Forbidden History: Excerpts from Tocqueville That You’ll Read Nowhere But Here

The second volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America was published in 1840.  Reading that volume’s initial overview of the plight of a Native Americans and of African slaves should be required of every high school history student.  I can see the former section about the clash of European and Indian cultures finding its place in today’s curriculum (with plenty of vitriol stirred in by the instructor, who will no doubt ignore Tocqueville’s stress upon the situation’s tragic complexity and opt, instead, for self-righteous denunciation).  The latter section—about the agonizingly durable practice of slavery—would likely be airbrushed from the record as racist, simply because the complexities here are too many to reduce to academe’s cartoonish Manichaeism.

My title above is a little pretentious: you can, of course, read Tocqueville readily in many formats.  But you wouldn’t read these particular passages on most college campuses.  They elicit too much thinking and indict too much hypocrisy: all we do in the Ivory Tower nowadays is gin up support for “protests”.  I’ll have much more to say about the excerpts (my personal translations) later, I hope.  For now, I need to stand back and let them speak for themselves.  Even as excerpts, they form quite a little mass of material.

Let me add that I do not offer Tocqueville as an inerrant source: no human being is that.  Yet not all sources are equal just because none lacks bias.  Tocqueville is a brilliantly shrewd observer with an admirable sense of fairness and a profound respect for the facts.  He has, perhaps, a tad too much of that French taste for irony and antithesis: the age of La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld has not passed entirely out of sight in his writing.  For instance, I find his characterizing the South as averse to physical labor due to the link between sweat and slavery a bit absurd, given that a huge majority of Southerners had no slaves and a huge majority of those few slaveholders had but two or three.

Please do not indulge the snobby bigotry of our own time, furthermore, so far as to misjudge the final excerpts as racist.  The terror of race war was extremely electric in 1840, and the brooding sense that it was inevitable clung to the seeming impossibility of the two races ever mixing significantly.  Tocqueville by no means believes that a mulatto child would be somehow “degenerate”: he merely doesn’t see white society—either Northern or Southern white society—as capable of surmounting ingrained prejudices in a vast movement.  Let us remember that Lincoln very actively sought to interest free blacks in an expense-paid deportation to Panama (lest they eventually interbreed with whites).  Let us honestly ask ourselves, too, why those who most readily shout “racism” among us today appear most eager to induce something like a race war.  Time has not yet proved that a critical mass of good people exists to lay this hellish ghost to rest.


Racial prejudice seems to me stronger in states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere does it appear more intolerant than in the states where servitude has always been unknown.

It is true that in the north of the Union, the law permits blacks and whites to contract legitimate alliances; but public opinion would decry as infamous the white who would unite himself with a black, and it would be difficult to cite an example of such a deed.

In almost all the states where slavery has been abolished, electoral rights have been bestowed upon the black; but if he presents himself at a polling place, he risks his life.  He can seek legal redress if denied such rights, but he will find only whites among his judges.  The law, of course, opens a path for him to sit on juries, but prejudice pushes him back out.  His son is excluded from the school where the descendant of Europeans goes to be educated.  In theaters, he could not buy with solid gold the right to seat himself beside the man who was once his master; in hospitals, he lies in a separate quarter.  He is permitted to pray for the aid of the same God as do the whites, but not to pray at the same altar.  He has his own priests and sanctuaries.  The doors of heaven are not shut against him, yet inequality scarcely ceases at the brink of the other world.  When a black man lives this life no longer, his bones are cast to one side: differing conditions appear even in the equality of death.

Thus the black is free, but he can share neither the rights, nor the pleasures, nor the labors, nor the sorrows, nor even the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared.  He can nowhere manage to place himself in the same scene with this other, either in life or in death.

In the South, where slavery still exists, blacks are kept less punctiliously to one side; they sometimes share in the chores and amusements of the whites; a certain amount of mingling with them is allowed; legislation is harsher where it pertains to them—but customs are more tolerant and gentle.

In the South, the master doesn’t fear to elevate the slave to his level because he knows that he can always, should he so wish, cast him back down into the dust.  In the North, the white no longer clearly perceives the barrier that separates him from a degraded race, and he distances himself from the black with all the more care in that he fears integration with him some day.

But if the position of the two races that inhabit the United States is such as I have just described it, why have the Americans abolished slavery in the North of the Union, why do they preserve it in the South, and on what account are they aggravating its abusive qualities?

The answer is simple.  Where citizens of the United States are destroying slavery, they do so not in the interest of blacks, but in the interest of whites.

Note 78: … In 1740, the legislature of the state of New York declared that the importation of slaves should be encouraged as much as possible and that contraband should be punished severely, as tending to discourage honest commerce.

The colonies had been founded.  A century had already elapsed, and an extraordinary truth began to attract attention.  The districts that possessed practically no slaves were increasing in population, in wealth, and in quality of life more rapidly than those where they abounded.

Yet in the former places, the settler had been obliged to cultivate his own soil or to rent the services of another; in the latter places, he would find at his disposition workers whose labor he need not remunerate.  On the one hand, then, were hard work and expense, and on the other leisure and savings… but the advantage remained with the former.

The result seemed the more difficult to explain in that the emigrants, belonging all to the same European race, had the same customs, the same civilization, the same laws, and differed only in scarcely perceptible ways.

Time continued to advance.  Forsaking the shores of the Atlantic, the Anglo-Americans thrust themselves ever farther into the solitudes of the West.  There they encountered new terrain and climate; there they had to vanquish obstacles of a diverse nature.  Their communities mingled, Southerners veering to the North and Northerners descending into the South.  Amid all of these factors, the same phenomenon reproduced itself at every step: in general, a colony where slaves were very scarce became more populated and prosperous than one where slavery was thriving.

As the nation expended, one could not fail to notice that servitude, so cruel for the slave, was lethal to the master.

Note 79: Not only does Ohio not allow slavery—it prohibits the entry of freedmen into its territory and denies them the right to acquire property.

The free worker is paid, but he works more quickly than the slave, and speed of execution is one of the major determinants of an economy.  The white sells his services, but they are not bought except when they are useful.  The black can claim nothing by way of payment for services rendered, but he must be nourished at all times; he must be sustained in his old age as in his prime, in his unproductive childhood as during the fertile years of his youth, in sickness as in health.  Hence in the case of both men, work is obtained only by paying: the free man receives a salary, and the slave receives an upbringing, food, medical attention, clothing.  The money that a master spends to maintain a slave trickles out little by little in minutiae: it is hardly noticed.  The salary that the worker draws is delivered all at once, and it seems to enrich only its recipient—but in reality the slave has cost more than the free man, while his labor has turned out less productive.

Almost everyone in the southernmost States who devotes himself to commercial enterprises and makes use of slavery has come from the North.  Every day, Northerners circulate in this part of the American territory where the combination of practices has less to fear for them.  They discover ways of exploiting the collaboration that the more settled inhabitants haven’t noticed: adapting themselves to a system of which they disapprove, they manage to derive from it greater advantages than those who defend it after having founded it.

From the time when a northern state prohibits in this manner the importation of slaves, it draws no more blacks up from the South to transport into its midst.

From the moment when a northern state forbids the sale of Negroes, the slave [there], not being eligible for any local transfer of ownership, becomes an inconvenient property, and an incentive is created to transport him to the South.

On the day when a northern state declares that the child of a slave shall be born free, the slave loses a great deal of commercial value; for his posterity can no more be trafficked on the market, and—once again—an incentive is created to transport him to the South.

The abolition of slavery therefore does not cause the slave to reach a state of freedom; it only causes a change in his masters.  From the North, he passes to the South.

Note 84: The states where slavery has been abolished ordinarily apply themselves to dissuading freed blacks from residency in their territory through harassment; and since a kind of rivalry in this effort emerges among the various states, the tormented blacks can only choose among different miseries.

Note 85: A great difference exists between the death rate of whites and that of blacks in states where slavery has been abolished.  From 1820 to 1831, Philadelphia saw only one white die for every 42 belonging to the white race, while one black died for every 21 belonging to the black race.  The mortality rate is considerably less exaggerated among enslaved blacks.

Tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane grow only in the South; they represent the principle source of that area’s wealth.  In destroying slavery, Southerners would find themselves facing one of two alternatives: either they would have to change their system of cultivation—and then they would enter into competition with Northerners more vigorous and practiced in these new methods; or they would have to cultivate the same products without slaves—and then they would be forced to compete with other Southerners who still used slaves.

Thus the South has peculiar reasons for preserving slavery unknown in the North.

Here, however, is another motive force more powerful than all the others.  The South could certainly abolish slavery with sufficient determination; but how would it save itself from its black population?  In the North, slaves are chased out in the same motion as slavery.  In the South, one couldn’t hope to obtain this duel result at the same time.

When one announces that, starting at a certain date, the Negro’s child will be free, one introduces the principle and idea of freedom into the very soul of servitude.  The blacks kept in servitude by such legislation, seeing their children escape from it, would stand shocked by the inequity of the two destinies.  They would grow restless and irritable.  From that moment, slavery would lose in their eyes the kind of moral power that time and custom had bestowed upon it; it would be reduced to nothing more than a visible abuse of force.  The North would have nothing to fear from so shocking a contrast, because there the number of blacks is very small and that of whites quite large.  But if this dawn of liberty were to shed its light over two million people, their oppressors could only tremble.

These two factors [the deportation of slaves and the influx of European immigrants] cannot operate in the same manner among the Southern states.  On the one hand, the mass of slaves is too great for one to hope that they might be evacuated from the country; and on the other, Europeans and Anglo-Americans are loath to immigrate to a region where labor remains identified with vile servitude.  Besides, they rightly regard the states where the number of blacks equals or surpasses that of whites as under threat of grievous calamity, and they avoid transplanting their enterprises to such places.

As soon as one envisions whites and emancipated blacks being placed in the same position as two peoples alien to each other, one will easily grasp that the future offers only two choices: blacks and whites must either fuse racially or separate completely.

I have already expressed above my estimate of the first option’s occurring [i.e., that the obstacles it faces are too great].  I do not think that the white and black races will manage to exist on equal footing anywhere.

The danger, more or less distant yet inevitable, of conflict between the blacks and white who populate the south of the Union unceasingly haunts the American imagination like a painful nightmare.  Northerners discuss these perils every day, although they have nothing directly to fear from them.  In vain do they search for some means of conjuring away the catastrophe that they foresee.

In the Southern states, everybody stays mum.  One doesn’t speak of the future with strangers; one avoids trying to unravel it with one’s friends; everyone hides it from himself, so to speak.  The silence of the South has something more frightening about it than the clarioned fears of the North.

Author: nilnoviblog

I hold a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (Latin/Greek) but have not navigated academe very successfully for the past thirty years. This is owed partly to my non-PC place of origin (Texas), but probably more to my conviction--along with the ancients--that human nature is immutable, and my further conviction--along with Stoics and true Christians-- that we have a natural calling to surmount our nature. Or maybe I just don't play office politics well. I'm much looking forward to impending retirement, when I can tend to my orchards and perhaps market the secrets of Dead Ball hitting that I've excavated. No, there's nothing new (nil novi) under the sun... but what a huge amount has been forgotten, in baseball and elsewhere!

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