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Saturday, June 15, 2019

Tracing Back the Fake Tocqueville Quotation

Many posts have discussed the fake Tocqueville quotation, "America is great, because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great."

Aryssa Damron at Check Your Fact:
Robert Tracy McKenzie, a history professor at Wheaton College, told The Daily Caller that the quote is spurious. “It has been debunked numerous times over the last 67 years or so – no serious Tocqueville scholar believes that he wrote anything remotely similar, nor does it capture the essence of what he believed about the success of democracy in the United States,” he said in an email.
The quote dates back to at least 1922, according to etymologist Barry Popik, though he found a variant appearing in print as early as the 1880s.
“I sought everywhere in vain for the secret of their success, until I entered the church,” reads this variation. “It was there, as I listened to the soul-equalizing and soul-elevating principles of the Gospel of Christ, as they fell from Sabbath to Sabbath upon the masses of the people, that I learned why America was great and free, and why France was a slave.”
McKenzie believes the last two lines originated even earlier, with a variant written by Andrew Reed and James Matheson, English ministers who wrote about their travels to the U.S. in the 1830s. “America will be great if America is good. If not, her greatness will vanish away like a morning cloud,” reads their account, published in 1835.
“Here, almost certainly, is the long-lost germ of the ‘words to live by’ that Americans have long attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville,” said McKenzie.