When I recently began rereading Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la Démocratie en Amérique, my objective was less to garner information (as it had been previously) than simply to enjoy the scenery. I wasn’t disappointed. The first chapter, at least, is so fluidly, lyrically written that it deserves a place in literature textbooks, whatever one may think of Tocqueville’s formidable chronicling abilities. You could read these pages aloud in French and understand why the Académie Française used to get so worked up about defending the mother tongue. (That’s probably a thing of the distant past.)
What has me more than a little distracted from style in the second chapter, however, is the restless ghost of ISIS that keeps flitting between and behind the lines. Yes, ISIS. The author is describing the devout (we would say fanatical) penal codes promulgated by the Pilgrims in founding their utopian society. Here are a few examples.
A certain Margaret Bedford was condemned to the lash for “reprehensible acts”, then forced to marry her co-offender, Nicolas Jemmings. These acts may have consisted of no more than exchanging an indiscreet kiss or laughing at an unseemly joke. They almost surely did not include actual adultery, which—as of about 1650—was punishable by execution, along with blasphemy and witchcraft. Laziness and drunkenness were also severely (though not capitally) targeted by the Puritan penal code.
Note 44 remarks that Anabaptists were banished from Massachusetts in 1644. As for Quakers, any ship’s captain who delivered one such to the colony was severely fined. Furthermore, “Quakers who manage to enter will be whipped and submitted to hard labor in prison. Those who persist in their opinions will first be subjected to a fine, then condemned to prison and subsequently banished from the province.”
Note 45: “In the penal law of Massachusetts, a Catholic priest who sets foot in the colony after having been expelled from it is punished with death.”
Tocqueville is naturally dismayed by the despotic tendencies of New England’s communal governments. “Such erratic acts assuredly bring shame upon the human spirit,” he laments. “They testify to the weakness of our nature, which, being incapable of clinging firmly to truth and justice, is most often reduced to choosing between two excesses.”
Yet Tocqueville seems oddly swept up in Yankee enthusiasm when he comes to the subject of public education. He not only remarks, but stresses, that the first duty of such education in the eyes of Massachusetts lawmakers is to serve God. Retrograde citizens who refuse to submit their children to the regimen of the officially sanctioned schoolhouse may see those children permanently taken from them. (Still no protest registered by the author: the comments fall within the framework of how far ahead of Europe’s medieval customs is New England.)
By the time Tocqueville is transcribing a speech of Governor Winthrop’s, he appears ready to leap from his chair and applaud along with the assembled legislators. Yet the Governor’s words, to my ear, draw a faintly disturbing distinction between liberty that will accept no authority and liberty practiced within the dictates of the commune. Couldn’t James Jones have said the same thing? Was it not Tocqueville himself who wrote a mere few pages earlier that we pitiful humans can only lurch from one extreme to the other?
I’m not trying to build a case based upon that “moral equivalency” so deplored by right-wing bloggers and talking heads. Puritans are not ISIS warriors. At their worst, they executed the “desperate sinner” with a certain solemnity… or at least burning witches were not uploaded to YouTube as they writhed and as their tormentors did victory laps around the stake. Most of these laws were also soon repealed, or else so seldom invoked in all their horror that they became fossilized relics in the civil code.
Nevertheless, the obvious needs to be said. The butcher-boys of ISIS are as bad as they come—were I commander-in-chief, I would order my troops not to take any prisoners unless they were plainly under the age of consent; but the crusading “saints” who founded much of our early nation had moments when they looked darned near as insane as a bunch of decapitating thugs waving a holy book. People have an ugly side. All of us have it. The first stage to surrendering self-control to that side is forgetting its poisonous presence. Do not expect purity of anything human… and while you’re at it, don’t let yourself off the hook.