Alexis De Tocqueville
“The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other.” –Alexis de Tocqueville: French observer of american in 1831, Author of Democracy in America
VERDICT: Deliberately Altered
This quote comes from the earliest English translation of de Tocqueville’s work, which was originally written in French. Henry Reeve’s 1835 translation was criticized by de Tocqueville himself: “Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions, you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.” Other translators have interpreted the quote at issue differently:
→ “Americans so completely confuse Christianity and freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to make them conceive the one without the other . . . .” (Mansfield, Winthrop translation)
→ “Americans so completely confound Christianity with liberty that it is almost impossible to induce them to think of one without the other.” (Goldhammer translation)
The original French reads “Les Américains confondent si complétement dans leur esprit le christianisme et la liberté, qu’il est presque impossible de leur faire concevoir l’un sans l’autre;” The operative verb, confondent, is rendered by Hobby Lobby as “combine,” but clearly “confound” or “mix up” is the better translation. Hobby Lobby’s is an entirely different meaning than de Tocqueville intended.
A few sentences earlier he pointed out that, although religion is an important institution and important to all Americans (a doubtful point), “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society . . . .” This whole quote is from a section entitled “Indirect influence of religious opinions upon political society in the United States.” Moreover, one can see that this quote is not complimentary. In fact, de Tocqueville is lamenting an instance of court mistreatment of atheists, something we still deal with today. Using the proper context with Hobby Lobby’s flawed translation makes that clear.
“While I was in America, a witness who happened to be called at the Sessions of the county of Chester (state of New York) declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all the confidence of the court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment. The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other; and with them this conviction does not spring from that barren, traditionary faith which seems to vegetate rather than to live in the soul.” –Alexis de Tocqueville
Source: Alexis de Tocqueville, 1 De la Démocratie en Amérique (1835). The original text, in French.
The “confuse” translation, by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (2011).
The “confound” translation, by Arthur Goldhammer (2012).
How Google translates confondent.