'Thus, Ist, I haven't yet been able to surprise in the conversation of anyone, no matter to what rank he belongs, the thought that the republic is not the best possible government, and that the people haven't the right to give themselves the government that pleases them. The great majority understand republican principles in the most democratic sense. With a few a certain aristocratic tendency, which I shall try to explain to you later on, shows through perceptibly. But that the republican is a good form of government, that it is natural to human societies, those are things no one seems to doubt, priests, magistrates, merchants, artisans. It's an opinion so general and so little disputed, even in a country where the freedom of speech is unlimited, that one might almost call it a faith.
'There is a second idea which seems to have the same character. The immense majority have faith in the wisdom and good sense of human kind, faith in the doctrine of human perfectibility. That's another thought that finds few or no denials. That the majority may be mistaken once, no one denies; but they think that necessarily in the long run it will be right; that it is not only the sole judge of its interests, but also the surest and most infallible judge.
'The consequence of this idea is that enlightenment ought to be spread in profusion among the people, that one cannot enlighten it too much. You know how many times in France we (we and a thousand others) have tormented ourselves to know whether it was to be desired or to be feared that instruction should penetrate into all ranks of society. This question, so hard for France to solve, doesn't seem even to have presented itself to minds here. A hundred times already it's happened to me to propose it to the most thoughtful men; I saw by the positive way in which they decided it that they had never stopped to consider it, and that the very statement of it seemed to them in a way shocking and absurd. Education, said they, is the only guarantee we have against the aberrations of the masses.
'There, my dear friend, are what I should call the faiths of this country. They honestly believe in the excellence of the government which rules them; they believe in the wisdom of the masses provided they are enlightened, and don't seem to suspect that there is a certain instruction which can never be the lot of the masses and which may nevertheless be necessary to govern a state.
'As for what we generally understand as faiths, such as customs, ancient traditions, the strength of memories, up to the present I don't see a trace of them. I even doubt whether religious opinions have as much influence as one at first thinks. The religious state of this people is perhaps the most curious thing to examine here. I shall try to tell you what I know of it when I resume my letter, which I must interrupt perhaps for several days.
Calwell [ ? ], 45 miles from New-York
'My mind has been so aroused since this morning by the beginning of my letter that I feel the need of continuing it, without however knowing exactly what I am going to say.
'I was speaking of religion. Sunday is rigorously observed. I have seen streets barred off before churches during divine service; the law commands these things imperiously, and public opinion, much stronger than the law, obliges every one to show himself at church and to abstain from all diversion. And yet, either I am much mistaken or there is a great depth of doubt and indifference hidden under these external forms. No political passion mixes in with irreligion as with us, but for all that religion has no more power. It's a very strong impulsion which was given in former times and which is now diminishing every day. Faith is evidently inert. Go into the churches (I mean the Protestant ones) you will hear morality preached, of dogma not a word. Nothing which can at all shock the neighbour; nothing which can arouse the idea of dissent. The abstractions of dogma, the discussions especially appropriate to a religious doctrine, that's however what the human spirit loves to plunge into when a belief has seized it strongly. Of this character were the Americans themselves in former times.
'This pretended toleration, which, in my opinion, is nothing else than good round indifference, is pushed so far that in the public institutions such as the prisons, the houses of education for juvenile delinquents, etc.... seven or eight different ministers in succession come to preach to the same congregation. But, said I, how do these men and children, who are communicants of one sect, like hearing the minister of another? The infallible response is this: The different preachers, treating only the common grounds of morality, cannot do each other any harm.
'Besides, it's evident that here, generally speaking, religion does not profoundly stir the souls. In France those who believe manifest this belief by sacrifices of time, of effort, of fortune. One feels they are acting under the sway of a passion which dominates them and whose agents they have become. It's true that at their side is a sort of brute who has a horror of the very name of religion and who does not even very easily discern the good from the bad. Neither one nor the other of these classes seems to exist here in the Protestant mass. One follows a religion as our fathers took medicine in the month of May. If it doesn't do any good, one seems to say, at least it can do no harm.
'And besides, it is proper to conform to the common rule. In the last analysis, how should it be otherwise? The reformers of the sixteenth century made in the matter of religion the same compromise that one is trying to make to-day in the matter of politics. They said: such and such a principle is bad up to a given result; from there on we find it good, and you must find it good with us, and vice versa. But there have been some ardent and logical spirits who have not been able to suffer being stopped half way. The result has been that an immense field has been opened to the mind of man, and he has profited from it, I assure you.
'It's incredible to see the infinite number of subdivisions into which the sects in America have split. Like circles traced successively about the same point, each new one a little farther away than the next. The Catholic faith is the immovable point from which each new sect separates a little further, while nearing pure Deism. You realize that such a spectacle can't fail to throw the mind of a thinking Protestant into inextricable doubt; and that's the emotion that I think I see in visible control at the bottom of nearly every soul. It seems clear to me that the reformed religion is a sort of compromise, a kind of representative Monarchy, a kind of religion that may well fill an epoch, serve as transition from one state to another, but which could never constitute a definitive state, and which is nearing its end.
'By what will it be replaced ? Here, doubt begins for me. This country presents for the solution of that question, which is moreover a question f of all mankind, some very precious premises. The religious and anti-religious instincts which can exist in man are developing here in perfect liberty. I should like to have you witness this curious show. You would find the struggle of the two principles there which divide the political world elsewhere. Protestants of all communions, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and a hundred other Christian sects, there's the basis of the population. A practising but indifferent population, which lives from day to day, accustoms itself to surroundings that are hardly satisfying but tranquil, and whose appearances are satisfied. Those people live and die dans des à peu près, without ever bothering to get to the bottom of things. They no longer replenish themselves.
'Above them are a handful of Catholics, taking advantage of the tolerance of their former adversaries, but still at bottom as intolerant as they have ever been, as intolerant in a word as people who believe. For them, there is no truth except in a single point, a line on this or that side of the point, eternal damnation. They live in the midst of civil society, but they forbid themselves all relations with the religious societies which surround them. I even suspect that their dogma on the liberty of conscience is about the same as in Europe; and I am not sure that they would not persecute if they found themselves the strongest. These people are in general poor, but full of zeal, their priests are entirely devoted to the cult of sacrifice which they have embraced; they are not business men of religion, like the Protestant ministers.*
'The Catholics are increasing in numbers in a prodigious way. Many arriving Europeans come to recruit them; but the conversions are numerous. New England, the basin of the Mississip[p]i begin to be filled with them. It is evident that all the naturally religious minds among the Protestants, the grave and proud souls whom the Protestant vogue wearies and who at the same time deeply feel the need of religion, are abandoning the search for truth in despair and throwing themselves again under the sway of authority. Their reason is a burden which weighs on them and which they sacrifice with joy. They become Catholics.
'Catholicism also appeals vividly to the senses and the soul and suits the masses better than the reformed religion; thus the majority of the converts belong to the working classes of society. There's one end of the chain. We are now going to pass to the other end.
'On the confines of Protestantism is a sect which is Christian only in name, the Unitarians. Among the Unitarians, that is to say among those who deny the Trinity and recognize only one God, there are some who see in Jesus Christ only an angel, others a prophet, others, lastly, a philosopher like Socrates. They are pure Deists. They speak of the Bible because they do not wish to shock public opinion, still entirely Christian, too deeply. They have a service Sundays; I was there.*-There they read verses of Dryden or other English poets on the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. A discourse is made on some point of morality, and it's done. This sect gains proselytes in about the same proportion as Catholicism, but it converts in the high ranks of society. Like Catholicism it gains from the losses of Protestantism.
'It's evident that the Protestants whose minds are cold and logical, the argumentative classes, the men whose habits are intellectual and scientific, are grasping the occasion to embrace an entirely philosophic faith which allows them to make almost public profession of pure Deism. Otherwise this sect does not resemble in any way the St. Simonians of France. Aside from the point of departure, which is entirely different, the Unitarians mix nothing gross, nothing clownish with their doctrine and their cult. On the contrary, they aim so far as possible to resemble on the surface the Christian sects. So no kind of ridicule attaches to them; no party spirit pushes them or arrests them. Their ways are naturally grave, and their forms simple.
'Thus, you see, Protestantism, mixture of authority and reason, is attacked at the same time by the two absolutes, reason and authority. This spectacle is to be glimpsed a little everywhere by him who is willing to look; but here it hits you between the eyes; because in America no power, no opinion interferes with the progress of human thought and passions. In this respect they follow their natural inclinations.
'At a time which does not seem to me very far off I am convinced that the two extremes will find themselves face to face. What will then be the final outcome? Here I lose myself in conjecture and no longer see the way marked.
'Will Deism ever be able to satisfy all classes, especially those which most need the rein of religion ? I can't persuade myself of that. I admit that what I see here makes me more disposed than I was before to believe that what one calls Natural Religion may suffice the higher classes of society, provided that the belief in the two or three great truths that it teaches is real and some sort of external cult is added, visibly to unite men in the public profession of those truths. But either the people will become other than they have been and still are in all parts of the world, or they will see in this natural religion only the absence of all belief in the other life and will fall headlong into the single doctrine of interet.
'But to get back to the actual situation of the United States, you mustn't give what I have just said too absolute an interpretation. I have spoken of mental disposition and not of accomplished facts. It's obvious there still remains here a greater foundation of Christianity than in any other country of the world to my knowledge, and I don't doubt but that this disposition still influences the political regime. It gives a moral and orderly turn to ideas, it arrests the wanderings of the innovating spirit; especially does it make very rare that moral disposition, so common with us, to launch oneself through all obstacles, per fas et nefas , toward the chosen goal.
'It is certain that a party, however anxious to obtain a result, would still think itself obliged to attain it only by means which would have an appearance of morality and would not openly shock the religious beliefs, always more or less moral, even when they are false.
'Don't you marvel at the smallness of our nature? One religion has a great influence over the desires, it dominates the imagination, it inspires real and profound beliefs; but it divides the human race into blessed and damned, creates divisions on earth which should exist only in the other life, breeds intolerance and fanaticism. The other preaches toleration, appeals to the reason, makes of reason its symbol; it obtains no power, it is an inert thing, without influence and almost without life.
'That's enough on this subject, toward which my imagination draws me continuously and which would end by making me mad if I plumbed it often....
* 'The evangelical mission appears to us to be here an industrial enterprise rather than
an affair of zeal and conviction. Mr. Cartwright told us that it was almost impossible
to have chaplains of talent in the penitentiaries because they were paid too little.'
Toc diary, Sing-Sing, 30 May 1831 (TT).
*Beaumont, who had also attended the service, shared Tocqueville's views. His letter to his father of 29 June (BBlb) was full of the subject.