What happens when America’s ideals collide with history and human nature? For our nation’s first chronicler, shatterings that haunt us to the present day…

“What is most important for democracy is not that great fortunes should not exist, but that great fortunes should not remain in the same hands…”

–Alexis de Tocqueville

In his groundbreaking analysis of American politics, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville says of democratic peoples that, “for equality…they feel an ardent, insatiable, eternal invincible passion.” This love of equality, for the democratic peoples of America reveals itself in many diverse aspects of American life; however Tocqueville sees the economic impacts of equality as among the most important for the American. He argues that democracy, and the love of equality that it inspires, move a people to commerce by nature: “Nearly all the tastes and habits born out of equality are naturally conducive to commerce and industry.” And the importance of these effects is evident in few places more than in his discussion of the “three races that inhabit the territory.” In fact, Tocqueville argues that the commercialization and industry that result from democracy, are deeply destructive to the races particularly to minorities, and to America itself.

In order to understand the ways in which commerce is destructive to the races of America, it is perhaps helpful to examine the effects of commerce on a separate group: the hereditary aristocracy. Tocqueville believes that in America hereditary rank (aristocracy) has been entirely done away with: “The sons of once most opulent citizens are today merchants, lawyers and doctors. The last vestiges of hereditary rank and distinction have been destroyed.” He further argues that this “destruction” relates to the nature of commerce itself: “Wealth circulates with incredible rapidity there, and experience teaches that it is rare for two successive generations to garner its favors.”

The Trinity

Like his predictions of the aristocrat’s status in an increasingly democratizing world, Tocqueville’s thoughts on the future of the races of America, especially African Americans, White Southerners, and Native Americans, are bleak. In fact, Tocqueville makes specific reference to the importance of commerce in race relations by prefacing his discussion of race with the following statement: “though I often alluded to the commercial activity that dominates the Union, I was not able to treat the future of the Americans as a commercial people.” We should pay close attention to the ways in which the future of race relations relates to the commerce-forming effects of democracy.

Of Native Americans, he says that total obliteration of the race is imminent, and that by the time the Europeans reach the West Coast the entire race will have “ceased to exist.” He blames this on their supposed refusal to conform to settler-colonialism; the “pride of the Indian condemns him to death.” He specifically argues that their genocide comes from their supposed distaste for more productive labor, such as farming: they “liken the farmer to the ox hitched to its plow and in our arts sees nothing but the labor of slaves.” It is in this respect that he relates the plight of Native Americans to the “plight” of the European aristocracy. He says of Native American’s alleged disdain for productive labor, “I am tempted to see the opinions of savages in what we call feudal ideas.”

Tocqueville’s particularly racist and prejudiced view of black Americans makes it very difficult to determine the future of the race as an independent entity. He denies African-Americans any agency in his discussion of race relations: “Even the use of his (slave) mind seems to him a pointless gift of Providence, and he enjoys all the privileges of his baseness in tranquility.” Tocqueville takes an almost Aristotelian view of blacks as slavish by nature, claiming that, even in freedom, “Servitude stuns him, and freedom strikes the final blow.” As a result of the lack of agency Tocqueville ascribes to the entire race, he claims that the effects of commerce on the black race are largely dependent on the effects of commerce on the southern slave owner: “The fate of the negro is in a way bound up with that of the European.”

With this tethering in mind, it is interesting to view how, like the Native Americans, Tocqueville associates white southerners with the European aristocracy. One of the foremost tragedies that Tocqueville associates with slavery is its self-perpetuation. Because slavery is identified with physical characteristics like race, it is impossible for European-Americans to interact with African-Americans without believing themselves to be of a higher class. Because of its forged connection to race, Tocqueville says of American slavery that “the law may destroy servitude, but only god can obliterate its trace.”

Through this tragedy of slavery, southern slave-owners come to take similar attitudes towards industry as their European counterparts. It is directly the result of slavery that there becomes a striking difference between the industry of northern versus southern states. Tocqueville finds this contrast particularly staggering, when he discusses his trip down the Ohio River. Speaking of Kentucky and Ohio, a southern slave state and northern free state respectively, he says “labor is identified south of the Ohio with the idea of slavery, north of the Ohio with the idea of wellbeing and progress.” Because Southerners associate labor with servitude, the “American of the left bank is contemptuous not only of labor but of all enterprises that succeed by virtue of labor.”

The Ohio River Valley today; Kentucky on the left, Ohio on the right. Click the pic for more…

Tocqueville connects the race-based contempt which southerners hold for labor with the class-based contempt of the European aristocracy: “How difficult for an aristocratic body of any kind to merge with the mass of the people, and the extreme care that such bodies take to preserve for centuries the artificial barriers that separate them from that mass.” Here, Tocqueville demonstrates the relationships which Americans have with race, particularly in the south, as creating mores which lead to the destruction of industriousness in the Southern aristocracy and the continued enslavement and perpetual massacre of the black race.

From Macro To Micro

In the case of Native Americans, commerce and industry are both portrayed as being the primary destroyer of their culture and the origin of their genocide, reducing a communal people to microeconomic men, competing atomistically with their European neighbors. This is evident in Tocqueville’s description of the elimination of the American buffalo, which he uses as a metaphor for the tide of commercialism rolling over the nation. Tocqueville claims the buffalo fled west, with every advance of industry, in order to avoid the sound of cow-bells from settler-cattle and the “din of European industry.” As a result of this response from the buffalo, according to Tocqueville, the Native Americans are forced to follow the animals to avoid starving, as they are hunting people.

He further claims that the famine which results from the destruction of the buffalo is the means by which the Europeans take their lands: “Strictly speaking, then, it is not Europeans who are driving out the native Americans; it is famine.” In so doing, he explicitly points to the commercial causes of the genocide of Native Americans, and throughout his discussion of them, he makes continued reference to the industry of settler-colonists as the downfall of the race. In the case of the Creeks and Cherokees, for example, two tribes which Tocqueville claims tried to begin farming, transitioning from being a hunting people to a farming people was far too difficult to manage while simultaneously competing with European farmers: “When the Indians set out to imitate their European neighbors and farm the land as Whites do, they immediately became vulnerable to calamitous competition. The Indian is a clumsy novice, practicing an art he has never been taught.”

Carlisle Indian Boarding School, c. 1890. Click the pic to learn more…

Tocqueville eventually concludes that commercialism threatened the survival of the Native Americans in many ways. The feudal mores of the Native Americans prevent them from copying the productive labor of the Europeans. At the same time, the advance of industry strips the Native Americans’ ability to hunt for subsistence, driving them to an increasingly crowded western front.  Those who choose to give up on their way of life are forced to compete with colonists for whom farming is likely a centuries-old family business, and they too are driven to poverty, returning to a way of life where they may be miserable on more of their own terms: “The independence he [The Native American man] enjoyed among his equals contrasts with the servile position he occupies in civilized society…He abandons his plow, takes up arms once more, and returns to the wilderness for good.” Much like it was for the aristocracy of America, Tocqueville clearly and directly claims that the industry and commerce, born of a democratic people, leads to the obliteration of the Native American race.


In the case of the Southern slave owner and his slave, the dawn of commercialism poses the threat of destruction as well. This threat, according to Tocqueville, results from the difference in mores between Northerners and Southerners. As has already been demonstrated, slave owners, in Tocqueville’s America, have taken on the idle mores of the European aristocracy, while white Americans in the North have mores which favor industry.

The danger, resulting from this divide, is related to the structure of American democracy and its relation to industry. In American democracy, the power of a state is largely determined by population. The commercial capacity of the Northern and Western free states, as Tocqueville has shown, is far more powerful than that of the idle American South; as a result, there is a proportionate increase in both population and wealth in the North and West, and the seat of Federal power moves northwestward, away from the former southern political dynamo of Virginia: “The steady northwestward drift of power and federal influence becomes apparent every ten years, as each new census of the population leads to a readjustment of the number of representatives that each state is supposed to send to congress.” This trend, according to Tocqueville is so distressing to the southern states that they threaten to destroy the Union:

“Of all Americans, southerners should feel most attached to the union…Yet only they are threatening to break it… The South, which sees the number of its representatives in Congress decreasing every year while those of the North and West are increasing…is vexed, and anxious.”

Tocqueville proposes that the population distribution of the United States, warped by the idle mores of the South versus the industrious mores of the North, will be the cause of the Union’s dissolution. Ironically, he concludes, “The greatest danger that threatens the United States is born of its very prosperity.”

But how does the imminent dissolution of the Union connect to race relations in the South? Tocqueville reasons that there are two means by which white southerners may maintain peace in the south without the potential “destruction of one of the two races” via race war: they may either free and “fuse” with their former slaves, or they may remain separate from them and attempt to “maintain slavery as long as possible.” Tocqueville argues that the melding of the black and white race is impossible in the South for two reasons. First, the white Southerner fears that, in combining with the African-American, he (presumably in future generations) “will come to resemble his former slave.”  Second, the white Southerner fears that the might lose his social status relative to his neighbor, “the White.”

Further, even if emancipated, Tocqueville claims that in the absence of combining together, racial tensions will continue to build and still lead to race war: slaves, “once they join the ranks of free men…will soon feel outrage at being deprived of all the rights of citizens. And if they cannot be the white man’s equal, they will not wait long before revealing themselves to be his enemy.”

Tocqueville is not optimistic in the South’s ability to maintain slavery for long, either: “Restricted to one part of the globe and attacked by Christianity as unjust and by political economy as disastrous, slavery is not an institution that can endure in an age of democratic liberty.” With all signs pointing to the end of slavery and, for Tocqueville, a race-ending Armageddon, the slave owners are left with one defense against the “age of democratic liberty”: the strength of the Union. Tocqueville claims that if the white peoples of North America maintain unity, they may ensure that black people will remain “in irons or in misery.” However, if the “federal link were to be broken,” Tocqueville is doubtful that racial solidarity will motivate the forces of the North and West to march south.

Without the full force of the Union, Tocqueville is unsure of the slave-owner’s ability to continue to subjugate the black race, claiming that numbers and desperation may be enough to overpower the “resources” and supposed “enlightenment” of white southerners. He describes the “inevitable” struggle between black and white Americans in the South as “a distressing nightmare that haunts the American imagination.” Tocqueville demonstrates that while the idle mores of slave owners are ever deepened, while the taint of racism continues to prevent any possibility of reconciliation, and while, increasingly, a racial Armageddon in the American South looms, which could not only result in the (likely deserved) deaths of slave masters but also the deaths of freed or rebelling slaves, the Union, the last line of defense blocking the enslaved from the throats of slavers, is ever weakened by the disparities between the industrious North and West and the idle South.

At the same time, it is better to read Tocqueville’s discussion as a caution against industry rather than a historical analysis. It was not just industry that destroyed the Native Americans: it was also disease, murder, and concentration camps. It was not only commerce which caused antagonism between the North and South, but also the threat that abolition posed to a very privileged very racist and very white few. It seems that Tocqueville uses his discussion of race to give gravity to the destructive potential of industry and commerce, a potential which, initially, seemed insignificant when only applied to the privileged aristocracy to which he was born.

Part of our Revivalist History series

Creative Politics synthesizes the best of liberal and conservative ideals with technology and history to generate policies, strategies, applications, and actions for the post-modern era that are well outside the beltway, and well beyond just talk.  All Creative Politics blog posts are collaborative, living documents, the way Madison and Hamilton would create them if they were writing The Federalist today. We welcome, nay urge, your feedback in the comment/discussion section below, and will be using it (with credit) to make what you just read more and more real–thanks much for your time and insights; they will go unpunished!

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