Category Archives: writing

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

 

 

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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!

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.

Marco Rubio, “The Most Boring Man in America,” and America’s Great Commission

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John Foster Dulles (1888-1959) served Dwight D. Eisenhower as Secretary of State from 1953 until his death from cancer in 1959. When he died in May of that year, he was one of the most respected men in the world. Many Americans–including President Eisenhower himself–believed they had lost their best hope at winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Dulles’ New York Times obituary from May 25, 1959 had this to say:

But when Mr. Dulles had to withdraw from the international scene one word was heard over and over among the diplomats of Europe and Asia: “Indispensable.”

When President Eisenhower announced Mr. Dulles’ resignation he had tears in his eyes. The moment was so moving that no one could bring himself to ask a question. With mixed pity and consternation some remembered a remark attributed to the President several years ago:

“If anything happened to Foster, where could I find a man able to replace him?”

Still, during his long career of public service, Dulles did not make an admirer out of everyone he met. William Inboden, in his book Religion and American Foreign Policy, 1945-1960: The Soul of Containment, wrote that Winston Churchill described him as a “dour Puritan, a great white bespectacled face with a smudge of a mouth.” He was also popularly known during the 1950s as “the most boring man in America.”

And yet this was a man who sincerely believed that America possessed a God-given responsibility to defeat Soviet Communism and spread American style democracy everywhere in the world. Dulles’ deeply held conviction on America’s “Great Commission” helped inform US foreign policy until the end of the Cold War.

I wrote an op-ed for History News Network which appeared last evening discussing Dulles’ conviction–and his legacy, especially as seen in the candidacy of GOP hopeful Marco Rubio.

Here is a portion–

Dulles gave a speech entitled “The Power of Moral Forces” in 1953 in which he said “[our forebears] created here a society of material, intellectual, and spiritual richness the like of which the world had never known.” In contrast, the Soviets were atheistic, ontologically materialistic, and thus, “as a result the Soviet institutions treat human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can be made to produce for the glorification of the state.” Ultimately, the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union was the difference between a religious people committed to neighbor-love and an atheistic statist system in which people were compelled to obey through the constant threat of force.

Still, because America was founded on the basis of an active, rather than a passive, religious faith, its ultimate victory over godless Communism was assured. For Dulles, America’s spiritual heritage was three-fold. In a 1947 speech entitled “Our Spiritual Heritage,” Dulles said that first, Americans’ experiment in freedom was carried out by a religious people; second, Americans historically believed that “there are eternal principles of truth and righteousness which are reflected in a moral law.” Third—and most importantly—Americans’ religious faith was fueled by a transcendent obligation to serve others. Furthermore, this commitment to look beyond themselves and to the freedom of everyone in the world was essential to the survival of the American republic. Dulles said: “our society would quickly succumb if we renounced a sense of mission in the world.”

How do we see the continuation of Dulles’s legacy in contemporary times? Certainly we can see it in manifold ways, but let us consider that legacy through the lens of the presidential candidacy of GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Rubio has made American exceptionalism the centerpiece of his personal narrative, and by extension, his entire campaign.

Read the entire piece here. And read a more extensive historical and theological analysis of Dulles and America’s “Great Commission” in American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion: Reassessing the History of an Idea.

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A Fitting Way to Spend October 31

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I just finished putting together a chapter for a collection of essays edited by Ray Van Neste, director of the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union University. My chapter is on the impact of the Reformation on the art of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The book will be part of a larger celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous act of impertinence, his nailing of the 95 Theses to the chapel door at Wittenburg, October 31, 1517. I was honored to be asked to contribute the essay, and I couldn’t help but think of the appropriateness of submitting on the 498th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses.

See the website for the Reformation 500 Festival at Union, a three day conference to be held March 9-11, 2015. Plenary speakers will include Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University, Peter Leithart of the Theopolis Institute, and Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary. Plan to attend if your schedule permits.