Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
Although the puritanical strictness which presided over the establishment of the English colonies in America is now much relaxed, remarkable traces of it are still found in their habits and laws. In 1792, at the very time when the antichristian republic of France began its ephemeral existence, the legislative body of Massachusetts promulgated the following law, to compel the citizens to observe the Sabbath. I give the preamble and a few articles of this law, which is worthy of the reader’s attention.
“Whereas,” says the legislator, “the observation of the Sabbath is an affair of public interest; inasmuch as it produces a necessary suspension of labor, leads men to reflect upon the duties of life and the errors to which human nature is liable, and provides for the public and private worship of God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, and for the performance of such acts of charity as are the ornament and comfort of Christian societies; “Whereas irreligious or light-minded persons, forgetting the duties which the Sabbath imposes, and the benefits which these duties confer on society, are known to profane its sanctity, by following their pleasures or their affairs; this way of acting being contrary to their own interest as Christians, and calculated to annoy those who do not follow their example; being also of great injury to society at large, by spreading a taste for dissipation and dissolute manners; “Be it enacted and ordained by the Governor, Council, and Representatives convened in General Court of Assembly, that: “1. No one will be permitted on Sunday to keep his store or workshop open. No one will be permitted on that day to look after any business, to go to a concert, dance, or show of any sort, or to engage in any kind of hunting, game, recreation, without penalty of fine. The fine will not be less than 10 nor exceed 20 shillings for each infraction. “2. No traveller, conductor, or driver shall be allowed to travel on Sunday unless necessary, under the same penalty. “3. Tavernkeepers, storekeepers, and innkeepers will prevent anyone living in their district from coming to pass the time there for pleasure or business. The innkeeper and his guest will pay a . fine in case of disobedience. Furthermore, the innkeeper may lose his license. “4. Those who, being in good health, without sufficient reason, fail to worship God publicly for three months, shall be fined 10 shillings. “5. Those who behave improperly within the precincts of a church shall pay from 5 to 40 shillings fine. “6. The tything men of the township are charged with the execution of the law.1 They have the right to visit on Sunday all the rooms of hotels or public places. The innkeeper who refuses them admission will be fined 40 shillings. “The tything men may stop travellers and ask their reasons for travelling on Sunday. Those who refuse to answer will be fined 5 pounds stirling. “If the reason given by the traveller does not seem sufficient to the tything man, he may prosecute said traveller before the district justice of the peace.” Law of March 8, 1792; General Laws of Massachusetts, Vol. 1, p. 410.
On the 11th of March 1797 a new law increased the amount of fines, half of which was to be given to the informer ( same collection, Vol. I, p. 525) .
On the 16th of February 1816 a new law confirmed these same measures (same collection, Vol. II, p. 405).
Similar enactments exist in the laws of the state of New York, revised in 1827 and 1828 ( see Revised Statutes, Part I, Chap. XX, p. 675) . In these it is declared that no one is allowed on the Sabbath to hunt, to fish, to play at games, or to frequent houses where liquor is sold. No one can travel, except in case of necessity. And this is not the only trace which the religious strictness and austere manners of the first emigrants have left behind them in the American laws.
In the Revised Statutes of the State of New York, Vol. I, p. 662 is the following clause:
“Whoever shall win or lose in the space of twenty-four hours, by gaming or betting, the sum of twenty-five dollars (about 132 francs ), shall be found guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction, shall be condemned to pay a fine equal to at least five times 1 These are officers, elected annually, who according to their functions resemble both the warden and the officer attached to the police magistrate in France. . the value of the sum lost or won; which shall be paid to the inspector of the poor of the township. He that loses twenty-five dollars or more may bring an action to recover them; and if he neglects to do so, the inspector of the poor may prosecute the winner, and oblige him to pay into the poor’s box both the sum he has gained and three times as much besides.”
The laws I quote are of recent date, but they are unintelligible without going back to the very origin of the colonies. I have no doubt that in our days the penal part of these laws is very rarely applied. Laws preserve their inflexibility long after the customs of a nation have yielded to the influence of progress. It is still true, however, that nothing strikes a foreigner on his arrival in America more forcibly than the regard paid to the Sabbath.
There is one, in particular, of the large American cities in which all social movement begins to be suspended even on Saturday evening. You traverse its streets at the hour when you expect men in the middle of life to be engaged in business, and young people in pleasure; and you meet with solitude and silence. Not only have all ceased to work, but they appear to have ceased to exist. You can hear neither the movements of industry, nor the accents of joy, nor even the confused murmur that arises from the midst of a great city. Chains are hung across the streets in the neighborhood of the churches; the half-closed shutters of the houses scarcely admit a ray of sun into the dwellings of the citizens. Now and then you perceive a solitary individual, who glides silently along the deserted streets and lanes.
But on Monday at early dawn the rolling of carriages, the noise of hammers, the cries of the population, begin again to make themselves heard. The city is awake once more. An eager crowd hastens towards the resort of commerce and industry; everything around you bespeaks motion, bustle, hurry. A feverish activity succeeds to the lethargic stupor of yesterday; you might almost suppose that they had but one day to acquire wealth and to enjoy it.
The original copyright for Alexis de Tocqueville’s, “Democracy In America,” Translated by Henry Reeve, 1899, is held in the Public Domain because its copyright has expired. Formatting of this digital copy of Democracy In America Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal. Non-commercial, educational use of individual chapters is encouraged with a live link back to the original copy at The Moral Liberal and a courtesy note to the editors.