Customs and Constitutions Cherie Harder

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

In 1831, a young Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America intending to study its penal system and provide a recommendation to his home country as to whether the US offered a worthwhile model to follow. But he was also personally curious about why the US was flourishing at a time when European nations were not, and what fueled American dynamism. So he decided, as an enterprising consultant might, to expand the scope of his study.

He headed to Washington, DC, and was unimpressed. As he travelled more widely, he became convinced that the genius of America was not the legislative process, but the “little platoons” of community associations and institutions that largely set societal norms, expectations, and customs. He wrote in Democracy in America: “Too much importance is attributed to legislation, too little to customs.…I am convinced that the best possible laws cannot maintain a Constitution in spite of the customs of a country…if I have hitherto failed in making the reader feel the important influence of the practical experience, the habits, the opinions, in short, the customs of the Americans upon the maintenance of institutions, I have failed in the principal object of my work.”

Decades earlier, many of the founders had also opined on the importance of shared and just norms, customs, and moral codes. John Adams argued that: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. . .Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Benjamin Rush opined: “Without [religion] there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” Or George Washington, who concluded: “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society.”

Certainly, many of our country’s founders sustained the blind spots of their age, but they did see clearly the necessity of civic virtue in sustaining any attempt at a free society – as without self-governance and the constraints of just and wise customs, laws alone were insufficient to the task of restraining human passions, anger, and factions.

In our own angry and fractious time, it is worth reflecting on the value, indeed necessity, of the small, repeated acts of kindness, hospitality, forbearance, grace, and empathy that create friendships, communities, and help mend and stitch an easily-frayed social fabric. And it is worth noting that the virtues of justice, grace, forgiveness, kindness, patience, self-control, and gentleness are not only vital to preserving a just democratic order here and now – but also hallmarks of the kingdom of heaven to come.


On Friday, July 10th we will welcome distinguished professor, author, and scholar Alan Jacobs to discuss his ever-timely book The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis.

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Recommended Reading and Resources
As we navigate these uncertain times together, we recommend the related resources
below as both an encouragement and catalyst for reflection.