necessarily be advantageous, and the consequences of ignorance fatal; they all consider society as a body in a state of improvement, humanity as a changing scene, in which nothing is, or ought to be, permanent; and they admit that what appears to them to-day to be good, may be superseded by something better to-morrow.

While I take issue with certain features of Tocqueville’s anthropology here (as I suspect Fea might as well), I think Fea would agree that the “diffusion of knowledge”–specifically, historical knowledge, and methods of historical thinking that attend that knowledge–is a good thing for our society, that it leads to civility in discourse among other benefits. Furthermore, Fea clearly believes that historical knowledge helps lead society toward “a state of improvement,” as Tocqueville wrote. That makes Fea’s blog and podcast very aptly named indeed.

Paul Putz’ List of New Books in AmRel History is Out


Over at Religion in American History, Paul Putz has given us his first of three updates on new books in American religious history for 2016. His first post of the year covers books that will be released from January to April of this year. There are a lot of exciting new titles forthcoming, such as:

Stephen Prothero, Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): The Battles That Define America from Jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage (HarperOne, January)

Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk, eds., Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Religion and American Politics (Oxford University Press, January) 

Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press, January) 

Michael S. Evans, Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life (University of California Press, February)

Peter Randolph, Sketches of Slave Life and From and From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, ed. Katherine Clay Bassard (West Virginia University Press, February)

George Marsden, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity: A Biography (Princeton University Press, March)

Christopher D. Cantwell, Heath W. Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake, eds., The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, March)

John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, March)

These few merely scratch the surface. Paul’s lists at RiAH are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in keeping abreast of the field of American religious history. Not only does he include the titles of forthcoming works, he also includes a link and short description–either a blurb, or the publisher’s summary.

See the entire list for January-April here.

Two American Exceptionalisms in Sam Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism


Just finished reading Sam Haselby’s excellent book, The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (Oxford, 2015). I am writing a review of the work for Fides et Historia, but I thought I would write a few things about it here on the blog as I collect my thoughts for the review.

The book’s thesis is two-fold: first, westward expansion from 1783 through 1830 answered the question about what American nationality would mean. Second, American nationality was decided largely as a result of a conflict between frontier revivalism of the early Second Awakening and the missionary movement of Northeastern Protestant elites. In sum, frontier revivalism won out over Yankee reformed Protestantism. The presidency of Andrew Jackson, with his attack on Bank of the United States and his policy of Indian removal, demonstrated that American identity would be expansionist and nationalist. The immediate beneficiaries of this new concept of American nationality were the Southern planters, who were able to export slavery and a plantation society into the territories of the Old Southwest and subsequently become the wealthiest ruling class in the world.

While there are many interesting parts of the book, one of the most arresting points comes toward the conclusion. Haselby places Andrew Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress (December 6, 1830) in contrast with Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863). While Lincoln sought to bring the Declaration of Independence to its logical conclusion by recognizing human dignity in “all men,” he cast the Civil War and emancipation as “the transformative events of nineteenth century American history,” in Haselby’s words. But Jackson’s 1830 address to Congress, which in part explained the rationale for the explusion of Native Americans from locales ranging from the southern Appalachians to Louisiana was, according to Haselby “the first explicitly racist statement on the political community from a sitting US president, and it was also the first time a US president turned to a theological justification for an imperial act.”

In answering his Northern critics who “often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country,” Jackson claimed that “no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself” for Native Americans. (Seriously?) Benefits to the Native Americans included separation from the white settlers, freedom from the power of the states from which they were leaving, and furthermore, they could “pursue happiness in their own way and under their own rude institutions.” Perhaps they would even “cast off their savage habits and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.” Nevertheless, the Native Americans should be grateful for their removal, Jackson said. “Rightly considered, the policy of the General Government toward the red man is not only liberal, but generous. . . . To save him . . . from utter annihilation, the General Government kindly offers him a new home, and proposes to pay the whole expense of his removal and settlement.”

As Haselby pointed out, Jackson’s policy was exclusionary, while Lincoln’s vision was one of inclusion. Jackson’s policy of removal was the perpetration of a great theft, but Lincoln’s purpose was to seek, as Haselby described, “the righting of a wrong.”

Both Jackson and Lincoln represent two distinct forms of American identity. One is a closed form, and the other is open. One is imperialistic, the other exemplaristic. One is self serving, the other is self examining. One lays hold of “Christianity” for justification, while the other looks to political and ethical ideals on which the country was founded: equality of the human condition, individual freedom, and democratic republicanism.

Americans have always seen themselves as the exception to the rule in human history. Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the unique geographical, political, religious, and social circumstances of America’s founding and early career and said “the position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional.” Both Jackson and Lincoln saw America in exceptional terms. But Jackson’s and Lincoln’s brands of exceptionalism were polar opposites in that one was closed, the other open.

We see these two articulations of exceptionalism throughout America’s career as an independent nation. Closed exceptionalism always hijacks Christian theological themes, whereas open exceptionalism is a political/social construct devoid of appeals to theology. In this way, open exceptionalism establishes a helpful starting point for patriotism and civic engagement that is not idolatrous, nor does it depend on twisting Christianity into an American form.

Haselby’s work presents a detailed and well-argued history of where religious nationalism—closed exceptionalism—comes from in the early republic. And once religious nationalism was ensconced in the American mind, it took on a life of its own. We continue to live with its legacy in our own day.