A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from May 24, 2009
“America is great because she is good”

"America is great because she is good” is a quotation that has been attributed by several American presidents to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and his book, Democracy in America.There is no evidence that de Tocqueville ever wrote it or anything like it.

The full quote is:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good America will cease to be great.

Reverend John McDowell used the alleged quotation in a sermon on Labor Day weekend in September 1922 in New York City. It is not known where McDowell got the quotation from, but similar (though not exact) quotations have been found from 1886 and 1908.


Wikiquote: Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (29 July 1805 – 16 April 1859) was a French political thinker and historian, most famous for his work Democracy in America.
(...)
Misattributed
“In the end, the state of the Union comes down to the character of the people. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. In the fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there. In her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits, aflame with righteousness, did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great. “

. This has often been attributed to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, but erroneously, according to “The Tocqueville Fraud” in The Weekly Standard (13 November 1995). This quote dates back to at least 1922 (Herald and Presbyter, September 6, 1922, p. 8)

. There’s an earlier variant, without the memorable ending, that dates back to at least 1886:
“I went at your bidding, and passed along their thoroughfares of trade. I ascended their mountains and went down their valleys. I visited their manufactories, their commercial markets, and emporiums of trade. I entered their judicial courts and legislative halls. But I sought everywhere in vain for the secret of their success, until I entered the church. 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.”
Empty Pews & Selections from Other Sermons on Timely Topics, Madison Clinton Peters; Zeising, 1886, p. 35

THE TOCQUEVILLE FRAUD
The Weekly Standard
November 13, 1995
By John J. Pitney, Jr.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a beloved, canonical text; the urge to quote from it is understandably great. Politicians ever seek to demonstrate familiarity with it, from Bill Clinton to Pat Buchanan. One of their favorite quotes runs as follows:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers - and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerc - and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution - and it vas not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

These lines are uplifting and poetic. They are also spurious. Nowhere do they appear in Democracy in America, or anywhere else in Tocqueville.
(...)
Whatever its origin, the passage found its way into circulation. President Reagan used it in a 1982 speech, though his speechwriter hedged by attributing it to Eisenhower’s quotation of Tocqueville. Two years later, Reagan declared that Tocqueville “is said to have observed that ‘America is great because America is good.’” Thereafter, his speechwriters grew less careful, and several subsequent Reagan addresses quoted from the passage without any qualifications. At this point, it started showing up with greater frequency in political rhetoric.

Google Books
The Quote Verifier:
Who said what, where, and when

By Ralph Keyes
New York, NY: Macmillan
2006
Pg. 4:
“America is great because America is good.If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
(...)
They did find the complete quotation, attributed to de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, in a 1941 book called The Kingdom of God and the American Dream by evangelist Sherwood Eddy (1871-1963). (...) Perhaps he’d read the 1908 copy of The Methodist Review in which de Toqueville was quoted as saying he’d searched in vain for the sources of America’s distinction until he entered a church. “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 is great and free, and why France is a slave.’ These uncharacteristic words are not de Tocqueville’s either.
Verdict: Words put in de Tocqueville’s mouth.

Google Books
6 September 1922, The Herald and Presbyter, pg. 8, col. 3:
NEW YORK LETTER.
BY REV. CLARENCE G. REYNOLDS, D.D.
As most of the pastors had not returned from their vacations, there were very few Labor Day sermons preached last Sabbath. All of the daily papers had a message from Rev. John McDowell, D.D., one of the secretaries of our Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, in which he plead for the spirit of Christ in modern industry, both on the part of employers and employes. Dr. McDowell says that industry has a right to look to the Church for moral guidance on economic matters. Dr, McDowell says that the spirit of Christ is the spirit of cooperation, justice and fair dealing, brotherhood and humanity, service and sacrifice. Dr, McDowell closed his message with the quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville, as follows: “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her public school system and her institutions of learning, and it was not there. I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution, and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good America will cease to be great.”

23 February 1926, New York (NY) Times, “Tributes Here Hail Heroic Washington,” pg. 5:
“American ideals are as high today,” he (United States Senator Henry F. Ashurst of Arizona—ed.) said, “as ever in our history. The secret of America’s genius is not in her halls of Government or even in the Senate, but in her homes and churches. America is great because she is good, and when she is no longer good she will no longer be great.”

30 August 1942, New York (NY) Times, “Queries and Answers,” pg. BR27:
America Is Great and Good”
J. E. W. wants this quotation identified. It has been attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville (1815-59) following his visit to the United States:

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and her ample rivers, and it was no there...in the fertile fields and boundless forests, and it was not there...in her rich mines and her vast world commerce...and it was not there. ... Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her gehius and power. America is great because she is good; and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

4 November 1952, New York (NY) Times, “Text of Eisenhower’s Speech Ending Campaign With Appeal for National Unity,” pg. 23:
Many years ago a wise philosopher came to this country seeking the answer to this same question; Wherein lie the greatness and genius of America?

This was his answer:

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers—and it was not there.

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her fertile fields and boundless forests—and it was not there.

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her rich mines and vast world commerce—and it was not there…

“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution—and it is no there.

“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power.

“America is great because America is good—and if America ever ceases to be good—America will cease to be great.”

22 September 1953, New York (NY) Times, “Text of Eisenhower’s Address at Republican Party Dinner Held at the Boston Garden, pg. 22:
This soverign ideal we believe to be the very source of the greatness and the genius of America.

In this, we proclaim nothing very new. It was seen clearly by a wise French visitor who came to America considerably more than a century ago. he patiently and persistently sought the greatness and genius of America in our fields and in our forests, in our mines and in our commerce, in our Congress and in our Constitution, and he found them not. But he sought still further and then he said:

“Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and her power

“America is great because America is good—and if America ever ceases to be good—America will cease to be great.” I read those words to such an audience as this once before. It was here in Boston, eleven months ago in this hall. The utter truth they held for me then, they hold today.

25 October 1970, New York (NY) Times, “Text of Nixon’s Statement Rejecting the Report of Obscenity Panel,” pg. 71:
Alexis de Tocqueville, observing America more than a century ago, wrote: “America is great because she is good—and if America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

13 May 1983, New York (NY) Times, “Reagan Plays The Issues In More Than A Single Key” by Francis X. Clines, pg. E1:
Invoking the power of Jesus and denouncing the nuclear freeze movement, the President told a fervid audience of evangelical preachers that “America is great because America is good.”

7 March 1984, New York (NY) Times, “Excerpts From President’s Address,” pg. A20:
The great French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, is said to have observed that America is great because America is good. And if she ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityGovernment/Law/Politics/Military • (0) Comments • Sunday, May 24, 2009 • Permalink