“The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory; and in contemplating the cause of the present embarrassments, or the future dangers of the United States, the observer is invariably led to this as a primary fact.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocracie en Amérique (Democracy in America) is the first systematic attempt to explain the characteristics of the United States as a nation. In his extended analysis, Tocqueville examines how the will of the people is the driving force for organizing society and shaping the work of government in the United States and explains how the law serves as a check on both individual license and the potential for the majority to overrun the rights of the minority. Interested in explaining differences between government in the United States and European nations, Tocqueville highlights distinctions between countries with long traditions of aristocratic rule and this new republic, which has no aristocratic class. At the same time, he examines many of the weaknesses inherent in democratic government and points out specific dangers within the United States that, if left unaddressed, might lead to the nation’s downfall. Chief among these is slavery.
During his teens, Alexis de Tocqueville developed an interest in history, political systems, and the origins of societies. He was always keenly interested in the causes and effects of the French Revolution of 1789, an event that not only reshaped his own country but also transformed political ideology throughout Europe. Citizens in many countries long controlled by monarchs or groups of aristocrats began looking at more liberal models of governance such as the one found in the newly formed United States of America.
Unfortunately, liberal reform was slow in coming to France, which underwent several political upheavals between 1789 and 1830. The 1789 revolutionaries executed Bourbon monarch Louis XVI; in turn, they were placed by strongman Napoléon Bonaparte, who was overthrown in 1814. That year, the Bourbon Louis XVIII returned to the throne, followed by Charles X, who was to be ousted in 1830 in favor of Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans. The Revolution of 1830 was especially significant for Tocqueville, whose position in the judiciary at Versailles depended on government patronage. Already interested in the possibility of further reform for his own country, Tocqueville and a friend, fellow judge Gustave de Beaumont, traveled to the United States in 1831.
Officially, Tocqueville and Beaumont visited the United States to study the country’s new penitentiary system, thought to be an improvement over older forms of incarceration, to see if it could be adopted in France. For this task, the two received official leaves of absence from their government posts. The two landed in the United States in May 1831 and returned to France nine months later. In addition to touring prisons, Tocqueville spent his time in the United States attending social events and conversing with political officials and other Americans involved in government and commerce. He and Beaumont visited New England and the mid-Atlantic, making stops in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, and briefly touring the southern and westernmost states. Taking copious notes, Tocqueville compiled materials useful for a study of prisons and for a broader treatise on the American republic. After he and Beaumont published their book on American penitentiaries in 1833, Tocqueville turned his attention to the work he really wanted to write. In 1835, he published the first part of Democracy in America. The work was praised throughout Europe and America. Five years later, he issued the second part, again receiving accolades at home and abroad.
Alexis de Tocqueville was born on July 29, 1805, third son of a nobleman whose family had suffered at the hands of radicals during the French Revolution. Political events in France not only affected Tocqueville’s life, but also dominated his imagination and inspired his most notable works. He was educated at home until he was about sixteen and then spent two years at the lycée in Metz. He studied law from 1823 to 1826 and received an appointment as an apprentice magistrate in Versailles. There he met a young Englishwoman, Mary Mottley, whom he married in 1835.
While working in Versailles, Tocqueville also met fellow judge Gustave de Beaumont, who became his lifelong friend and traveling companion. The two visited the United States in 1831 to study the country’s penitentiaries. Tocqueville used the journey to investigate reasons for the success of the United States’ democratic system of government. Upon returning to France in 1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont completed Du système pénitentiaire aux États-Unis et de son application en France (On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application to France, 1833). Tocqueville then began writing Democracy in America, publishing the first volume in 1835. It was well received in England and France, and Tocqueville became something of a celebrity. The second volume appeared in 1840 and was also acclaimed as an important contribution to political thought. In 1838, Tocqueville was honored for his work by election to the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. Three years later, he was awarded membership in the even more prestigious French Academy, the body responsible for preserving the French language.
Tocqueville entered politics as a member of the nation’s Chamber of Deputies in 1839. An appointment to a committee investigating slavery in French colonies led him to publish a report calling for its abolition. In 1841, he traveled to Algeria to examine firsthand the treatment of native peoples by the colonial government. When, in 1848, another revolution led to the establishment of a new republic in France, Tocqueville was elected to the national assembly. He served for five months in 1849 as minister of foreign affairs in the government of the new president, Louis Napoleon. In 1851, Tocqueville was imprisoned briefly after Louis Napoleon staged a coup and declared himself emperor. Upon his release, Tocqueville returned to private life. In 1856, he published a work on a subject of lifelong interest, L’Ancien régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the French Revolution).
As early as 1849, Tocqueville began suffering from tuberculosis. Though he continued working for another decade, he succumbed to his illness on April 16, 1859.
Tocqueville’s discussion of race relations in the United States, the subject of the final chapter of volume 1 of Democracy in America, has generated the most controversy among scholars. Tocqueville says the chapter he titles “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races which Inhabit the Territory of the United States” is intended to “speak of the Indians and the Negroes,” in order to give his readers an idea of the “place these two races occupy in the midst of the democratic people whom I was engaged in describing” throughout the book. On the surface, Tocqueville seems to maintain the dispassionate tone and employ the same methodology used in other sections of the work. His conclusions are based on both direct observations and contemporary political and sociological theory. In this section, however, his effort to refrain from predictions about the country’s future is overcome by his strong belief that the treatment of “Negroes” and “Indians” by the white population that participates fully as citizens of the American republic will ultimately prove catastrophic for all three races who reside contiguously but never congenially in the same geographical space.
Tocqueville says he has held off discussion this sensitive topic not because it is an anomaly that exists alongside the institutions, customs, and laws that make the United States a model republic. Having devoted the previous chapters of his book to explaining how individual liberty and equality of all people are cornerstones of the new nation, Tocqueville finds he cannot end his analysis of American democracy without confronting the matter of race relations. As his text indicates, blacks and American Indians exist within the same territory as whites but are not equals within the republic. Tocqueville finds the treatment of other races by the dominant white population, and especially the enslavement of blacks, “American without being democratic.” He believes that the behavior of whites toward these other races undermines the high-minded purpose of a nation that proclaims equality for all people. The purpose of Tocqueville’s discussion is to explain why race relations and slavery are scars on the face of the republic and to offer a grim warning about the future for a country where custom as much as law has made it impossible for blacks and whites to coexist peacefully.
To understand fully the significance of Tocqueville’s discussion of race relations and appreciate his dire predictions about the impact of slavery on the future of the United States, one must first recognize the audience to whom he was writing. The readers for whom he intended Democracy in America were his fellow countrymen. Committed to liberal reform in his own country, Tocqueville constructs an elaborate argument, buttressed sometimes by personal observations and interviews, sometimes by appeals to political or social theory, to help the French understand how democratic practices in the United States might (or might not) be adopted in France. Like citizens in many other European countries, the French were becoming intrigued with the notion that it might be possible to replace aristocracies created centuries earlier with forms of government that would give all individuals, including commoners, a voice in determining national policy. Of course, many of Tocqueville’s readers would have remembered France’s first attempt to establish democratic government after the revolution of 1789; that experiment had quickly deteriorated into a despotic regime characterized by bloodshed and terror. No one in France wanted a return to that nightmare, but Tocqueville thought many would be willing to embrace reforms that created greater equality for all citizens.
Tocqueville makes relatively few direct references to his audience, but near the end of this excerpt, he speaks to his intended readers specifically, noting that “it is difficult for us, who have had the good fortune to be born among men like ourselves by nature” to appreciate the problems of race relations in the United States. This is not to suggest that Americans did not read Tocqueville or appreciate his observations on their country. The key point, however, is that white Americans are treated as objects for study just as much as blacks and Indians are. Tocqueville is less concerned with offending potential American readers than he is about explaining to the French how the behavior of Europeans and their descendents in a nation ostensibly founded on democratic principles can work to undermine the effectiveness of this experiment with republican government. Read in this light, Tocqueville’s discussion of race relations and slavery can be viewed as a cautionary tale about the ill effects of democracy when promised but not practiced.
In some ways, as a sociologist Tocqueville is a man of his time. Unquestionably, he views the issue of race relations from a European perspective. He seems to accept some of the attitudes of his contemporaries regarding the superiority of European culture over others, as indicated by his use of terms such as “civilization” and “savage.” For him and his readers, “civilization” is equivalent to the European lifestyle, characterized by self-proclaimed refinement and possession of advanced technology. Savages and barbarians live outside of, or on the fringes of, the civilized world as understood by Tocqueville’s readers.
On the other hand, it is possible to argue that Tocqueville’s descriptions of the treatment of Indians and blacks in the United States do not necessarily represent an endorsement of the racism he observes. A careful examination of his text reveals subtle attempts to distance himself from prevailing opinions. For example, he qualifies the depiction of whites as superior to other races by noting that the European is “the MAN pre-eminently so called”; the adjectival phrase suggests that the reality of racial differences may not be the same as Europeans’ perceptions of those differences. Tocqueville’s own feelings are made evident in the following paragraph, where he notes, “If we reason from what passes in the world, we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind what man himself is to the lower animals,” in that Europeans make other races subservient or destroy them.
Tocqueville sees this form of destruction occurring in the United States. The original inhabitants of the continent are being systematically exterminated—not always directly, but through policies that take away their freedom to roam the land by confining them to territories deemed unusable by whites. Any attempts to “change the character” of these people and “civilize them” are doomed to failure because the Indians prize independence above all else and depend on “opinion and custom” as the controlling mechanisms that govern their society. Once they are displaced from ancestral lands and denied the right to practice traditional customs, Indians have no will to live on. Tocqueville makes these judgments based not only on conversations with people he met but also on firsthand experience, having observed a band of Indians being removed to a reservation far from their ancestral homelands. Additionally, he seems to subscribe to the romantic idea that primitive peoples were noble and perhaps happier than those living in civilized (meaning European-style) societies. For anyone subscribing to this view, the American government’s treatment of the Indians is a tragedy. Tocqueville may not have realized that his description of the plight of the Indians, heavily laced with regret and filled with animosity toward whites who insist on conformity or extinction, provides a tacit argument for cultural pluralism.
The attitude of whites toward blacks in America is equally tragic, but Tocqueville’s portrait of those of African descent is more problematic than his assessment of the American Indians. While he seems genuinely sympathetic to the Indians’ plight, some of the language he uses to describe the situation of blacks in America is decidedly less so. While blacks occupy “an equally inferior position in the country,” they seem worse off than Indians because they have lost all sense of selfhood and all vestiges of attachment to their ancestral homelands in Africa. They no longer speak their native languages nor practice native customs—forced to give them up by white masters, of course. At the same time, they find themselves repulsed by Europeans, whose language they have adopted and whose customs they attempt to follow.
A hint of gender bias comes through as well in Tocqueville’s observation that “the Negro has no family.” Clearly, he is speaking of black men, because he says that “woman is merely the temporary companion of his pleasures” and that his children are his equals “from the moment of their birth.” The woman is viewed not as a living subject, but only as an object that might give pleasure to a man. The larger point he is making here, however, is that black men and women are not permitted to enter into meaningful unions like their white masters; they may be sold off as chattel at any time, with no respect paid to their personal relationships. In fact, the children are “equal” in the sense that they, too, might be taken away from their parents and sold by their masters.
Perhaps the most problematic comments in Tocqueville’s discussion of blacks in America are his conclusions about the reaction of slaves to their plight. He says that, unlike the Indian, the enslaved black “admires his tyrants more than he hates them” and “finds his joy and his pride” in imitating white masters. One might almost conclude that Tocqueville believes enslaved blacks deserve their fate because they make no effort to change their status. It remains a mystery that he could believe blacks were happy in their misery. During his visit, in August 1831, the Virginia slave Nat Turner led a bloody rebellion that resulted in the deaths of sixty whites and more than a hundred blacks. Thirty years earlier, also in Virginia, the slave Gabriel (often referred to as Gabriel Prosser) led a similar uprising. There was plenty of evidence of slave unrest in America, had Tocqueville looked for it.
It is important to note that Tocqueville’s conclusions are not drawn from conversations with enslaved blacks. There is no record in his notebooks that he ever met with slaves, and his firsthand observation of the treatment of enslaved blacks was confined to a brief stopover at a Louisiana sugar plantation on his trip to New Orleans. Tocqueville did have opportunities to observe and converse with free blacks in the Northeast, however, and witnessed the disdain—often covert but sometimes blatant—that white Americans showed for these freedmen. They were not fully accepted into white society; many were forced to take menial jobs. As Tocqueville argues in another section of this chapter, “You may set the Negro free but you cannot make him otherwise than an alien to the European.” Tocqueville concludes that the longstanding practice of slavery has bred in Americans of European descent a deep-seated belief in their superiority to Africans and their descendants. “There is a natural prejudice,” he says, “that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal.” A change in law will not automatically bring about a change in what Tocqueville calls “manners,” or behavior; the “imaginary inequality that is implanted in the manners of the people” will keep racial prejudice alive.
Whatever Tocqueville’s shortcomings as a sociologist may have been, as a political observer he was right in his assessment of the problems faced by white citizens in America as a result of having maintained a large portion of the black population in slavery for more than two centuries. He minces no words on the topic: “The most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union arises from the presence of a black population upon its territory.” On its surface, this judgment seems highly prejudicial, since Tocqueville is treating the black population as outsiders residing in United States territory, not citizens already or even eligible for citizenship. The statement makes sense, however, when one considers that Tocqueville’s aim is to describe the effects of slavery on the white population that currently enjoyed the freedoms provided by the democratic republic. With this object in mind, Tocqueville moves from his observations on the status of the races in the United States to a dire prediction on the consequences that the practice of slavery will have on the country.
Describing slavery metaphorically as a kind of deadly plague or disease, Tocqueville notes how it “penetrated furtively into the world,” spreading slowly “like some accursed germ upon a portion of the soil,” afflicting societies that adopted the practice. In ancient times, slavery institutionalized and legalized behaviors that might have arisen naturally in people who conquered others, but what was once simply an expression of simple abuse of power has become in the United States an insidious cancer that eats at the very fiber of the nation.
Some scholars have pointed out that Tocqueville understood that, in America, distinctions based on race had been substituted for those based on class in the Old World. By asserting that those over whom they had power were inherently inferior, white Americans were able to create a hierarchy that was enforced by law in some states and by custom in all of them. Tocqueville is aware that the American colonials did not invent slavery, but he points out some important differences that make the enslavement of blacks more insidious than the forms of slavery practiced in the ancient world. In pre-Christian times, people were often enslaved by conquerors of the same race; when those slaves were given freedom, they were able to blend into society because it was not possible to tell by a glance who was a slave and who was free. After the Spanish explorers in the New World began enslaving Indians, the institution became associated with racial differences; one could more easily identify slaves because they looked quite different from their masters. In nineteenth-century America, regardless of their legal status blacks were instantly recognizable as different from European Americans. Even if they were free, they still resembled a population that many whites had come to view as inherently (and therefore eternally) inferior.
Tocqueville believes that threats to the privileges enjoyed by whites over enslaved blacks, reinforced by the readily identifiable characteristics of the subject race, made it impossible to erase the prejudices that would forever divide the races in America. Noting how hard it has been for inequalities established only by law to have been abolished in the Old World, he insists that it will be even harder to set aside “distinctions” that seem to be “based upon the immutable laws of Nature.” His point is not that any race is truly inferior to another, but that whites have created “an imaginary inequality” that has become entrenched in their minds; no law will dispel this long-held belief.
Tocqueville was aware that efforts were underway to eliminate slavery in the United States. During his tour, he met with several abolitionists and spoke about practical and moral problems associated with the institution of slavery with a number of influential figures in all sections of the country, including former president John Quincy Adams. Tocqueville is quite pessimistic about the possibility of whites and blacks ever living in harmony if slavery were abolished. In his view, history has convinced him otherwise. While Tocqueville may have overlooked the actions of Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser in the United States, he was keenly aware of the consequences of Toussaint L’Overture’s overthrow of the French in Haiti, where many whites had been slaughtered by rebellious slaves. As a consequence, he concludes that, whenever whites were most powerful, “they have held the blacks in degradation or in slavery”; conversely, when “the Negroes have been strongest, they have destroyed the whites.” Hence, thirty years before the outbreak of civil war in the United States, Tocqueville predicts sadly but confidently that slavery would be the rock on which the American ship of state would founder.
Since its publication in 1835, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has been a primary source for understanding the practice of government in the United States during the early years of the republic. His special distinction lies in his ability to explain in detail how it was possible for a government to exist in which individual liberties could be protected while the security and prosperity of the nation could also be assured. His book has been seen as a celebration of the triumph of liberal thought, which gives primacy of place to individuals and makes government the servant of the people rather than the means by which a few can take advantage of the many. Tocqueville’s belief in the right of individuals to control their own destinies has found appreciative audiences not only in America but in other countries as well.
Tocqueville was one of many nineteenth-century Europeans who wrote about the United States. His desire to visit America was spurred in part by Voyages en Amérique et en Italie (Travels in America and Italy, 1828), a book by his mentor François-René Chateaubriand. Among the more famous, notorious, or influential books about America by Europeans, Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) and Basil Hall’s Travels in North America (1829) preceded Tocqueville’s, while Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and Matthew Arnold’s Civilization in the United States (1888) followed. Scholarly consensus, however, is that only James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth (1888) approaches Democracy in America for its insight into the American character and the country’s political system.
Often, however, Tocqueville has been quoted selectively by politicians and theorists in America as a champion of democratic values against many other forms of government, particularly socialism and totalitarianism. His sweeping generalizations about the American republic have been used as rallying cries to generate enthusiasm for democracy. Less frequently noted, but equally important, are Tocqueville’s cautions about the chief threats to democracy. One is the presence of slavery within a nation that ostensibly espouses the principles of liberty and equality for all peoples. The second is the threat that individualism might become so dominant that it obscures other values on which democracy depends, especially the need to circumscribe individual rights in order to promote the common good. A corollary danger is that, in the pursuit of material comforts and commercial gain, people in the United States might willingly cede their important role as equal partners in democratic government to a small cadre of individuals, leading potentially to government by oligarchies or despots.
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