Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reasons for the Charlottetown Accord's Failure

Failure at Charlottetown:

Why the Accord Broke Down

Ty Ludwig



At the centre of any political hurdle lies a battle between beliefs and values, often seen between conflicts of state and individual rights. These battles take form under different issues and the same held true with regards to constitutional reform. Constitutional reform in Canada began receiving more attention throughout the 1960s and 1970s until Pierre Trudeau brought the constitution to Canada in 1982. This process began earlier when Trudeau pledged to “patriate the Constitution, give it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and an amendment formula” (Guy, 2001: 296). Trudeau went into negotiations with the different provinces over the specific details and came to an agreement with all of the provinces except for Quebec. As a result, Quebec did not sign the Constitution act, 1982 which paved the way for the attempted constitutional reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. The most important of these attempts were represented by the Meech Lake Accord, 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord, 1992. There were completely different sets of factors which doomed each accord, as the Meech Lake Accord was an agreement between Premiers and their individual provinces, while the Charlottetown Accord’s fate was decided in a national referendum. The fact remains, however, that both major pieces of constitutional legislation failed to garner national support for a variety of reasons.


To properly understand the failure of the Charlottetown Accord, several factors must first be considered. For one, the Meech Lake Accord and the impact of its failure must be analysed as it was the stepping stone toward the Charlottetown Accord and was entirely contained within the bounds of the 1992 accord (Burgess, 1993). Several factors surrounding the Charlottetown Accord must also be taken into consideration, such as the political figures in support and against it, as they all impact as to why the accord ultimately failed. The Accord itself must be analysed for reasons of failure as it contained many implications nationally and provincially. Finally, the method chosen to allow the accords passage, a national referendum, must also be analysed as this may have also contributed to the Charlottetown Accord’s ultimate demise. Undertaking thorough examination it will be shown that all of these factors played a different role in the failure of the Charlottetown Accord and, although varied in the degree to which they affected the outcome; it will be shown that the Accord was destined to failure from its very beginning, subsequent to the Meech Lake Accord’s failure, to its final gasp in the 1992 national referendum.

Meech Lake Accord, 1987

The Meech Lake Accord is often looked upon as a measure which came very close to becoming ratified. The Accord had a “three-year ratification window (which) was adopted and Parliament and eight legislatures ratified the Accord in fairly short order” (Johnston et al., 1996: 47). This meant that only two provinces failed to quickly usher in legislation approving of the Accord, which proved fatal as neither province ratified the Accord before the 1990 deadline. Negotiations between Mulroney and the Premiers of each province had proven, at first, to be successful. The Accord soon stumbled into major problems in the form of: Elijah Harper in Manitoba refusing support, Clyde Wells in Newfoundland first accepting the Accord then terminating his approval, and the destruction of the Conservative government in New Brunswick and subsequent disapproval by new Liberal Leader Frank McKenna. These problems, along with Quebec’s Liberal Premier Bourassa’s use of the notwithstanding clause to “...protect its sign legislation against the Charter...” “(e)licited a chorus of disapproval from English Canada that was a major factor in the defeat of Meech Lake” (Cairns, 1992: 122).

Elijah Harper refused to support the Accord based on the fact that there was no First Nations representation within its five major conditions and this proved to be one of the fatal strikes that Meech Lake would endure. Along with Harper’s refusal, one of the major reasons that the Accord failed had to do with Clyde Wells and his political manoeuvring. Wells initially supported the measure; however upon learning of Harper’s stand in the Manitoba Legislature, he withdrew his support and adjourned the Newfoundland legislature before a free vote could be held (Russell 1992: 75). Frank McKenna’s support was finally relinquished with twenty days left until the deadline for provincial ratification with an emergency meeting on the Meech Lake Accord. This meeting diffused the situation in New Brunswick but failed to garner the support of Clyde Wells in Newfoundland which spelt destruction for the Accord.

Ultimately, there were various severe consequences for not ratifying the Meech Lake Accord which factored into the failure of the Charlottetown Accord and these consequences proved quite different for Quebec than in the rest of Canada. The Accord dealt quite heavily with issues pertaining to Quebec, and Quebeckers developed “a sense of national rejection (that) was both widespread and deeply felt” (Vipond, 1993: 40). Due to this, support for separatism reached new highs (Dion, 1992: 86-88) and Quebec’s Liberal party commissioned the Allaire Report creating more demands if the province were to ever enter into the constitution (Guy, 2001: 300). The results for the rest of Canada were quite lax. Many believed that the government should focus on economic issues rather than dabble in constitutional changes, while others believed that the differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada were too great to be able to bring together through the constitution, and wondered if uniting Canada “was still worth the effort” (Watts, 1991: 170). Another consequence arose from the political stand Elijah Harper represented when he blocked the passage of the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba Legislature, which resulted in Aboriginal issues taking a much greater role in the Charlottetown Accord. These consequences all played major roles in how the next round of constitutional negotiations would develop and subsequently, fail.

The Charlottetown Accord, 1992

The Charlottetown Accord was a conglomeration of compromises by the many different parties involved in negotiating it. As Russell describes it, “the two years leading up to the Charlottetown Accord the public, through all kinds of committees and commissions, was consulted as never before” (1993: 35). After the Meech Lake Accord’s failure, Quebec Liberal premier Bourassa together with separatist leader Parizeau commissioned the Allaire Report laying out demands for Quebec to consider returning to constitutional reform bargaining. Basically, the report “wanted extensive decentralization of powers to Quebec, demanding exclusive control over twenty-two jurisdictions and recommending that the federal government act as a kind of clearing house for the provinces” (Guy, 2001: 300) . As well, another committee known as Belanger-Campeau Commission demanded the same decentralization of powers, along with a referendum to decide Quebec’s sovereignty. The Federal government countered with their own committee known as the Special Joint Committee on a Renewed Canada which reopened negotiations with Quebec and ultimately set the stage for the Charlottetown Accord.

Unlike the Meech Lake Accord, the Charlottetown Accord contained a whole host of Canada-wide constitutional issues, such as senate reform, aboriginal self-government, and Quebec as a distinct society. One of the major reasons the Accord ultimately failed was the disagreements between Quebec and the rest of Canada on both senate reform and the constitutional powers Quebeckers. Alan C. Cairns points out that a major flaw in the proposal was the fact that it watered down Quebec’s ambitions for decentralization and effectively involves the province to an even greater extent in national institutions. Many, including the Western Reform party, pointed out the fact that “Quebec’s greatest gains were in central institutions – the Supreme Court, the House of Commons, a double majority in the Senate with the Quebec members in effect nominated by the Quebec government, and a veto with other provinces on constitutional changes to central institutions” (Cairns, 1998: 38). Due to this, Quebec promptly voted against the measure (see Appendix A) and sent a clear message to the rest of Canada just as to how high their constitutional demands were.

At the same time, Western Canada resoundingly voted against the Charlottetown Accord and a major factor of this result lay in the concessions for a reformed senate. Western Canada had been negotiating for better regional representation and had looked to a “Triple E” senate as a solution. While provisions were made for senate reform, it was deemed by the Reform Party to be “the less-than-2-3 Senate” and did not appease the West as it did not “satisfy aspirations for the regional equality” (Noel, 1998: 75). Westerners had many problems with the concessions made in order to achieve a consensus such as granting the Provinces the choice to as to how to choose their senators, a consensus Quebec pushed for. The greatest, albeit symbolic, slight to the West lay in the equal representation they had pushed for and were suppose to receive in the senate. In actuality, “the boosts actually given were small and still left Alberta and British Columbia less well represented in the new House than in the old” (Johnston et al., 1996: 57). Combine this with the fact that the Senate would only hold a limited veto , thereby undermining it’s “effective” status (Lusztig, 1994: 763); it is not hard to make a connection between the concessions the Charlottetown Accord made and the vote results in British Columbia and Alberta (see Appendix A).

Finally, another factor contributing to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord can be attributed to the concessions, or lack thereof, made for Minority rights. The Reform party, claiming to represent Western Canada’s best interests, took a staunch position on a concession for Aboriginal self-governance. Along with the Reform party, British Columbia’s premier claimed that the Accord “does not do BC any favours” (Lusztig, 1994: 766) which led to many other prestigious Western politicians to take a stance against the Charlottetown Accord. One of the largest oversights of the Charlottetown Accord occurred through lack of representation for a large amount of different minority groups. While the list of those invited to take part in negotiating the Accord included four principle Aboriginal groups, it did not include any representation from the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC). “The exclusion of NAC President Judy Rebick was considered a grave insult” proclaimed Michael Lusztig, causing the organization to proclaim that “the Accord created a hierarchy of rights in which women ranked behind groups such as linguistic minorities, Aboriginals and Quebeckers” (1994: 767). With such a large amount of concessions in favour of Aboriginal rights, one is led to believe that a great amount of support for the Charlottetown Accord would be seen amongst Aboriginals. As Vipond describes, “the Charlottetown Accord enshrined the ‘inherent right’ of aboriginal self-government, recognizing aboriginal governments as one of the three orders of government in the country.” This would mean that Aboriginals would be granted the ability “to safeguard and develop their languages, cultures, economies, identities, and traditions” (1993: 46). It should be noted that exactly how Aboriginal self-government would rule was left to be decided by the courts in five years time, from the signing of the Accord. Despite all of these provisions, “Elections Canada estimates that 62 percent of the Aboriginal community rejected the accord” (Lusztig, 2002: 124). This proved to be yet another fatal shortcoming contributing to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord.

The Negotiators, Campaigners, and Opposition

A third major piece to the Charlottetown Accord’s failure can be described by the groups which negotiated the actual Accord, those who campaigned for it, and those who opposed it. It is important to analyse the impact of each of these individual pieces as each played a role in the ultimate failure of the Charlottetown Accord. Michael Lusztig argued that the negotiation of the Accord was really about four conflicting groups, which he referred to as “mega constitutional” orientations (MCO’s) , building off of Russell’s increasingly familiar constitutional concepts (Lusztig, 1994; Russell, 1992). According to this model, there was a Quebec MCO, a Western MCO, a Trudeau MCO, and a Minoritarian MCO all represented at the bargaining floor during the negotiations of the Charlottetown Accord. Each MCO had its own unique agenda, often conflicting and even contradicting that of other MCO’s This new Accord had sixty new constitutional amendments, compared to the seven contained in Meech Lake, and seventeen members negotiating these amendments, as opposed to the eleven in the Meech Lake negotiations. With all of these conflicting groups fighting for their own best interests, the Charlottetown Accord was destined to fail from the beginning. As Lusztig notes, “there are at least four conflicting constitutional worldviews in Canada that cannot accommodate compromise” and because of this and a few other factors; “the constitutional process truly can be said to be in a state of paralysis” (2002: 128).

One of the most influential politicians of the time and the chief negotiator of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords was then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. One of the factors as to why Charlottetown ultimately failed has to do with both Mulroney’s popularity during the 1992 referendum, and his campaign in favour of the Accord. To put Mulroney’s popularity in context, it was only a few years removed from the Oka Crisis and the Free Trade Agreement was still not seen in a positive light (see Appendix B). As such, Reform Party Leader Preston Manning began to denounce the Charlottetown Accord as the “Mulroney deal.” Leduc and Pammett use extensive polling data to suggest that Mulroney’s popularity may have played a significant role in the failure of the Accord and claim that “his massive unpopularity cost (the YES campaign) heavily in terms of votes” (Leduc and Pammett, 1995: 31). Brian Mulroney also displayed several detrimental tactics throughout his campaign, “arrogantly suggest(ing) that only ‘enemies of Canada’ would oppose the agreement” (Leduc and Pammett, 1995: 9). These factors helped contribute to the demise of the Charlottetown Accord.

On the other side of the debate, there was a healthy opposition to the Accord. Pierre Trudeau and Preston Manning both played a small role in the factors which contributed to the Charlottetown Accord’s failure. Trudeau’s popularity did not play as significant a factor as it did during the negotiations of the Meech Lake Accord, however his campaigning against the Charlottetown Accord proved to be quite successful. Trudeau made several passionate speeches and wrote widely read articles based on the Accord and generally ran a fairly successful NO campaign. As an illustration of his impact on the Charlottetown Accord, Citizens notes: “within days of his (Trudeau’s) speech urging the rejection of the Accord, the ‘yes’ vote dropped by 20 points outside Quebec” (Gidengil et al., 2004: 79). Preston Manning was the champion of the NO vote in the West, coming out hard on such issues as the Senate, Quebec’s constitutional powers as written in the Charlottetown Accord, while he “appealed to anti-government sentiment” (LeDuc and Pammett, 1995: 10). Manning’s referral to the Accord as the “Mulroney deal” ultimately whittled away the YES vote and contributed to the ultimate failure of the Charlottetown Accord.

Political Culture

There are several different factors under the heading of political culture which were reasons as to the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. This is the section that is most hotly disputed among political scholars, taking positions based on observations and analysis of the Charlottetown Accord vote. Several key issues emerge, such as the elitist positioning, emerging political ideology, and even based off referendums in general. There are many competing views on the political behaviour which brought down the Accord, such as Nelson Wiseman’s regions theory. He believes that these cleavages are regional, and argues that the Accord failed because the PQ and the Reform party took advantage of the situation and exploited these regional differences to unite their respective regions to vote against both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (2007: 266). Lusztig believes that the main reason for failure was due to mass input/legitimization and the ultimate failure of any measure within these combines (1994: 771). Peach argues that it is really all about the relationship between the public and politician and the intergovernmental relationships of the time which were fatal to the Accord (2004). The three main factors which demand the most attention are the reliability of referendums, the regional debate, and the relationship between the mass public and the elites.

Regionalism is a large section of political behaviour that is still quite contentious and open for debate. Some scholars, such as Simeon and Elkins (1974) and Wiseman (2007), believe that provincial regionalism is the major factor when analysing voter trends across Canada. Others agree that regional issues are most prevalent but use different regions, such as Henderson (2004). Finally, some believe that the entire debate over regionalism in Canada has been overstated and does not play a major role in voter’s decisions (see Clarke et al. 2001 for more details). When investigating the cause of the 1992 Charlottetown Accord’s failure, it is impossible not to not the impact of regional political parties, such as the Reform party and the PQ. Regionalism played a major role in the undoing of the Accord as these two parties united their respective regions and brought the vote out heavily in favour of the NO side, of which both were campaigning for. Lusztig describes the “emergence... of a distinct Western MCO” as proving that “successful constitutional bargaining (is) more difficult to achieve” (1994: 770). This Western MCO was politicised by the Reform party of Canada, who held a strong Western bias. They began by only running candidates in Western Canada and campaigned on a slogan of “the West wants in,” clearly representing a western regional cleavage which was demonstrated in the polls from British Columbia and Alberta following the Charlottetown Accord.

On the other side of Canada, the Bloc Quebecois and the Partis Quebecois had their impact on the Accord in Quebec. While the Partis Quebecois were not in power during the Charlottetown Accord, they had begun to gain some momentum. The BQ’s aim became “not to restructure the Canadian federation but to break it up” (Russell, 1993: 36). The BQ only ran candidates in Quebec and in 1993, became the official opposition party of Canada. Lucien Bouchard was the leader of the party in 1992 and campaigned strongly against the Accord. Regionalism could also be observed in the Maritimes as the majority of the provinces voted in favour of the Charlottetown Accord. Regionalism played a significant role in the downfall of the Accord as shown by the referendum results, however, referendums themselves have been called into question as to their reliability.

Many find it easy to blame factors which are most obvious for the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. When examined, however, the very construct for portraying the public’s opinion of the entire Accord may be called into question. The purpose of a referendum is to get the publics opinion on a certain issue, usually because it is of large consequences to the country. Referendums are not supposed to be reflective of any other factor than the question being asked in them and voters are supposed to be well educated on the subject of the referendum. This simply did not happen. One of the major factors which interfered with referendum results was the popularity of Brian Mulroney, which has already been discussed in this paper. The general public opinion of Mulroney was reaching all time lows and the 1992 referendum opened a door for those who were really discontent with him to send a message through. There are plenty of other factors which affected the referendum results that did not have to do with Mulroney. Gidengil et al. argue that the least well informed people of the 1992 referendum only made modest gains of knowledge from the campaigning, and those who were well informed could usually tell where a political figure, such as Trudeau, stood on the issue. As such, “the fact that the least informed only made small gains in knowledge casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that referendums provide an ‘instrument of civic education’” (2004: 64). These low informed voters usually end up voting according to their feelings, and as a result “feelings do not make up for ideas, and poorly informed voters make much less consistent choices than well-informed voters do” (Johnston et al., 1996: 282). Many of these “feelings” were swayed toward the NO side as a result of several negative polls in the few days leading up to the referendum. This would mean that many of those poorly informed voters did not actually make the decision that best reflected their own values and beliefs. The process involved with a referendum provided yet another reason as to why the Charlottetown Accord failed.

Another factor stemming off of public perception was that of political “elitism” which was supposed to have been defeated with the Meech Lake Accord. Political elitism was considered a factor as to why the original constitutional amendment failed as it was largely perceived that the first ministers conferred together and drafted the amendment without any public input (Stein, 1997: 315-321). The negotiators of the Charlottetown Accord realized this and as a result, “the federal and provincial governments sought ways to avoid some of the more blatant shortcomings of that earlier negotiation process” (Stein, 1997: 324). Nonetheless, there was still a large public perception that the entire Accord was drafted by governmental elites and the will of the people was generally ignored throughout the process. A strong example of this can be seen in the headline “The Prime Minister scoffed yesterday at demands that Canadians be allowed to see the full legal text of the proposed constitutional amendments before they vote in the referendum,” (The Globe and Mail, September 30, 1992) which severely damaged the YES supporters attempts to distant the Charlottetown Accord from the failures of the Meech Lake Accord. In the article, Mulroney suggests that voters would not understand the legal text of the Charlottetown Accord and therefore portrayed a position that the mass public should put its trust into the political elite. This proved fatal to the Accord, as voters on the referendum day “were allowed to indulge themselves in negativism that was partly tribal, partly (perhaps self-indulgently) anti-elite” (Johnston et al., 1996: 285). Johnston reiterates this position, explaining that “any proposal that makes it through the ministerial processes... is likely to fail with the people” (1993, 48). It was this sort of negativism within the political culture that played a contributing role into the failure of the Charlottetown Accord.


The Charlottetown accord was an extremely complex constitutional amendment which had more reasons of failure than can be written about in a single paper. Major factors and issues can be pointed out as overarching causes for the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. First, the Meech Lake Accord and its own failures were examined and shown to have negatively impacted the Accord’s negotiations and forced the creation of concessions which were too controversial to survive a referendum. Second, tying into failures of the Meech Lake Accord, certain proposals and measures contained with the Charlottetown Accord were highly divisive within Canada. Such proposals as: the recognition of Aboriginal self-government, Quebec as a distinct society, and compromises on the senate which were poorly taken by Western leaders, all factored into the Accord’s failure. Third, again tying into the previous point, several key figures played a role in the demise of the Charlottetown Accord. Figures such as Prime Minister (of the time) Brian Mulroney, whose national popularity was terribly low, brought down the Accord, to the glee of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Reform party leader Preston Manning. Finally, when observed from a theoretical point of view, there were several political behaviours observed across Canada which contributed to the Accord’s failure. The political cleavage of regionalism of the time worked against the referendum, as the separatists in Quebec and the alienated Western Canada united in a resounding NO vote. Along with this, there are questions as to the use of a referendum to portray the mass public’s collective opinion. This system has been shown to be inherently flawed when dealing with such a complex piece of legislation and thus undermined the YES vote on referendum day. Finally, the culture of negativity towards the political elite, partly fuelled by the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and pointed comments made by influential political supporters of the Charlottetown Accord, ultimately played a role in its demise.

Appendix A – 1992 Referendum results by province

% YES % NO


ALBERTA 39.7 60.1


MANITOBA 38.0 61.6

ONTARIO 49.8 49.6

QUEBEC 42.4 55.4


NOVA SCOTIA 48.5 51.1



YUKON 43.3 56.1




Burgess, Michael C. 1993. "Constitutional reform in Canada and the 1992 referendum." Parliamentary Affairs 46:363.

Cairns, Alan C. 1992. Charter Versus Federalism: The Dilemmas of Constitutional Reform. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Cairns, Alan C. 1998. “The Charlottetown Accord: Multinational Canada v. Federalism” In Constitutional Predicament: Canada After the Referendum of 1992, ed. Curtis Cook. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Clarke, Harold D., Jon H. Pammett, and Marianne C. Stewart. 2001. "The Forest for the Trees: Regional (Dis)Similarities in Canadian Political Culture." In Regionalism in Canadian Politics, ed. Lisa Young and Keith Archer. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Dion, Stephane. 1992. “Explaining Quebec Nationalism,” In The Collapse of Canada?, ed. Kent Weaver. Washington, DC: Brookings

Gidengil, Elisabeth, Andre Blais, Neil Nevitte, and Richard Nadeau. 2004. Citizens. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Guy, John James. 2001. People, Politics and Government: A Canadian Perspective, 5th Edition. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada Inc.

Henderson, Ailsa. 2004. “Regional Political Cultures in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. 37:595-615.

Johnston, Richard. 1993. “An Inverted Logroll: The Charlottetown Accord and the Referendum.” Political Science and Politics. 26:43-48.

Johnston, Richard, Neil Nevitte, and Elisabeth Gidengil. 1996. The Challenge of Direct Democracy: The 1992 Camadoam Referendum. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

LeDuc, Lawrence and Jon H. Pammett. 1995. “Referendum Voting: Attitudes and Behaviour in the 1992 Constitutional Referendum.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. 28:3-33.

Lusztig, Michael. 1994. “Constitutional Paralysis: Why Canadian Constitutional Initiatives Are Doomed to Fail.” Canadian Journal of Political Science. 27:747-771.

Lusztig, Michael. 2002. “Megaconstitutional Reform is Not Desirable.” In Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, 4th Edition. ed. Mark Charlton and Paul Barker. Scarborough: Thompson Nelson.

Noel, Alain. 1998. “Deliberating a Constitution: The Meaning of the Canadian Referendum of 1992.” In Constitutional Predicament: Canada After the Referendum of 1992, ed. Curtis Cook. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Peach, Ian. 2004. “The Death of Deference: National Policy-Making in the Aftermath of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.” In SIPP Public Policy Paper. 26.

Russell, Peter H. 1992. Constitutional Odyssey: Can Canadians be a Sovereign People? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Russell, Peter H. 1993. “The End of Mega Constitutional Politics in Canada?” In Political Science and Politics. 26:33-37.

Stein, Michael B. 1997. “Improving the Process of Constitutional Reform in Canada: Lessons from the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Constitutional Rounds.” In Canadian Journal of Political Science. 30:307-338.

The Globe and Mail, September 30, 1992

Vipond, Robert C. 1993. “Seeing Canada through the Referendum: Still a House Divided.” In Publius: The Journal of Federalism. 23:39-55.

Watts, Ronald L. 1991. “Canadian Federalism in the 1990s: Once More in Question.” In Publius: The Journal of Federalism. 21:169-190.

Wiseman, Nelson. 2007. In Search of Canadian Political Culture. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Comparison: "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" by Reinhold Niebuhr with "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democratic Faith

Tocqueville and Niebuhr: political philosophers positions on religion and politics

Religion plays a prominent role in government within the United States of America. This has been true ever since the declaration of independence and drafting of the constitution and continues to hold true today. Many philosophers and politicians weighed in on drafting the constitution, including but not limited to John Locke, Montesquieu, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These political and philosophical thinkers played a crucial role in deciding exactly how religion was to be defined and the relationship between politics and religion. Two influential authors who critiqued this relationship are Alexis de Tocqueville, with his book entitled Democracy in America, and Reinhold Niebuhr with his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Although Niebuhr wrote his book over a century later, there are many similarities which both authors observed and felt compelled to point out, as well as some differing arguments as to the future of America. This paper intends to compare and contrast each individuals view points in an attempt to predict the future of democratic faith in America. It will show that, while both Niebuhr and Tocqueville agree on major points regarding religion and politics, each scholar attacks the issue using a different approach.

Reinhold Niebuhr

In his aptly titled book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr argues that there are two different types of people in this world: the children of light, and the children of darkness. He defines “those who believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law...” as “the children of light.”[1] Further, he defines the children of darkness as “the moral cynics, who declare that a strong nation need acknowledge no law beyond its strength” and he claims that “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self.”[2] Niebuhr uses these terms to define those who he believes to be morally good and working towards the best interest of democracy to be the children of light, while the children of darkness are those who work to promote supreme individualist ideals which (as Niebuhr argues) work against democracy. Niebuhr further develops arguments against ruthless individualism or the alternative, citing both Nazism and Marxism as examples as to why these ideologies should be avoided. Throughout the book, Niebuhr slowly develops a president for the children of light, in order to put into practice his perfected example of democratic faith.

The Children of Light

Central to Niebuhr’s argument are those he chooses to call the children of light, based off of the scriptural passage found in Luke 16:8 “The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.”[3] Niebuhr uses this biblical passage as his reference because, in his opinion, “the children of light are virtuous because they have some conception of a higher law than their own will. They are usually foolish because they do not know the power of self-will.”[4] Because of this, the children of the light are naive and do not understand this power of self-interest, even among themselves, which makes them susceptible to misleading and deceptive tactics employed by the children of darkness. This is pertinent to democracy as “our democratic civilization has been built, not by the children of darkness but by foolish children of light.”[5] Niebuhr believes that the children of light need to be armed with wisdom about the self-interest which threatens the community. One of the greatest threats to democracy, as he argues, is the misleading and cynicism of the children of darkness.

The Children of Darkness

Niebuhr’s antagonists are known as either the children of the world or the children of darkness. He claims that “The children of darkness are evil because they know no law beyond the self. They are wise, though evil, because they understand the power of self-interest.”[6] Not only do they understand self-interest, they use it to further malevolence in the world. A very good example of this can be found in the description of Machiavelli’s Prince, where he commands the prince to “not depart from good, when possible, but know how to enter into evil, when forced by necessity.”[7] However, Machiavelli recognizes that “a prince who wants to maintain his state is often forced to not be good.”[8] Further still, Machiavelli advises the prince to study those who have won major wars and learn from their victories, so as to “never remain idle in peaceful times, but with his industry make capital of them in order to be able to profit from them in adversities...”[9] An example of this, as Niebuhr describes, is the rise of Nazism while democratic nations stood by and watched. The children of darkness, understanding that the democratic nations were governed by the naive children of light, “skilfully set nation against nation,” which is why “the democratic world came so close to disaster.”[10] When it is further analysed, Niebuhr argues that most of the time the stupidity and foolishness of the children of light is the greater power than the malice and cynicism of the children of darkness.

The Individual and the Community

One of Niebuhr’s main arguments has to do with distinguishing between the power of the individual and of the community. He argues that the children of darkness are excessively individualist and the children of light must be infused with “wisdom in order that they may beguile, deflect, harness and restrain self-interest, individual and collective, for the sake of the community.”[11] Niebuhr picks up upon John Locke’s principles of a community, where “whosoever therefore out of a state of nature unite into a community, must be understood to give up all power, necessary to the ends for which they unite into society, to the majority of the community...”[12] Again, where Locke believes that men naturally organize themselves into communities,[13] Niebuhr believes “man, being more than a natural creature, is not interested merely in physical survival but in prestige and social approval.”[14] Niebuhr argues that the government must have the ability to resolve conflicts with the interest of a higher power in mind.[15] However, modern secularism, though divided into many schools, “agreed in rejecting the Christian doctrine of original sin.”[16] This, Niebuhr argues, is the cause of many problems arising within modern democracy (such as the ignorance of democratic nations toward Nazism) and has the workings of the children of darkness evident within it. Without the doctrine of original sin recognized within government, humans begin to believe that they can find perfection in and of themselves. This is Niebuhr’s main concern in regards to democracy and was particularly evident when issues concerning property are investigated.


Niebuhr begins his discussion of property by describing the historical thought, especially with regards to religion. He moves on to point out two fallacies within modern secularist thought, which has split itself between bourgeoisie thought and liberal thought. Within bourgeoisie thought, excessive individualism has again crept up as the foremost problem among secular democracies. Niebuhr argues that because of the excessive individualist thought, greed and isolationism would drive individuals into doing anything it took to gain more power. [17] Property, in this sense, is an equivalent to power and the excessive want for more power usually results in aggression in order to gain. The Christian view of property is what Niebuhr decides to be most fitting in the current context. He states that the “sinful selfishness of men, however, had destroyed this ideal possibility [no distinction between ‘thine and mine’] and made exclusive possession the only safeguard against the tendency of men to take advantage of one another.”[18] Liberal thought and Marxism encountered different problems than excessive individualism but each had a similar problem. Niebuhr argued that “the socialization of property as proposed in Marxism is too simple a solution to the problem.”[19] Niebuhr links liberalism and Marxism and are mislead due to the illusions of the children of light. “Liberalism makes this mistake in regard to private property and Marxism makes it in regard to socialized property,”[20] he argues. Marxist and liberal theories have underestimated the power in which property holds, such as over economic positions and the human desire for more property as such. Thus, Niebuhr argues:

“The best possible distribution of power for the sake of justice and the best possible management of this equilibrium for the sake of order. None of these propositions solves any specific issue of property in a given instance. But together they set the property issue within the framework of democratic procedure. For democracy is a method of finding proximate solutions for insoluble problems.”[21]

Alexis de Tocqueville

Sent on a mission from the French government to investigate American jail systems; Alexis de Tocqueville wandered all over America and did not limit his observations to that of only the jail system. Tocqueville wrote extensively on the system of government in the United States which was quite new to him: Democracy. Thus, three years after his return to France, Tocqueville had published his first volume of Democracy in America, the second volume begin published five years after the first. The book covers a wide variety of issues regarding the state of democracy in America, including the separation or religion from politics, self-interest well understood, and the pursuit of material well being. These are considered to be the key issues to democracy, especially regarding religious faith, according to Tocqueville. Tocqueville has the belief that religion and politics must both change in order to work properly.

Separation of Religion and Politics

Tocqueville speaks very highly of the separation of religion and politics in the United States, stating that “all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state.”[22] Tocqueville was unfamiliar with this type of a system as the governments in Europe all tied their religion to politics. He believes that this very separation is what gives religion the amount of power he perceived during his time in America. In his position, he is comparing American systems to European systems. When it comes to the topic of religion and politics, there is a stark contrast. There are several reasons in which Tocqueville states as to why it is an abysmal idea to tie religion to a particular government. For one, Tocqueville believes that “in allying itself with a political power, religion increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.”[23] This is because not ever person believes in certain forms of government; this is evident in the variety of choices one has while voting. Through allying with one of these governments, religion isolates certain people while gaining, albeit temporary, power.

Yet another of Tocqueville’s qualms with allying religion and politics lies in the inherent instability of governments. As he observed, “in Europe, Christianity has allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth. Today these powers are falling and it is almost buried under their debris. It is a living (thing) that someone wanted to attach to the dead: cut the bonds that hold it back and it will rise again.”

Finally, the problem of religion and politics as one can be observed in the death of a religion. Tocqueville argues that religion does not need government to be powerful and therefore, there is no need for the two to be allied. This can be seen in the discussion of religion, where “alone, it can hope for immortality; bound to ephemeral powers, it follows their fortune and often falls with the passion of a day that sustain them.”[24]

Self-interest Well Understood

Tocqueville spends a great amount of time arguing for the doctrine of self-interest well understood, not to be confused with individual self-interest. Basically, self-interest well understood is a way of life which pierces all aspects of life and it is found in everyone whether rich or poor. It is where citizens devote time to one another, in sort of an enlightened love. They sacrifice a part of themselves for the good of the nation and make it a way of life to work toward virtue. However, it alone will not make men virtuous but teach many to be “regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves... if it does not lead directly to virtue through the will, it brings them near to it insensible though habits. [25]

This philosophy of self-interest well understood is limiting to some. “The doctrine of self-interest well understood perhaps prevents some men from mounting far above the ordinary level of humanity; but many others who were falling below do attain it and are kept there. Consider some individuals, they are lowered. View the species, it is elevated.”[26] This doctrine helps work against the weaknesses of men, in that it “turns personal interest against itself, and to direct the passions, it makes use of the spur that excites them.”[27] Not only does self-interest well understood protect against the laziness inherent to men, it directs interests away from solely personal and focuses them onto something less destructive to democracy.

Tocqueville felt so strongly about self-interest well understood, he believed that “the minds of moralists of our day ought to turn, therefore, principally toward it. Even should they judge it imperfect, they would still have to adopt it out of necessary.”[28] Some would argue that this doctrine would not mesh well with religion. Because religion is based on relinquishing one’s rights in order to obtain a higher good, they would argue that self-interest well understood offers no reward worth taking to a religious person. Tocqueville adamantly believes this to be false, and painstakingly builds up an argument against such thinking.[29] “I therefore do not see clearly why the doctrine of self-interest well understood would turn men away from religious beliefs, and it seems to me, on the contrary, that I am sorting out how it brings them near to them.”[30]

Material Well-being

Tocqueville acknowledges the fact that in a democracy, there is an innate attraction to material goods and provides interesting insight as to why this is. Tocqueville claims that while the degree to which people feel it differs, material well-being touches all Americans.[31] The reasoning that Tocqueville uses when describing why it is American’s feel the incessant need to pursue material prosperity is twofold. Because he uses Europe as a contrast, it appears that America is much more into material goods than it actually is. This is because Europeans are still shaking off the effects of the aristocracy, and under this regime, material prosperity was not a factor. This is because the rich have possessed wealth without troubles while the poor are too poverty stricken to be able to even think or dream about material well-being.[32]

America’s obsession with material goods draws from their history. Because America was recently settled (at the time of authorship of Democracy in America, that is), “most of the rich have been poor... now that victory is gained, the passions that accompanied the struggle survive it; they stand as if intoxicated in the midst of the little enjoyments that they have pursued for forty years.”[33] On top of this, there did not exist a poor person in America that Tocqueville encountered too poverty stricken to be unable to dream of riches. It seemed to him that, through the equality of democracy, even the poorest American citizen was able to pursue material well-being.

Material well-being has the most profound effect upon democratic faith. Through the constant pursuit of material well-being and the equality conditions under a democracy, Tocqueville argues that the citizens will become restless. This recklessness “also encourages a new form of belief in human perfectibility.”[34] Though the element of perfectibility has been around for a long time, it is because of the new social order, which democracy offers as equality, which makes it achievable for the average citizen. Tocqueville offers the alternative to democracy, aristocracy, but argues that it offers “complacency and resignation.”[35] Because of this democratic faith, according to Tocqueville, is “The political and social conditions resulting from the equality that undergirds ‘the dogma of the sovereignty of the people’”[36] Then; it is as a result of the pursuit of material well-being that democratic faith transforms from a divine object to something of humanity.

Changes religion must undergo

As a result of the relatively new form of government America has created, Tocqueville argues that religion must change in order to accompany politics. “I find that for religions to be able; humanly speaking, to maintain themselves in democratic centuries, they must not only confine themselves carefully o the sphere of religions matters; their power depends more on the nature of the beliefs they profess, the external forms they adopt, and the obligations they impose. “[37] Of religion he also writes “that one ought to retain only what is absolutely necessary for the perpetuation of the dogma itself, which is the substance of religions, whereas worship is the only form.”[38] Tocqueville also touches upon this subject while speaking of Catholicism in that it is different than that of European Catholicism, because it “escaped the authority of the pope...”[39] Basically, Tocqueville approaches the divide between religion and politics, in the new form of American democracy, from the viewpoint that it is religion which must change in order to keep up with the politics.

Conclusion and Comparison

Both Niebuhr and Tocqueville agree on a variety of points. They both advocate measured equality, allowing that excessive individualism be kept in control while dismissing the notion of social control. Each of them believes that material prosperity provides a challenge to democracy and especially religion within democracy. Both scholars argue that democracy is a viable and successful form of governing and they each acknowledge the special role that religion plays when it comes to politics within democracy. However, it is here that the biggest contrast can be viewed from each of their works. Niebuhr advocates that government “must guide, direct, deflect and rechannel conflicting and competing forces in a community in the interest of a higher order.”[40] Tocqueville, on the other hand, believes that it is religion which needs to change in order that it functions best within society. Each scholar takes an opposing view when it comes down to how to make changes in a democracy, with Niebuhr arguing politics should change, while Tocqueville argues that it is religion which has, and should continue, changing. Each scholar believes in democratic faith, however, they have different ideas on how to act upon it.


Deneen, Patrick J. Democratic Faith. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, Edited by C.B. Macpherson. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 1980.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] This passage found in the King James Version, accessed from, is also quoted on the inside cover of Niebuhr’s book.

[4] Niebuhr, The Children of Light and Darkness, 11.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield. (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 70.

[8] Ibid., 77.

[9] Ibid., 60.

[10] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 11.

[11] Ibid., 40.

[12] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company Inc. 1980) §99.

[13] Ibid., §15-16.

[14] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 20.

[15] Ibid., 44.

[16] Ibid., 16.

[17] Ibid., 103.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 106

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 118.

[22] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Trans. Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) 283

[23] Ibid., 284

[24] Ibid., 285

[25] Ibid., 502

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 503

[29] Ibid., 281, 505 (to cite a few)

[30] Ibid., 505

[31] Ibid., 506

[32] Ibid., 507

[33] Ibid.

[34] Patrick J. Deneen, Democratic Faith, (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), 222.

[35] Ibid., 223

[36] Ibid.

[37] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 420.

[38] Ibid., 422

[39] Ibid., 275

[40] Niebuhr, Children of Light and Darkness, 44