Tocqueville on Slavery And Prejudice

More from the gift that keeps on giving

There are places where white people still romanticize southern slavery.  One of the components of that argument is that at the least northerners (and other nonslaveholding whites) were more racist toward blacks than were southern whites, who embraced their chattel in the loving chains of enslavement.  You doubt this?  Read this:

Brooks wants us to believe that race relations before and after reconstruction were the same. He dosen’t seem to have a clue as to why they would have been different. Either that or for some reason he dosen’t want anyone to believe that Southern black slaves and their white masters, for the most part, had affectionate extended family relationships.

I’d love to hear more about these “affectionate extended family relationships” based upon masters raping slaves and the breaking up of black families by sale … selling a member of your own “extended family,” eh?

You can’t make this stuff up.

One way that present-day defenders of southern slavery advance this argument is by quoting the observations of the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote a two-volume account of his travels in the United States in the 1830s called Democracy in America.  As one might expect, our cherry-picking friends have once more taken a rather oft-quoted observation out of context in their never ending efforts to promote the superiority of race relations in the slave South compared to the free North:

In that part of the Union where the Negroes are no longer slaves, have they come closer to the whites? Everyone who has lived in the United States will have noticed just the opposite. 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 those states where slavery was never known.

It’s useful at this point to make two observations.  First, one should recall where Tocqueville traveled.  He touched the soil of exactly two states where slavery was never known: Indiana and Ohio.  In both cases he stayed along the Ohio River, the southern boundary of those two states, where most of the white population came from … you guessed it … the South.  It would be bad practice to generalize about racial attitudes from such a fragmentary acquaintance with the area being discussed, but Tocqueville did so, and those who accept what he says uncritically seem unaware of context … but, then, isn’t that inherent in the practice of cherry-picking?

Second, one also observes that Tocqueville never actually observed plantation slavery.  Given that most enslaved blacks experienced slavery in this way, it would be hard to tall about race relations without examining plantation slavery.  Slavery in urban areas was different, and we know that as time passed, white southerners became more concerned about the activities of blacks (free and slave) in urban environments.  So what was true in the early 1830s (recall that Tocqueville’s travels came as the debate over slavery was about to be transformed) was not true in 1860.  Note that he did not travel along the south Atlantic coast, so he avoided Charleston and Savannah; he visited southeast Virgina a year before Nat Turner became a household name.

And what else does our cherry-picker cite?  Why, of course, this:

In the South, where slavery still exists, less trouble is taken to keep the Negro apart: they sometimes share the labors and the pleasures of the white men; people are prepared to mix with them to some extent; legislation is more harsh against them, but customs are more tolerant and gentle.

And, of course they were … because enslaved blacks were property, and there was no reason to anger people who might have a reason to be angry (as the case of Nat Turner would suggest).  Given that Tocqueville did not visit plantations, he was unlikely to see the brutality of slavery as others would (Frederick Law Olmsted had the same experience … as he encountered plantation slavery, his opinions changed).

Of course, our cherry picker conveniently left out what came next:

In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure. In the North the white no longer distinctly perceives the barrier that separates him from the degraded race, and he shuns the Negro with the more pertinacity since he fears lest they should some day be confounded together.

“Because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to dust at pleasure.”  My, my, but that’s a reassuring portrait of white southern racial attitudes, isn’t it?

Heck, let’s help the cherry-pickers along.  In the same chapter Tocqueville also observed:

Thus it is in the United States that the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated, and inequality is sanctioned by the manners while it is effaced from the laws of the country. But if the relative position of the two races that inhabit the United States is such as I have described, why have the Americans abolished slavery in the North of the Union, why do they maintain it in the South, and why do they aggravate its hardships? The answer is easily given. It is not for the good of the Negroes, but for that of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.

That should make them feel better.  But this won’t:

If I were called upon to predict the future, I should say that the abolition of slavery in the South will in the common course of things, increase the repugnance of the white population for the blacks. I base this opinion upon the analogous observation I have already made in the North. I have remarked that the white inhabitants of the North avoid the Negroes with increasing care in proportion as the legal barriers of separation are removed by the legislature; and why should not the same result take place in the South? In the North the whites are deterred from intermingling with the blacks by an imaginary danger; in the South, where the danger would be real, I cannot believe that the fear would be less.

In short, white southerners were not inherently less racist than white northerners.  Rather, in the slave South, it was in the interest of white southerners to treat enslaved blacks in a certain manner, partly out of fear, partly because of the economic function of the enslaved (a happy slave is a productive slave).  Remove those conditions, and white southerners, Tocqueville predicted, would display their racism in full force.  

And, after all, isn’t that what happened during Reconstruction?

Now, for those who might want to explore the topic of Tocqueville on race and slavery with the seriousness it deserves, one good place to start is here.  To take full advantage of the site, explore the links at the bottom of the page (which will take you to discussions of what Tocquevelle and his friend Beaumont saw and didn’t see); or you can visit the home page.  Another good resource is here.  And here you’ll find a complete text of the chapter where Tocqueville discusses slavery and race, a discussion that includes Native Americans as well as blacks, in the first volume of Democracy of America, published in 1835.  

Oh, by the way … Tocqueville was an abolitionist.  As he was putting the finishing touches on the second volume of Democracy in America, he was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, where he immediately pressed for the abolition of slavery in the French empire.  At least he knew slavery was wrong.

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10 thoughts on “Tocqueville on Slavery And Prejudice

  1. Jeff Davis July 21, 2011 / 11:38 am

    “And, after all, isn’t that what happened during Reconstruction?”

    Actually, this says it all.

    Not a whole lot of people make that point

  2. Sherree July 21, 2011 / 12:59 pm

    Two questions, Brooks:

    1) The leader of this group is Helga Ross?

    2) Helga Ross is from Canada?

    Thanks, Sherree

    PS. I need to know the answers to these two questions before I join the group. :)

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 21, 2011 / 1:16 pm

      I have no idea as to whether there’s a leader or not. I believe Ms. Ross currently resides in Toronto, Canada. She’s a poet.

      There are rather predictable patterns of interaction that are disturbed momentarily only when new people join the group and post actively. Only three active posters consistently present a rather sympathetic and romantic view of slavery and the South: Ms. Ross, Mr. Inman, and “dixieman_sc.” Other posters have their own interests and agendas.

      Ms. Ross has the courage to comment here, although on the whole she seems unable to follow a line of argument … including her own. She remains an avid reader, as do several other posters (even those who claim they don’t read this blog’s posts are not being honest, given the information available to me about who visits this site).

      While it’s amusing to read the group’s exchanges, my interest is in recognizing and addressing arguments, because several of these posters are representative of a point of view that is worthwhile to discuss, especially given how it misuses history to satisfy a personal agenda. In the group, however, they take all this very personally, and devote many threads to how horrible I am.

      • Sherree July 22, 2011 / 2:46 am

        Thanks for answering, Brooks.

        I understand why you address this group and actually think that it is important that you do, because you are a professional historian. Most readers who are not overly familiar with the Internet will take the word of a professional over an obvious amateur any time. Those readers who will not, particularly in this case, in which there is overwhelming evidence that the institution of slavery was not a benign institution—the idea that anyone would propose that chattel slavery was benevolent in the twenty first century, or any other century, outrageous in itself—simply have other agendas, as you have indicated.

        So, what are those agendas? You have been kind and termed one agenda the fantasy of the “Confederate Romantic”. That may be, but I would assume that most of the posters in this group are adults, so it is time to put away childish ideas. Perhaps another agenda could be one along the lines of “some people just like to hear themselves talk” and those posters see the group as a forum in which they can flourish. Maybe. Or, perhaps there is yet another agenda. What if speaking about slavery in the antebellum South is a way to speak about one’s feelings and beliefs concerning race today? Just wonder. If so, then how would some of the ideas expressed translate into today’s parlance? Hm. Slavery was a benign institution (translation—African American men and women didn’t have it that badly, so what is the problem today?) Slaveowners knew what was best for their chattel slaves (including beating them, raping women, and destroying families, I suppose) Translation?: descendants of slaveholders and Confederate Romantics know what is best for African American men and women today? Slaveholders developed close ties to their slaves. Translation?….I can’t even guess.

        Unfortunately slavery still exists in the world. Perhaps Ms Ross would like to test her theory and find a benevolent owner for herself? From what I have read, slavery was brutal no matter where or when it was practiced, as common sense would dictate that it would be—absolute power of that nature corrupting absolutely, and benevolence depending upon the roll of the dice.

        In this instance, Ms Ross’s country of origin matters. If Ms. Ross is from the South and now lives in Canada, then she needs to understand that she does not represent white southerners, but herself and people who think like she does, no matter where those people come from. The South has come a long way, and has a long way to go. The ideas expressed in this group are not appreciated by many—I would say and hope, the majority—and among those who do not appreciate the ideas expressed are white southerners—(not to mention African American southerners, or African American men and women period.) On the other hand, if Ms. Ross is from Canada and has views on race that she would like to express, then she should express those views and debate whomever will debate her, rather than don a mask and create an Internet persona of a modern day Southern belle—the Southern belle, imagined or historical, as far removed from the actual ancestors of many white southerners as this discussion group’s take on history is from reality.

    • Charles Lovejoy July 23, 2011 / 6:50 am

      She is from Canada , she is just a moderator in the group.

  3. EarthTone July 21, 2011 / 7:11 pm

    Interesting that they quoted a foreigner and not an ex-slave.

    • Brooks D. Simpson July 21, 2011 / 7:27 pm

      But not surprising. The only time the cherry-picker and his associates quote black people is when they find something that supports their prejudices … er, perspective.

  4. TF Smith July 22, 2011 / 10:21 am

    I am just amazed that someone caqn write the following sentence:

    “Southern black slaves and their white masters, for the most part, had affectionate extended family relationships.”

    in any sense other than irony.

    Truly pathetic.


  5. Charles Lovejoy July 22, 2011 / 10:42 am

    I Have just returned from a nice and interesting trip to Puerto Rico. Meet some very interesting people , historians and artist . Once again I have a very different take on all this. What I see in Puerto Rico as I do all through out the Caribbean is another beautiful paradicia where life was once a living hell for many people. Keep in mind Puerto Rico was once a place where African Slavery was it’s foundation. I have a hard time separating the history of African Slavery to just Slavery in the United States. I look at the chains of African Slavery as chain that ran through all the Americas, including the Caribbean. Slavery in The US was just one link. I see it as one imperialistic system of exploitation of humans. I find listening to African Slavery’s interpretation from those that are direct decedents of the African Slaves as much more enlightening than just reading books about it. Talk to a priest or priestess of an Orisha based spiritual path, ask them about African Slavery. Heck even attend an Orisha ritual :-) Learn about about the spirits and souls of the Africans .

    Miss a week here , I missed a lot , im trying to catch up on the part’s on Grant.

  6. Sarah Gordon November 8, 2014 / 3:50 pm

    Elementary: it’s a matter of threat. A person owned under the law is not a threat but an asset, and a potentially valuable one. A free person is no longer an asset, but a competitor for resources. Ergo, they are a threat and treated as such. One can find the same thing examining economic and social status and racist attitudes. Those whites at the low end of the totem, competing for the same unskilled jobs, exhibited more blatant and violent racism than those at the top of the totem whose position was unthreatened by blacks.

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