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Tocqueville & American Exceptionalism

Sam Gelman
Straus Center Communications and Program Officer

Dr. Tom Velk

On Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021, Professor Tom Velk, who recently retired after a distinguished fifty-year career as a chair of the Program in North American Studies and professor of economics at McGill University, presented the lecture “Tocqueville & American Exceptionalism” to Straus Center Associate Director and Assistant Professor Dr. Neil Rogachevsky’s Modern Political Thought class. The course is being offered at Yeshiva College in partnership with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and the presentation was part of the Jack Miller Center lecture series.

Professor Velk began his lecture with an overview of Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings, explaining that the political philosopher does not present a theory or empirical definition of democracy but rather a collection of observations. Velk also argued that, despite his love for America and its democratic systems, Tocqueville actually preferred aristocracy as a form of government, as it presented sophistication, nobility, and largeness of mind and spirit.

Dr. Neil Rogachevsky (left) and Dr. Tom Velk

Nevertheless, Professor Velk continued to say that Tocqueville greatly admired the American democratic government precisely because of its checks on mob rule and its balance between liberty and equality. Tocqueville also saw America as a “moral” country, one whose laws have to be viewed as moral by its citizens in order for them to gain their approval. This moral code, according to Tocqueville, is what made America both exceptional as well as successful, especially in comparison to other efforts of founding commonwealths in the new world by the European powers.

The lecture concluded with a Q&A session with the students on various topics, including religion, economics, and comparing the fate of democracy and oligarchy in Latin America and North America.

Previous lecturers in the Jack Miller Center lecture series include Dr. Paul Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of the English Department at the University of Virginia, Dr. Seth Jaffe, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at John Cabot University, Dr. Rita Koganzon, associate director of the Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, Dr. Alexander Orwin, assistant professor of political theory at Louisiana State University, and Dr. Ran Halévi, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The Jack Miller Center partners with faculty, administrators and donors to transform student access to education in American political thought and history, an education the Center believes is necessary for informed civic engagement. By receiving this grant, Yeshiva University joins a list of many distinguished academic institutions that have worked with the Jack Miller Center, including Columbia University, the University of Notre Dame and Yale University.

The Straus Center trains Yeshiva University students to be Modern Orthodox intellectual leaders who are well versed in both Torah and the Western canon. Through a combination of unique, interdisciplinary courses taught in collaboration with faculty from across YU, communal events, and publications, the Straus Center seeks to cultivate the intellectual, religious, and civic leaders of tomorrow.

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