This review appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe to the journal, click here.

American identity is both complex and contested. The dominant identifying paradigm for much of our history has been American exceptionalism, the idea that America is the greatest force for good in the history of humanity. Entailed in that idea is the American Dream, which tells us that if the individual works hard, perseveres, and is a good citizen there is no limit to how far he can advance.

But this American conception of flourishing is also historically complex. One of its earliest articulations came through the writings of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), in his Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Crèvecoeur’s writings have served as something of a template for later conceptions of the American Dream—particularly his story of Andrew, the Hebridean, in the third of the letters, “What is an American.” But Crèvecoeur would ultimately come to be shattered by the Revolutionary War, lose his wife and all for which he had toiled, and realize that material gain could not be the measure of true flourishing.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) offered another conception of American identity from his perspective as an African-American living under Jim Crow. His race served as a bar to attaining the kind of flourishing open to whites. An enduring African-American “spiritual striving” informed his notion of dual identity, which he expressed in his 1903 essay collection Souls of Black Folk. Blacks were “both Negro and American,” and this double consciousness served as an identity in their pursuit of a generous acknowledgment of their humanity, a goal to be fulfilled by economic, social, political, spiritual, and educational liberty.

Du Bois thus suggested an enlarged and more enriching vision of American flourishing, one that was not limited to only a part of the people. But as Crèvecoeur’s vision was stymied by war, Du Bois’s was hindered by race prejudice, leading him ultimately to join the Communist Party, renounce his American citizenship, and emigrate to Ghana, where he died in 1963.

There was another figure who offered a vision for flourishing in America, one that avoided Crèvecoeur’s materialism, coincided with Du Bois’s emphasis on the spiritual quality of human personhood, and indicated a way to secure the “pursuit of happiness” by channeling individual self-interest toward the common good. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), whose storied tour through the United States in 1831–32 served as the basis for his masterpiece Democracy in America, offered a path toward an American dream that accounts for the whole human person, one that potentially overcomes such obstacles as war, race prejudice, and democratic despotism.

Crèvecoeur, Du Bois, and Tocqueville were each exercised by what it means to be an American and what human flourishing means in the American context. Each of them was on the outside looking in—Crèvecoeur as an immigrant settler, Du Bois as a non-integrated citizen, and Tocqueville as an observer. Each eventually left America. They all wrote extensively about their experiences and conclusions, and each encountered specific obstacles to flourishing in America. Studying these three historical figures on the question of the American Dream helps us come to grips with the idea’s usefulness—and whether it bears any correspondence to reality.


Born in Normandy in 1735, Crèvecoeur came to America in 1755 to fight the British in the French and Indian War. He participated in the titanic battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 but was discharged from the French army for reasons that remain mysterious. He migrated to British North America in 1759 and, after traveling widely throughout the colonies, settled in New York on a piece of land that he named Pine Hill. From 1769 to 1778, Crèvecoeur cultivated his farm, got married, and had three children. He also wrote the manuscripts for his two books. But with the coming of the Revolution, he was forced to flee from raiding Indians and from patriots who rightly suspected him of pro-Tory sentiments. After many sorrows, and having to leave his wife and two eldest children behind, Crèvecoeur in 1780 fled to safety in Ireland, then to England, and ultimately to France.

While in England, he sold the manuscript of Letters to the firm of Davies and Davis, which published the first of three editions of the work. Crèvecoeur became something of a celebrity in France, where his book was enthusiastically received, and by 1783 he had received a commission to serve as French consul to New York. But when he returned to America, he found that Pine Hill had been burned to the ground and his wife was dead. (His children were in the care of a Bostonian, Gustavus Fellowes, and he was eventually reunited with them.) After his diplomatic career he left America again in 1790, never to return, and lived the rest of his life in relative obscurity in the French countryside.

The Letters comprise eleven essays written by a fictional character named James, who addresses himself to an unnamed European interlocutor. The first two-thirds of the Letters are optimistic, painting an idyllic portrait of life on a farm that has been cultivated from a wilderness into a productive garden. The last third of the book sees that world, which had been defined by material freedom, shattered by revolution, greed, and suspicion.

The Sketches contain twelve essays on life in America before and after the Revolution. While they contain some narrations of peaceful life in America, the Sketches are more pessimistic than the earlier work. In the Sketches, Crèvecoeur posited an America that had hypocritically turned its back on the freedom that once existed there for the poor of Europe, who had come to build new lives for themselves on its soil.

In his third letter from an American farmer, Crèvecoeur asked his famous question, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” He noted that Americans were not known by their ethnicity, their language, or their religion as Europeans were. What distinguished the American from everyone else—what made the American exceptional, he might have said—was the fact that “the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour.” Americans were not tenants on the land but owners of their own little plots; they were limited in what they could achieve only by their ambition and work ethic; they were free to enjoy the fruits of their own labors and were dependent on no one. In America, the ancient feudalism of Europe was nowhere to be found. Here, all was new.

Crèvecoeur’s America beckoned to the laborer: “If thou wilt work, I have bread for thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober, and industrious, I have greater rewards to confer on thee—ease and independence. … Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful, and industrious.”

Still, the closing letter, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” and the last six of the twelve Sketches, show the transformation of the dream into a nightmare. The fictional letter-writer James’s farm (like Crèvecoeur’s) is confiscated by patriots in “Distresses.” The Sketches tell stories involving an array of characters who lose their homes, their sanity, their freedom, and—for those among the victims of the Wyoming massacre of 1778— their lives. The ever abiding presence of evil, lurking under the surface of James’s (and Crèvecoeur’s) tranquil existence, overturned his life.

Crèvecoeur was astonished at the rapidity with which so much that he had carefully cultivated could be taken away. Norman Grabo, writing in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1991, described it this way:

Lulled into complacent security by his material opulence, St. John’s farmer is not ready for social and political upheaval. Crops can be stolen, houses and barns burned to the ground, families roused from their beds in the middle of the night and terrorized by thugs, homes looted of all valuables, and entire farms confiscated in the name of a new self-declared revolutionary government.

Crèvecoeur’s ideal picture of American identity was one of independence, placidity, and benign patriarchy. What bound these elements together was material prosperity. But, as Crèvecoeur narrates in sketch XI, “The American Belisarius,” this identity built on material success was swept away by the jealousy of neighbors and the political and social chaos of the times. Crèvecoeur’s character in this piece, a man named S. K., lost everything. “His house, his farm—all were seized. … All was sold, and the house and farm were rented to a variety of tenants until laws should be made to sell the lands.” And S. K.’s wife went mad—“her reason has never returned but in a few lucid intervals. She is now confined to a small room.”

In the final sketch, entitled “Landscapes,” Crèvecoeur’s character Ecclestone has completely given up on the American ideal, considering it nothing more than hypocrisy. Ecclestone laments, “The brave, warlike Americans will be blazoned out as the examples of the world, as the veteran sons of the most rational liberty. Whereas we know how it is: how this country has been trepanned and insensibly led from one error to another, conducted by the glare of false-deceiving meteors.” Crèvecoeur’s American identity transitioned from confidence in the bucolic ideal to a reality of dispossession and repudiation. One lesson we learn from Crèvecoeur is that an identity based on material wealth will at some point go the way of all flesh.

Yet this myth of the American Dream endured beyond Crèvecoeur’s lifetime. By the early 19th-century, foreign visitors like Tocqueville in 1831 and Charles Dickens in 1842 were overwhelmed by Americans’ uninhibited pursuit of wealth The quest for material prosperity and financial independence that Crèvecoeur extolled in his earlier writings also evolved into something that enabled the explosive growth of slavery, given its profitability in the plantation economy of the Southern states.


By 1901, Booker T. Washington had published his autobiography, Up From Slavery, in which he posited an identity for African-Americans that was also based on the acquisition of wealth, somewhat at the expense of civil rights and liberal education. Washington’s program came in for critique in Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois recognized that an identity based on material prosperity—the American Dream—contributed to the ongoing denial of African-American humanity, which had indeed been denied for centuries. Du Bois asked, “Is it possible, and probable, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meager chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No.

What was at the heart of Du Bois’s vision of an American identity for the nine million black men, women, and children of the United States? It was the reality of a dual identity, what Du Bois referred to as a “two-ness—an American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” In this two-ness, Du Bois sought to retain both Africa and America at the heart of African-American identity. But in order to do so, great spiritual striving was necessary. Du Bois described it as “this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.” Was material prosperity a worthy aspiration for African-Americans, according to Du Bois? Certainly, but it was not nearly sufficient as an identity because African-Americans were not merely income-earning ciphers.

Du Bois had more than simply a nationalistic or material conception of American identity. Human personhood was the essence of American identity for Du Bois. “Work, culture, liberty—all these we need, not singly, but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood.” The American ideals of individual rights, and equal and free access to public life, were the context in which the humanity of African-Americans was to flourish, but acknowledgement of the full humanity of black people in a society dominated as it was by the legal doctrine of separate but equal was what Du Bois was immediately after in his “spiritual strivings” essay in Souls.

Du Bois reminded his readers in the closing essay of Souls, “The Sorrow Songs,” that Africans and their descendants birthed the America that exists in the here and now. Through the “gift of story and song … the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness … and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it.” African Americans brought the United States into being.

In his 1924 book, The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America,  Du Bois argued that Africans and their descendants had been achieving greatness on this continent in some cases long before the English colonies had been planted. Black explorers, laborers, and soldiers, black womanhood, art, literature, music, and religion all made indispensable contributions to the American project, as Du Bois contended. He wrote, “It was the black man that raised a vision of democracy in America such as neither Americans nor Europeans conceived in the eighteenth century, and such as they have not even accepted in the twentieth century; and yet a conception which every clear sighted man knows is true and inevitable.”

But for Du Bois, the greatest of all the achievements offered to America by Africans and their descendants was the love animated by their Christian religion: their constant forbearance in the face of the severest persecution. “They have been good and true and pitiful to the bad and false and pitiless,” Du Bois wrote, “and in this lies the real grandeur of their simple religion, the mightiest gift of black to white America.” The generous humanity of African-Americans, the gift of their spirits, was the greatest contribution bestowed on America by the children of Africa.

Blacks were thoroughly Americans, while they simultaneously carried their African identity. In a letter to a high school student who objected to the use of the term “Negro,” seeing it as a derogatory term, Du Bois wrote that the inferiority the young man sensed was not due to the word but to something that existed in his own mind and heart, which he needed to banish. And what to replace the term with? “American” was only half right—Du Bois asked, “without the word that means Us, where are all those spiritual ideals, those inner bonds, those group ideals and forward strivings of this mighty army of 12 millions?” (The letter is found in the Library of America collection W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings.)

Here Du Bois’s dual identity, his “two-ness,” comes through. He closed his letter by emphasizing that being classified as a “Negro” was a fine thing, something to proudly embrace, but “It is not the name—it’s the Thing that counts. Come on, Kid, let’s go get the Thing!”

For Du Bois, American identity was important because it offered a worthy ideal for which to strive. That meant the path to full political, social, economic, and religious freedom. But for African-Americans, being American was only a feature of their identity. It was joined to an African identity and a shared striving that had been taking place on this continent for centuries. What gave meaning to one’s identity was not something nationalistic, nor was it based only on material prosperity. It was based on human personhood, which is spiritual, as Du Bois wrote in Gift.

The denial by whites of African-Americans’ humanity was at its root a spiritual problem for Du Bois. In his 1940 work Dusk of Dawn, we see an example of how Du Bois’s disillusionment with the American Dream took shape. He writes about the moral and spiritual degeneration his fictional character, Van Dieman, experiences. That degeneration follows a course from the Christian ethic of the Golden Rule down to the “war, hate, suspicion, exploitation, and empire” that comes with racism. Van Dieman begins as a committed Christian, but because he is a racist he turns aside from Christ’s ethic to the pursuit of simply being a gentleman, then an American. The devolution ends with his finding his true identity as a white man. In sanctioning the murder of non-white people at home and abroad, Van Dieman dehumanizes himself.

American democracy for Du Bois was a sham as long as the dark people of Asia and Africa continued to be exploited by the colonial empires, of which America was one. He wrote, “the quickest way to bring the reason of the world face to face with this major problem of human progress is to listen to the complaint of those human beings today who are suffering most from white attitudes, from white habits, from the conscious and unconscious wrongs which white folk are today inflicting on their victims.”


Crèvecoeur articulated an early vision of the American Dream and believed in it himself until war changed his circumstances, and all that he worked for was swept away. Once he lost his way of life, he faced a profound personal crisis, one from which he never fully recovered. Du Bois’s vision of American identity was rooted in two heritages, one American and one African. America would not exist without the material and spiritual contributions offered by Africans and their descendants, and African-American spiritual striving was central to Du Bois’s conception of American identity. Yet ultimately Crèvecoeur and Du Bois shared a similar disillusionment with America. In light of their experience, was an identity predicated upon “the pursuit of happiness” nothing more than a chimera?

Not if you ask Alexis de Tocqueville. To be sure, the pursuit of human flourishing in America is as hard as it is complex, and it is not achieved through the satisfaction of material wants alone. For Tocqueville, flourishing is entailed in liberty, and liberty is not a given even in a democracy. But democracy is more conducive to liberty than socialism is because democracy relies on the efforts of an engaged, vigilant, and active citizenry. Socialism relies on the centralization of administration in a government that promises to meet the needs of everyone and at every point.

Tocqueville made his trip to America with Gustave de Beaumont in 1831 and 1832. After that sojourn and the preparation of Democracy in America, he turned his attention to French politics. In 1839 he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as representative from Valognes, a small town near the Tocqueville chateaux. He gave a speech on September 12, 1848 in which he compared socialism with democracy, and he used observations from American democracy to lend clarity to the contrast. In Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and its Aftermath, Olivier Zunz provides the following translation:

No, gentlemen, democracy and socialism are not indissolubly bound together. They are not only different but also opposed. Democracy extends the sphere of individual independence; socialism restricts it. Democracy gives each man his full value; socialism turns each man into an agent, an instrument, a cipher. Democracy and socialism intersect in but a single word: equality. But note the difference: democracy wants equality in liberty, socialism wants equality in bondage and in servitude.

In considering the perils and possibilities of American prosperity, Tocqueville offers a path to happiness through his doctrine of self-interest rightly understood, specifically in how that doctrine serves to preserve liberty, which is an essential component of prosperity and complete human flourishing. Tocqueville believed that this doctrine mitigated the effects of materialism and base individualism. American democracy, Tocqueville observed, struck a balance between the needs of the body and the needs of the soul—and this balance is maintained by self-interest rightly understood. Socialism is in the end concerned with the acquisition of wealth and the gratification of physical desires. But democracy is concerned with the pursuit of happiness—the prosperity of the whole person.

Tocqueville explained that self-interest rightly understood is at the intersection between private good and public interest. Americans often think of their Founders as advocating a stoic form of virtue as the one necessary component for the survival and success of an enlightened republic. Washington, for example, was famous for a virtue he referred to as “disinterestedness.” When using this term, Washington did not mean “apathy.” He meant something closer to “objectivity.” He was aware that everything he did as president was precedent-setting. He was constantly thinking of his personal dignity because he wanted to promote the dignity of his office.

The founders did think virtue was necessary to the maintenance of the republic, but by Tocqueville’s time (the height of Jacksonian democracy), strict republican virtue had lost much of its appeal. Tocqueville did not think of Americans as being a virtuous people, but they were interested in the practical benefits of virtue. He wrote, “In the United States, hardly anybody talks of the beauty of virtue, but they maintain that virtue is useful and prove it every day.”

By “self interest rightly understood” Tocqueville did not mean self-sacrifice for its own sake that produced a larger benefit. He used the term to denote self-sacrifice for a larger benefit when there is also something immediate and worthwhile for the individual to gain, which would simultaneously promote the common good. Tocqueville said, “they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.”

So, for example, I might not spurn jury duty if I knew I would receive pay that is worth the time I sacrificed. I might vote in support of a bond proposal benefiting the local high school if I knew my sixteen year old was going to have the best teachers money could buy. I might support the construction of a recycling center and the hiring of workers if I knew I would not have to sort my own recyclables. And I might contribute money to charity if I knew that I could write off my contributions at tax time. In his 1994 book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America, Wilfred McClay called Tocqueville’s doctrine of self-interest rightly understood a “halfway covenant, one that conceded the primacy of unregenerate individualistic vice, being satisfied … to coax that vice into paying willing tribute to virtue.”

Importantly, self-interest rightly understood nods to human spirituality. It is not concerned with material prosperity alone, nor is it merely pragmatic. It has a transcendent basis. Tocqueville explained this in his chapter entitled “That The Americans Apply the Principle of Self Interest Rightly Understood to Religious Matters,” where he wrote, “If the principle of self interest rightly understood had nothing but the present world in view, it would be very insufficient, for there are many sacrifices that can find their recompense only in another; and whatever ingenuity may be put forth to demonstrate the utility of virtue, it will never be an easy task to make that man live aright who has no thought of dying.”

Tocqueville recognized that if this doctrine were only understood in this-worldly terms, it would lack the power to check the forces of individualism and materialism. A person motivated by self-interest rightly understood will circumspectly consider each decision, exercising prudence and delayed gratification guided by faith. He can deny himself a portion of this world’s fruits for the sake of gaining a heavenly inheritance. This, for Tocqueville, represents the transcendent and moral quality of self-interest rightly understood, accounting for needs of the soul as well as those of the body.

For Tocqueville, that religious sense of self-interest rightly understood is expressed through the nation’s mores and customs, as mediated through Christian morality. The mores exert enormous influence on the laws of the Americans and are the animating force behind American political culture. “In the United States,” Tocqueville wrote, “religion exercises but little influence upon the laws and upon the details of public opinion; but it directs the customs of the community, and, by regulating domestic life, it regulates the state.” Informed by self-interest rightly understood, Americans could pursue prosperity—a balance between public and private, body and soul, individual and family—rather than merely material wealth. When material wealth is all that matters, citizens turn inward, grow isolated from one another, and are more apt to become more interested in the pursuit of equality rather than the pursuit of liberty. This unfortunate set of circumstances is what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism.”

One of the ways Tocqueville thought Americans learned how to pursue self-interest rightly understood was through voluntary associations, both civil and political. In fact, voluntary associations are the primary safeguard against democratic despotism and the tyranny of the majority. In civil and political associations, people of divergent opinions gather around one particular common cause. Acting within a particular association, all the members’ activities are limited to the attainment of that cause. In associations, groups of citizens pool their strength and resources and act as one. A government cannot easily oppress associations, even though it may easily oppress individuals— because while oppressing individuals can occur in secret, oppressing associations gets covered in the press. Citizens by themselves do not have very much political power, but gathered together in an association they have immense powers of persuasion. Tocqueville believed that citizens learn how to channel their self-interest toward the public good through their being active in such civil and political associations. They come together alongside other citizens that they ordinarily would not know, and with whom they may not agree on every issue, yet who are committed to attaining the association’s specific goal. When citizens learn how to work with others of different backgrounds and different opinions, they learn how to pursue what is in their own best interest, as well as in the interest of the whole.

Tocqueville wrote:

In their political associations, the Americans … daily acquire a general taste for association and grow accustomed to the use of it. There they meet together in large numbers, they converse, they listen to one another, and they are mutually stimulated to all sorts of undertakings. They afterwards transfer to civil life the notions they have thus acquired and make them subservient to a thousand purposes. Thus it is by the enjoyment of a dangerous freedom that the Americans learn the art of rendering the dangers of freedom less formidable.

How does Tocqueville think Americans overcome the obstacles of war and race that stymied Crèvecoeur’s and Du Bois’ pursuit of happiness? Concerning war, Tocqueville believed that democratic nations pursued common interests, and because of this wars between democracies would be rarer than wars between aristocracies and monarchies. Among democracies, “no nation can inflict evils on other nations without those evils falling back upon itself.” This was true even in a civil war: Tocqueville believed that such a conflict might be bloody and destructive, but it would be short. In either case, at home or abroad, the doctrine of self-interest rightly understood mitigates the threat of war in a democratic age.

In hindsight, we can easily see the flaws in Tocqueville’s thinking. Wars always involve the law of unintended consequences. Yet Tocqueville’s thoughts on war and democracy are instructive in what they tell us about his views on the power of self-interest rightly understood. When material interests are the only pertinent consideration, self-interest is disconnected from wisdom and prudence—thus it is no longer rightly understood. And this is where Crèvecoeur goes wrong. Crèvecoeur’s world of bucolic happiness—even in community with his neighbors—goes awry when there is no accounting for the spiritual as well as the physical well-being of the human person.

And what of race? Tocqueville devotes his lengthiest chapter in Democracy in America to the subject, where he writes that while slavery is a deeply engrained evil in America, the deeper difficulty is race prejudice. Slaves can be set free, but it is much harder to free a person from race prejudice. Du Bois wrote in Souls that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” and “the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro problems of to-day.” Tocqueville wrote that “you may set the Negro free, but you cannot make him otherwise than an alien to the Europeans” and “slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth is immovable.”

Both Du Bois and Tocqueville recognized the strength of race prejudice. But race prejudice can be overcome in a democratic society whose mores are informed by the Christian ethic and self-interest rightly understood, and where citizens of different backgrounds work together for the common good within voluntary associations. In the context of free associations on a local level differences between people can be appreciated and respected while everyone involved comes together in a shared cause for the benefit of all. This is what the scholar of law and religion John Inazu has called “confident pluralism.” It is not easy or simple, but Tocqueville offers a realistic vision for the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness.

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.