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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing, 1815-1850
The Triumph of Nationalism/The House Dividing
Topic: Culture of the Common ManTopic: Cult of DomesticityTopic: ReligionTopic: ExpansionTopic: America in 1850
Topic: Religion
Overview of Triumph of Nationalism
Resource Menu: Religion
Text 1. Bryant/Freneau
Text 2. John Mayfield
Text 3. Alexis de Tocqueville
» Reading Guide
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Text 4. Frederick Douglass
Text 5. George Fitzhugh
Text 6. Charles Colcock Jones
Text 7. Henry David Thoreau
Text 8. Mormons

RESOURCE MENU » Reading Guide Link

Reading Guide
3.  Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835/1840, three sections from Vol. I, Ch. 17; read in this order:
Section 6: "Principal Causes which Render Religion Powerful in America"
Section 4: "Religion Considered as a Political Institution"
Section 5: "Indirect Influences of Religious Opinions upon Political Society"

For ten months in the early 1830s, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States (along the Atlantic coast, into Michigan and Canada, and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers). Several years later he compiled his reflections in two thick volumes. To this day their value as an enlightened outsider's analysis of American culture has been praised and panned, almost in predictable cycles. But they're never ignored. One oft-quoted line appears in this selection: "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." Here we read de Tocqueville on religion in America, especially how deeply it mirrored and buttressed Americans' democratic spirit. Close to an essential text for this topic. Placed in context, any section could stimulate useful classroom discussion. 9 1/2 pages.

Discussion questions
Section 6
  ·  How does de Tocqueville contrast the role of organized religion in America and in France?
  ·  Describe the "great political consequences" (and surprises) that he observes in America from the religious fervor of its citizens.

Section 4
  ·  What is American Christianity, as described by de Tocqueville? In what ways is it a "democratic and republican religion"?
  ·  Why does he deem American Catholics to be the "most democratic class" in the country?

Section 5
  ·  How does American Christianity instruct Americans in "the art of being free"?
  ·  How does religion "regulate the state" although it keeps separate from public affairs?
  ·  Why is religion's influence on women crucial for the health of the democracy?
  ·  Concluding this section is de Tocqueville's anguished analysis of the decay of faith and religion in Europe. What does he blame for this decay?

In General
  ·  De Tocqueville repeatedly considers an apparent paradox—that religion in America has increased in authority as its "apparent force" has been reduced. How is this so? Why does it impress de Tocqueville so deeply?
  ·  In 1844, a European contemporary of de Tocqueville branded religion as "the opiate of the masses." Would de Tocqueville have agreed?

Reading highlights
  ·  Democracy in America is available online in two translations, and a new translation has been published (by H. Mansfield and D. Winthrop, Chicago, 2000). As is true for any writer, de Tocqueville conveys meaning through nuance, omission, and even wordplay. Consider comparing two translations of the same short excerpt (see the link page).

» Link

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did American Christianity reflect the nation's ideals of democracy, individualism, and progress?
  •  As the nation became more sectionalized, what role did religion play in defining individual and group identity?
  •  How did religion inform the debate over slavery?
  •  How did religious groups outside the mainstream of American Protestantism reflect American culture, even in the act of rejecting it?

Toolbox: The Triumph of Nationalism / The House Dividing
Common Man | Cult of Domesticity | Religion | Expansion | America in 1850

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