The statesman and the saint

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, a charter citizen of the Republic, was born in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution in New York City. The daughter of a distinguished physician, she matured and adapted easily to the affluence and opportunity that surrounded her.

A voyage to Italy in 1805 led her to the Catholic Church. That same year, Alexis de Tocqueville was born. He too was a child of fortune, but in the tortured aftermath of the French Revolution, in Paris, to a Catholic family of the old Norman aristocracy. His father and mother, who were in the service of Louis XVI, barely escaped the guillotine.

Both Seton and Tocqueville received the best education with private tutors. Both traveled abroad and experienced something that would forever change their lives. Both grew out of a generous kind of aristocratic stock which did not obstruct the view that a well-formed middle class had tremendous potential to govern well the affairs of the state.

During his travels to America in 1831-32, Tocqueville gradually began to view private political, religious, and education organizations in America less as a hindrance to the progress of the common good and more as a vital part of participation in a healthy state. He came to see the warp and weft of these organizations as the fabric that ultimately served to protect the community against tyranny and individualism. Seton was a convert and Tocqueville was a casual Catholic, but both held tenaciously that the free expression of religion is a human right.

Tocqueville visited Maryland in 1832, more than 20 years after Seton had established St. Joseph’s Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. He met with Charles Carroll in Baltimore in October of that year, who, at 94 years old, was the last living signatory of the Declaration of Independence. After his meeting with Carroll, Tocqueville observed that, “This race of men is disappearing today, after having furnished America her greatest men. With them is being lost the tradition of the better born.”

Carroll’s brother, John, who was appointed the United States’ first bishop in the year of the French Revolution (1789), would play an indispensable role 20 years later by providing necessary support for Elizabeth Seton’s founding of the Sisters of Charity and the first free Catholic school in America.

Tocqueville’s central question upon his visit to America was: How could liberty, order and human dignity be preserved, and despotism, chaos, and degradation be averted? Seton had anticipated his question two decades earlier as she marshalled her resources to form a generation of native-born Roman Catholics like herself, whose integrity, faith, and perseverance would preserve and sustain the new Republic.

She described her role simply: “[To] provide for the happiness of all, to give the example of cheerfulness, peace, resignation, and consider individuals more as proceeding from the same Origin and tending to the same end than in the different shades of merit or demerit.” Despite innumerable obstacles, she managed to maintain this expansive vision, and she designed a dual system of tuition-paying families who would by their means also support impoverished students and orphans. She emphasized intellectual and practical skills with programs of individualized instruction. She welcomed students from all backgrounds, without discrimination. She referred to herself as being “a citizen of the world,” and Protestant, Dutch, Quaker, African American, affluent, impoverished, and orphan children were welcomed by the saint. She wrote that her goal was to prepare her students “for the world in which you are destined to live,” both as citizens of this world and the next.

Tocqueville defended human rights and abolitionist views in Parliament (although he supported the colonization of Algeria), and he wrote insightfully on the plight and disparity among white, Native, and African Americans in Chapter XVIII of Democracy in America.

Upon visiting Baltimore in 1832, Tocqueville’s companion remarked that “[t]here was, notably, one very interesting thing to be examined, to wit, the slavery which still exists there legally.” In the remote woods of Emmitsburg, Seton and her sisters were imparting, through teaching and example, the preservation of all human dignity, systematically averting “the despotism, chaos and degradation of the age.” Looking back in 1852, Archbishop Francis Kenrick of Baltimore said to his brother bishops, “Elizabeth Seton did more for the Church in America than all of us bishops together.”

Elizabeth Seton and Alexis de Tocqueville both had great hopes for America. They experienced its free and expansive atmosphere and held high expectations for the future of the nation. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that, “It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic; and such must always be the case, I believe, where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.”

The strong correlation between an integrated formation of mind, heart, and soul and an intelligent and free republic was not lost on Seton. She had anticipated and incarnated it 20 years earlier at Emmitsburg. The Catholic schools, which radiated out from this remote corner of Maryland, formed the charter citizens of the Republic, along with all who came to benefit from their untiring labor and perseverance. These educators carried a fundamentally optimistic view of the human person across the variegated and roughhewn landscape of pioneer America. They instilled the principles of religious freedom as a moral imperative, self-discipline as a means to maturation and fulfillment, and the privileged participation in civic duty as a means of preserving democracy, as citizens of this world and the next.

SISTER MARY SARAH GALBRAITH is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, Nashville, Tenn., a community dedicated to serving the needs of Catholic education from pre-kindergarten to adult learners in over 50 schools in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe.


Paul H. Liben, “Tocqueville in Baltimore, Baltimore Sun, February 1993.

Betty Ann Mc Neil, D.C., “Historical Perspectives on Elizabeth Seton and Education: School is My Chief Business,” Catholic Education, Vol 9, Issue 3, July 2013.

Judith Mitz, S.C., “Elizabeth Seton: Her World and Her Church,” Vincentian Heritage Journal, Vol 14 Issue 2, Fall 1993.

Dylan Pahman, “Alexis de Tocqueville and the Character of American Education,” Acton Institute Powerblog, Nov. 21, 2012.

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