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.