As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, for centuries a constant theme of reformers and philosophers was the importance of owning capital to be able to participate fully in society as a “political animal,” i.e., an individual with rights and a social nature. The problem was that methods of finance virtually dictated that ownership of capital would be concentrated, unless a source of “free” capital became available — which in Europe was all-but impossible.
As a result, some reformers began asserting that the only way capital could benefit everyone was to abolish private ownership of capital. Only in America was there capital available for the taking, if one ignores the claims of native Americans, anyway.
|Frederick Jackson Turner|
From the beginning, America represented an alternative to the closed and increasingly stratified society of Europe. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) credited this to the existence of a land frontier, open to anyone who was willing to take advantage of it. This economic democracy provided the soundest foundation for political democracy — while it lasted. As Turner said, “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.” (Frederick Jackson Turner, “XVIII. — The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894, 223.)
Pius VII was favorably disposed toward American type liberalism and democracy. His protégé Pius IX, in common with almost every subsequent pope, praised the U.S. Constitution. (Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought: A Treatise in Political Philosophy. St. Louis, Missouri: B. Herder Book Co., 1947, 481.) Nor is this surprising when considering the system in the United States. American type liberalism and democracy were founded on respect for the dignity and sovereignty of each human person.
The fact of slavery and the treatment of native peoples, while intolerable, in no way detract from the importance of America. Rather, they serve to illustrate in the most graphic manner possible that, at best, human institutions are applications of divine principles. They are perfectible but can never be perfect.
|Pope Leo XIII|
It is this acknowledgment that the applied American system can be made “more perfect” combined with its recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of each human person that have commended “Americanism” — properly understood — to the popes. As Leo XIII noted,
[W]e have often considered and admired the noble gifts of your nation which enable the American people to be alive to every good work which promotes the good of humanity and the splendor of civilization. . . . if by [Americanism] are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name. (Testem Benevolentiae, §§ 1, 33.)
Specific reasons for papal approbation can be found in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Established on an explicit acknowledgment of the sovereignty of the human person, the American system was inherently respectful of human dignity. This was not an “add on,” but embedded in the very nature of America.
Coming to the United States from France at a time when the French “July Monarchy” was in power, Alexis de Tocqueville was familiar with a society in which traditional forms of religion and politics were not only being questioned, they were in many cases under open attack. This was the heyday of Saint-Simonianism and the church established to spread Saint-Simon’s gospel of the New Christianity, the Neo-Catholicism of de Lamennais, and a seemingly endless host of others. All of these attempted to apply totalitarian, European type liberalism to the problems caused by advancing technology, the displacement of labor, and the consequent alienation of ordinary people from both civil and religious society.
De Tocqueville visited England before coming to America. He was able to observe first-hand the progress European type liberalism was making at that time against elitist English type liberalism, although the Oxford Movement had not yet begun to highlight the problem.
Cobbett, whom Chesterton called “a sort of Radical,” (G.K. Chesterton, William Cobbett. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Limited, 1925, 72.) might have puzzled de Tocqueville somewhat. Although a Radical, Cobbett’s notion of liberalism was American rather than European or English. He advocated widespread capital ownership. A member of the Established Church of England, he demanded civil rights for Catholics without lapsing into latitudinarianism.
In America, de Tocqueville received a revelation. He had gone there to study the prison system. He stayed to gather material to bring an understanding of this remarkable person-centered liberalism back to its antithesis in France where the collective, not the human person, was sovereign. As he said,
In America the principle of the sovereignty of the people is neither barren nor concealed, as it is with some other nations; it is recognized by the customs and proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely, and arrives without impediment at the most remote consequences. If there is a country in the world where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people can be fairly appreciated, where it can be studied in its application to the affairs of society, and where its dangers and its advantages may be judged, that country is assuredly America. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I.iv.)
Socialism and thus modernism — as Chesterton noted, two sides of the same coin (G.K. Chesterton, “There Was a Socialist,” G.K.’s Weekly, May 10, 1930; cf. Ubi Arcano, § 61.) — had not yet made any significant inroads in America beyond an extremely limited circle, primarily among New England intellectuals. In any event, de Tocqueville was not interested in transplanted European utopias, but in the essence of the America Experiment.
Another surprise for de Tocqueville was the place of religion in public life and the character of the various denominations, especially Catholicism. In France the Church was struggling to reestablish its identity in a society in which Gallicanism, religious indifferentism, and socialism as a substitute for Christianity were rampant. In the United Kingdom the Church of England faced similar problems.
The case was otherwise in America. As de Tocqueville recalled,
On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. (De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I.xvii.)
|Alexis de Tocqueville|
De Tocqueville concluded that of all the different denominations of Christianity, Catholicism is the most favorable to democracy. According to de Tocqueville, Protestantism stresses independence of religious experience, cutting people off from one another, while Catholicism stresses equality before God, bringing them together in solidarity in a system of shared beliefs. (Ibid.) He went so far as to predict that in the future, in America and elsewhere, Christians would either become Catholics, or abandon Christianity altogether. (Ibid., II.vi.)
Pius IX may have read Democracy in America, as the reforms he attempted to implement at the beginning of his pontificate were of the American type of liberalism. Returning the compliment, de Tocqueville as Foreign Secretary of the brief Second French Republic defended the pope’s inability to implement further reforms the French liberals and radicals demanded as the price of restoring Pius IX. (Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville, op. cit., 314-315.)
|Pope Pius XI|
It was, however, with Pius XI that de Tocqueville’s analysis truly resonated. In de Tocqueville’s description of how in the 1830s Americans tended to organize for the common good at every opportunity the pope saw an application of his social doctrine. (De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I.xii.)
Possibly unconsciously, Pius XI even echoed de Tocqueville’s language. Where de Tocqueville stated his belief that “[a] new science of politics is needed for a new world” (Ibid., “Author’s Introduction.”), Pius XI declared, “The pastoral theology of another day will no longer suffice.” (Pius XI, Discourse to the Ecclesiastical Assistants of the U.C.F.I., July 19, 1928. Quoted in Luigi Civardi, Manual of Catholic Action, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936; p. 178.)
Unfortunately, as de Tocqueville predicted, the failure to resolve the slavery issue was, within a generation, to tear the United States apart in a fratricidal war. Leading up to that, changes were introduced into the American system that made the intrusion of antithetical European concepts of liberalism and democracy possible.