Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 2 Chapter 10 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 10: Some Considerations on the Present State and the Probable Future of the Three Races That Inhabit the Territory of the United States

Tocqueville devotes the final chapter in Volume 1 of Democracy in America to an extensive series of observations of Native Americans and African Americans. As he soon makes clear, the situation of neither group in the United States was a happy one at the time of his visit.

In Tocqueville's view, both Native Americans and blacks have experienced the effects of the white man's tyranny. European settlers in North America have systematically dispossessed the original Indian inhabitants of the continent; Europeans have also oppressed the Negro by binding him to slavery.

Tocqueville provides a rapid review of European relations with Native Americans, stressing the roles of firearms, iron, brandy, and furs. He then comments on the federal government's Indian removal policy current at the time of his American visit; in a poignant passage, he describes an encounter he had with some displaced Choctaw in Memphis, Tennessee. With wry and somber situational irony, Tocqueville writes, "In our day the dispossession of the Indians often works in a regular and so to speak wholly legal manner." Tocqueville goes so far as to predict that "the Indian race of North America is condemned to perish." Their inability to accommodate themselves to the practices and rhythms of agriculture provides a rationale for this prediction, in Tocqueville's opinion.

Tocqueville next turns his attention to the deplorable predicament of enslaved blacks in America. At the outset of the discussion, he leaves no doubt about where he stands: "The most dreadful of all the evils that threaten the future of the United States arises from the presence of blacks on its soil." In contrast to the slave systems of the past, modern American slavery consists of a fatal combination: the enslavement of an entire people, and the fact that this people is of a different race. "Thus the Negro transmits to all his descendants, with their existence, the external sign of his ignominy."

Tocqueville places his portrait of slavery in dramatic perspective be asking the reader to envision a steamboat journey along the Ohio River. On the right bank is free territory; on the left bank is the slave state of Kentucky. Energy and industry lie on the right, while to the left is only idleness. (Tocqueville points out that it is only in the North that ships, manufacturers, railroads, and canals are found.)

As this chapter unfolds, Tocqueville's pessimism about race relations deepens. He does not think white and black people will coexist with full equality anywhere. Furthermore, he predicts that the abolition of slavery in the South will increase the bitterness felt by the white population toward blacks. Race wars, he feels, are not at all out of the question.

As he appraises the prospects of the Union, Tocqueville envisions that secession by one or more states is a definite possibility. Americans, however, "have an immense interest in remaining united." Indeed, Tocqueville notes it is particularly the southern states that have the most interest in the survival of the Union, because they lack the means to transport and sell the numerous crops they produce. Thus, the South has a paradoxical, perhaps schizophrenic relationship to the Union: on the one hand detesting northern denunciation of slavery, and on the other hand desperately in need of northern infrastructure such as railroads.

The rapid geographical expansion of the United States and the population increase since 1790 pose threats to stability. Tocqueville foresees that such trends of expansion will continue; he predicts that within a century, America will consist of 40 states and will have more than 100 million inhabitants. As he says, "The center of federal power is shifting daily."

Tocqueville also comments in this chapter on two outstanding controversies that overlapped with his American visit: the crisis over nullification (occasioned by tariffs the South viewed as unfair), and President Andrew Jackson's opposition to the powerful Bank of the United States.

Toward the end of the chapter, Tocqueville briefly discusses the American genius for commercial endeavors and for innovation. In addition, he makes a striking prediction that two great peoples will dominate the world: the Anglo-Americans and the Russians.

Analysis

Of all the chapters in Democracy in America, this is the lengthiest. It seems reasonable to infer that Tocqueville regarded race relations as one of the most serious topics he needed to address. By historical coincidence, the years 1831–32 presented something of a fulcrum for issues of race in America. The crisis over nullification involved the issues of states' rights and potential secession (and thus, indirectly, the debate over slavery), while the Indian Removal Act and its enforcement shone the spotlight on relations with the Native American nations. Readers should also note (although Tocqueville does not mention it) the inception in January 1831 of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator.

The discussions of race relations in this chapter contain some of Tocqueville's most eloquent writing: for example, the poignant description of the silent Choctaw in Memphis, Tennessee, as they were forced to leave their native lands, or the extended comparison and contrast of the two banks of the Ohio River, one free and one slave. The references to secession and the possibility of racial or civil war are chilling in context, considering that the American Civil War would erupt within the next 30 years. Despite Tocqueville's stirring enthusiasm for American commercial energy and expansionist spirit, the overall tone of the chapter is somber, even melancholy. Race relations, in Tocqueville's view, present America's single greatest problem, and the light of subsequent history makes refutation of this claim difficult, if not impossible.

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