Featured Post

Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tocqueville on Race

Tocqueville divided Democracy in America into two parts.  The first was essentially a survey of American political institutions and how they worked and has been the subject of my earlier posts about him; the second deals with American thinking, mores, and customs.  But near the end of part I, he wrote the longest and most prophetic chapter of the whole work, entitled, "Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States."  With our race relations still in flux, the chapter makes extraordinary reading today.  While Tocqueville did not foresee what would happen over the next few decades, our struggle to overcome his pessimistic view has not been by any means entirely successful.

Tocqueville was one of the founders of modern social science, even if that discipline did not yet have a name.  He was well versed in the whole history of civilization and keenly aware that he was living through a turning point in world history.  And he discussed great and terrible developments with an almost shocking clarity, accepting what he saw before his eyes rather than trying to shade it to fit his own moral judgments.  The white, black and Indian races, he wrote, were not only "naturally distinct," but "hostile."  He saw the whites as a superior civilization--a judgment validated, it still seems to me, by their supremacy on the continent--while the other two races  had only their "misfortunes" in common.  "Both occupy an equally inferior position in the land whee they dwell; both suffer the effects of tyranny, and thought their afflictions are different, they have the same people to blame for them."  While he obviously felt the injustice of this situation keenly, he saw very little that could be done about it.

I shall not spend much time on Tocqueville's discussion of the fate of the Indians, except to mention one fascinating argument that I found there for the first time.  It was not, he reported based on what he had learned, the hostility of the white settlers that drove the Indians further and further into the interior.  The problem was that the Indians lived by hunting animals, and that the wild animals that fed them invariably fled into the interior when whites settled nearby, thus forcing the Indians to follow them.  He did describe the process by which the advancing whites forced or induced tribes to admit them to their neighborhood by treaty, but it was the impact of their settlements on the Indian hunting grounds that pushed the tribes relentlessly inland. Tocqueville, to repeat, was writing in the early 1830s, just before the decision to expel the tribes of the Southeast and force them to migrate to Oklahoma.  Yet he very nearly predicted something of the kind, noting that those tribes, in contrast to others, had now been encircled with white settlement, sandwiched between the advancing settlers from the Atlantic coast and those that were settling the lower Mississippi Valley.

Tocqueville also took a moment to put the Indian tribes in a world-historical perspective.  A true child of the Enlightenment--the tradition in which I would also prefer to put myself--he believed that civilization had flourished under the Greeks and Romans, fallen before the barbarian invasions and retreated during the Middle Ages, and revived in the Renaissance and the early modern period.  "When I perceive the resemblance between the political institutions of our German ancestors and the wandering tribes of North America, between customs described by Tacitus and those I have witnessed myself," he wrote, "I cannot avoid the conclusion that in both hemispheres the same cause has produced the same effects and that amid the apparent diversity of human affairs it ia possible to discover a few pregnant facts from which all others derive.  In all that we call Germanic institutions I am tempted to see nothing but barbaric habits and to regard what we call feudal ideas as the opinions of savages."

Turning to the condition of black Americans, Tocqueville wrote some of his most chilling words.  (I should comment here upon nomenclature and translation.  Tocqueville in the original French used the word "noirs"--literally, blacks--to describe that population, but George Lawrence, whose translation dates from the early 1960s, used what was then the polite English word Negroes.  I am using blacks, both because it is a literal translation and because it is still the term I prefer to use despite further changes of fashion in more recent times.)  While he clearly did not believe in slavery himself, recognized that it had been abolished in much of the United States, and clearly felt that it might not endure in the South, he did not believe that they could become equal citizens because he felt the white population would never accept this.  The white people, he argued, were an aristocracy defined by natural differences.  Given that it had proven so hard to remove the privileges of European aristocrats that were defined only by law, he argued, it seemed impossible that equality could be established among those divided by the color of their skin.  "I plainly see," he wrote, "that in some parts of the country the legal barrier between the two races is tending to come down, but not that of mores.  I see that slavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable . . .race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in states where slavery was never known."  Even in the northern states where black citizens theoretically enjoyed equal rights, he reported, they were too afraid to assert them.  Those states that had abolished slavery had done so not to help the black man, but to help the white, both by leaving free labor without the competition of slaves and by eliminating the corrupting influence of owning slaves upon the whites.   Tocqueville wrote at length on how slavery in the South had taught white people to scorn work, and to cultivate the traditional vices of aristocracy.

Tocqueville wrote a separate section on the possible breakup of the American union, but he did not specifically foresee a civil war based on slavery that might destroy it.  The second great wave of abolitionism was just beginning when he visited the United States, and the question of slavery in the territories was now in abeyance in the wake of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  And Tocqueville did not understand generational theory and the emerging 80-year cycle in western history.  He saw that the United States of the 1830s was a very different nation with a very different political class than the country of the revolutionary and constitutional period, whose leaders he recognized as giants, but he did not foresee that in his own lifetime a new crisis might call forth new great statesmen who would work a comparable transformation on their country. Born in 1805, Tocqueville might easily have lived to see the Civil War and the concurrent transformation of the western European states in the very direction that he had predicted, but he died in 1859 at the age of only 54.  But he did seem to think that somehow slavery would come to an end in the South--but he could see nothing ahead but further tragedy.

"If I absolutely had to make some guess about the future, I should say that in the probable course of things the abolition of slavery in the South would increase the repugnance felt by the white population toward the Negroes [sic]," he wrote.  He understood that the migration of freed slaves to Africa or elsewhere--the solution of many of the original abolitionists--was utterly impossible, if only because there were far too many slaves to transport.  Emancipation, he argued, would lead to grater fear on the part of the whites and greater jealousy on the part of the blacks.  He seemed to think that armed conflict would ensue, and he declined to predict the result.  As the chapter wore on, he became more and more indignant about the cruelty of American slavery, yet he seemed to accept the white southern view--also expressed at one point by Thomas Jefferson--that since it had been established it would be too dangerous to eliminate it.  Yet he saw that in the long run slavery was alien both to Christianity and to the spirit of the modern world and that it must therefore be doomed. He directed his indignation less against the contemporary slaveholders, whose predicament he appreciated, and more against their forbearerers. "all my hatred," he wrote, "is concentrated against those who, after a thousand years of equality, introduced slavery into the world again."

How well, or badly, have these predictions held up?

In one sense our ancestors proved themselves more moral, courageous, and heroic than Tocqueville had imagined.  The abolitionist and free soil movements gained ground rapidly in the North after the Mexican War while the slaveholders became more eager not only to maintain, but to extend, slavery.  The civil war resulted, and Abraham Lincoln turned it into a total war to end slavery.  The Republican Party in the wake of the war passed the Constitutional amendments that appeared to give the freed slaves full citizenship.  Meanwhile, the freed slaves did not, as Tocqueville had evidently feared, immediately turn to insurrection and the slaughter of their former masters, but seemed more than willing simply to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.  The white southerners, however, vindicated his prediction.  Terrified of the freed slaves, they terrorized them once again into submission as soon as they could and zealously deprived them of their rights for another 80 years.  Eventually many black southerners (as well as a great many white ones) began moving to the cities of the North the Midwest and the West, but they did not find genuine equality or acceptance there either.

In the wake of the Second World War--a war fought for human equality around the globe--the civil rights movement led to legislation that turned the 14th and 15th amendments into reality and finally eliminated the legal barriers to citizenship for black Americans.  Yet those victories a half a century ago, sadly, rapidly validated some of Tocqueville's predictions of 130 years earlier.  While better-off black people enjoyed more of the fruits of equality, many white citizens still shunned the black population and fled from contact from it.  Meanwhile, with their legal chains at last cast aside, a wave of resentment erupted among younger black generations.  Eliminated by law, segregation has largely persisted by custom.  It has also become political.  About 90% of black voters are Democrats, while more than half of white ones are now Republicans.  Black Americans are incarcerated at extraordinary rates, and still suffer disproportionately from poverty and poor education.

The election and re-election of Barack Obama confirmed that black Americans have been integrated into various sectors of the American elite with the full assent of more than half the American people.  Their views have also entered the mainstream of the intellectual community.  But the election of Donald Trump obviously drew on continuing resentment of the black community and of what much of its leadership now stands for.  The chasm that now divides the black and white poor of America--one that was much narrower in the middle of the twentieth century--is one of the tragedies of contemporary American politics.  Some of Tocqueville's predictions proved too pessimistic--but others did not.  Let us hope that some new common purpose may allow us to prove, once again, than we can be better than he thought we might.


Bozon said...


Great exegesis. I keep going back to it.

Maybe I will read Tocqueville myself some day.

All the best

sglover said...

To what extent was Tocqueville influenced (or misled, depending on your point of view) by the example of Haiti? To anybody speculating about race relations in a post-slavery society in the first half of the 19th Century, the Haitian revolution would have been the premier example, right? (Really the **only** example, as far as I know.) That might lead to a certain gloominess about the future -- especially if the speculator was French!

Energyflow said...

I suppose if we were yll the same it would take a very long tiime like in the old world to assimilate, say 500-1000 years. Culturally, intermarriage, legally is all moving in that direction. Rome wasn't built in a day. America is very young and in a hurry. What passes for black sometimes would be white in Africa. Because one grew up in a certain part of town in a certain 'black culture' is more decisive. This culture is popular everywhere however as it is trendy so this further eases assimilation. Demographic trends with hispanics, already racialy mixed makes a positive example for us. Being white or black is a shifting state of mind. In 1950 middle class family values applied to all but now single parenthood, sex before marriage, illicit drug use are all normal. Culture changes as a whole. Each cycle allows a greater assimilation until a majority of blacks marry out, abandon black majority neighbourhoods in metro areas it could take 50 years. Is this sci fi or sensible talk?