Ivanka Trump and the Alexis de Tocqueville Quote

Claim

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville said "A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office."

Rating

Not True

Reporting

On November 21 2019, Ivanka Trump tweeted a quote attributed to political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 about a “decline in public morals” and impeachment:

The tweet read:

“A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835

Trump almost certainly had been reading the Wall Street Journal, primarily an October 25 2019 editorial titled “This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution,” which read in part:

Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835: “A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.” What House Democrats are doing is not only unfair to Mr. Trump and a threat to all his successors. It is an attempt to overrule the constitutional process for selecting the president and thus subvert American democracy itself. For the sake of the Constitution, it must be decisively rejected. If Mr. Trump’s policies are unpopular or offensive, the remedy is up to the people, not Congress.

Ivanka Trump prompted a similar controversy after she tweeted a quote she ascribed to Thomas Jefferson about political betrayal. In that discourse, Twitter users claimed Jefferson was addressing something “he actually did do,” asserting Trump’s selection of the quote was ironically apt in their opinion.

Incidentally, Alexis de Tocqueville was a French diplomat and analyst of early American politics in the 19th century. Between 1835 and 1840, de Tocqueville authored the four-volume work Democracy in Americapresent, “a perceptive analysis of the political and social system of the United States” in that era. The quote in question was not on de Tocqueville’s Wikiquote page as of November 22 2019.

Journalists and historians were quick to respond:

Others said that the quote was from an unnamed judge:

Benson added:

As Alexis de Tocqueville famously once said, “The Trumps don’t know shit about history.”

Due to Twitter’s character restrictions, few objectors included citations for their counterclaims. A search for the quote restricted to results before November 1 2019 (after the Wall Street Journal op-ed appeared, but before Ivanka Trump’s tweet) returned a single page of results — indicating that regardless of the quote’s accuracy, it wasn’t a very prominent historical bon mot.

On October 29 2019 (after the Wall Street Journal article but before the tweet), a Reddit user shared it to r/quotes, transposing the year from 1835 to 1853:

"A decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of Impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from public office"—Alexis De Tocqueville 1853 from quotes

In 1977, the quotation appeared in Deschler’s Precedents [PDF] during the 94th Congress. A 1939 Minnesota Law Review article opened with the quote as presented in Ivanka Trump’s tweet:

PARTISAN POLITICS AND FEDERAL JUDGESHIP IMPEACHMENT SINCE 1903
By JACOBUS TEN BROEK

“A DECLINE of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.”

de Tocqueville, 1835.

An 80-year-old citation appeared convincing, but we located an even earlier appearance of the quote. In 1889, John Innes Clark Hare wrote in American Constitutional Law in a passage about Andrew Johnson’s impeachment:

It was long since remarked by De Tocqueville that a decline of public morals in the United States would probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office; and the conviction of Andrew Johnson might have been the first step in the downward path, if a few steadfast men in the Senate had not held the duty of administering justice above popular clamor and the dictation which the members of a political party find it so difficult to withstand.

National Review item claiming that Hare “got the gist” of de Tocqueville’s quote pointed to a translation of Democracy in America from 1835. In that translation, de Tocqueville is quoted as saying:

By preventing political tribunals from inflicting judicial punishments the Americans seem to have eluded the worst consequences of legislative tyranny, rather than tyranny itself; and I am not sure that political jurisdiction, as it is constituted in the United States, is not the most formidable weapon which has ever been placed in the rude grasp of a popular majority. When the American republics begin to degenerate it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation, by remarking whether the number of political impeachments augments.

The tweeted quote pointed to “a decline of public morals in the United States,” “marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office. In the selected quote above, de Tocqueville spoke of “political jurisdiction, as it is constituted in the United States” as possibly “the most formidable weapon which has ever been placed in the rude grasp of a popular majority.”

He went on to suggest that “when the American republics begin to degenerate it will be easy to verify the truth of this observation, by remarking whether the number of political impeachments augments,” that is, if impeachment of elected officials became commonplace, it arguably would be obvious that the process was both revealing a decline in political decorum as well as being used as a tool to subvert democracy.

Ivanka Trump’s tweet claimed de Tocqueville warned that a “decline of public morals in the United States will probably be marked by the abuse of the power of impeachment as a means of crushing political adversaries or ejecting them from office.” As others pointed out, the wording sounded suspiciously unlike a 19th century French diplomat, and indeed, the quote was a paraphrase by Hare in a 1889 law review article. Hare did not intend to suggest the commentary was a quotation rather than a paraphrase made in service of a larger point, and as such, the claim is not true.

Whether or not de Tocqueville’s actual translated points were applicable to the predicament of United States President Donald Trump was purely a matter of opinion.