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Earthdate 2003-11-19

Antiquity vs. Modernity: the mind of the slaveholder vis-a-vis the soul of America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Initiating an occasional series in Impearls on slavery, its history, characteristics, and consequences.

Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1848); footnotes are by Tocqueville: 1
 

In the United States people abolish slavery for the sake not of the Negroes but of the white men.

The first Negroes were imported into Virginia about the year 1621.  [Footnote:  See Beverley's History of Virginia.  See also in Jefferson's Memoirs some curious details about the introduction of Negroes into Virginia, and the first act prohibiting this in 1778.]

In America, as everywhere else in the world, slavery originated in the South.  Thence it spread from one place to the next; but the numbers of the slaves grew less the farther one went north; there have always been very few Negroes in New England.  [Footnote:  There were fewer slaves in the North, but the advantages of slavery were not disputed there any more than in the South.  In 1740 the legislature of the state of New York declared that the direct importation of slaves should be encouraged in every possible way and that smuggling should be severely punished, as it tended to discourage honest trade.  (Kent's Commentaries, Vol. II, p. 206.)  The Historical Collection of Massachusetts, Vol. IV, p. 193, gives Belknap's curious researches into slavery in New England.  Apparently, Negroes were introduced as early as 1630, but from that time onward legislation and mores were opposed to slavery.  The same work also shows how first public opinion and then the law finally put a stop to slavery.]

When a century had passed since the foundation of the colonies, an extraordinary fact began to strike the attention of everybody.  The population of those provinces that had practically no slaves increased in numbers, wealth, and well-being more rapidly than those that had slaves.

The inhabitants of the former had to cultivate the ground themselves or hire another's services; in the latter they had laborers whom they did not need to pay.  With labor and expense on the one side and leisure and economy on the other, nonetheless the advantage lay with the former.

This result seemed all the harder to explain since the immigrants all belonged to the same European stock, with the same habits, civilization, and laws, and there were only hardly perceptible nuances of difference between them.

As time went on, the Anglo-Americans left the Atlantic coast and plunged daily farther into the solitudes of the West; there they encountered soils and climates that were new; they had obstacles of various sorts to overcome; their races mingled, southerners going north, and northerners south.  But in all these circumstances the same fact stood out time and time again: in general, the colony that had no slaves was more populous and prosperous than the one where slavery was in force.

The farther they went, the clearer it became that slavery, so cruel to the slave, was fatal to the master.

But the banks of the Ohio provided the final demonstration of this truth.

The stream that the Indians had named the Ohio, or Beautiful River par excellence, waters one of the most magnificent valleys in which man has ever lived.  On both banks of the Ohio stretched undulating ground with soil continually offering the cultivator inexhaustible treasures; on both banks the air is equally healthy and the climate temperate; they both form the frontier of a vast state: that which follows the innumerable windings of the Ohio on the left bank is called Kentucky; the other takes its name from the river itself.  There is only one difference between the two states: Kentucky allows slaves, but Ohio refuses to have them.  [Footnote:  Ohio not only refuses to allow slaves but also prohibits the entry of free Negroes into its territory and forbids them from owning anything there.  See the statutes of Ohio.]

So the traveller who lets the current carry him down the Ohio till it joins the Mississippi sails, so to say, between freedom and slavery; and he has only to glance around him to see instantly which is best for mankind.

On the left bank of the river the population is sparse; from time to time one sees a troop of slaves loitering through half-deserted fields; the primeval forest is constantly reappearing; one might say that society had gone to sleep; it is nature that seems active and alive, whereas man is idle.

But on the right bank a confused hum proclaims from afar that men are busily at work; fine crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings testify to the taste and industry of the workers; on all sides there is evidence of comfort; man appears rich and contented; he works.  [Footnote:  It is not only man as an individual who is active in Ohio; the state itself undertakes immense enterprises; the state of Ohio has constructed between Lake Erie and the Ohio a canal which connects the Mississippi valley with the river of the North.  Thanks to this canal, European merchandise arriving at New York can go by water to New Orleans, across more than five hundred leagues of the continent.]

The state of Kentucky was founded in 1775 and that of Ohio as much as twelve years later; twelve years in America counts for as much as half a century in Europe.  Now the population of Ohio is more than 250,000 greater than that of Kentucky.  [Footnote:  The exact figures from the 1830 census are Kentucky, 688,844; Ohio, 937,669.]

These contrasting effects of slavery and of freedom are easy to understand; they are enough to explain the differences between ancient civilization and modern.

On the left bank of the Ohio work is connected with the idea of slavery, but on the right with well-being and progress; on the one side it is degrading, but on the other honorable; on the left bank no white laborers are to be found, for they would be afraid of being like the slaves; for work people must rely on the Negroes; but one will never see a man of leisure on the right bank: the white man's intelligent activity is used for work of every sort.

Hence those whose task it is in Kentucky to exploit the natural wealth of the soil are neither eager nor instructed, for anyone who might possess those qualities either does nothing or crosses over into Ohio so that he can profit by his industry, and do so without shame.

In Kentucky, of course, the masters make the slaves work without any obligation to pay them, but they get little return from their work, whereas money paid to free workers comes back with interest from the sale of what they produce.

The free laborer is paid, but he works faster than the slave, and the speed with which work is done is a matter of great economic importance.  The white man sells his assistance, but it is bought only when needed; the black can claim no money for his services, but he must be fed the whole time; he must be supported in old age as well as in the vigor of his years, in his useless childhood as well as in his productive youth, and in sickness as well as in health.  So in both cases it is only by paying that one can get service; the free worker receives wages, the slave receives an upbringing, food, medicine, and clothes; the master spends his money little by little in small sums to support the slave; he scarcely notices it.  The workman's wages are paid all at once and seem only to enrich the man who receives them; but in fact the slave has cost more than the free man, and his labor is less productive.  [Footnote omitted.]

The influence of slavery extends even further, penetrating the master's soul and giving a particular turn to his ideas and tastes.

On both banks of the Ohio live people with characters by nature enterprising and energetic, but these common characteristics are turned to different use on one side and the other.

The white man on the right bank, forced to live by his own endeavors, has made material well-being the main object of his existence; as he lives in a country offering inexhaustible resources to his industry and continual inducements to activity, his eagerness to possess things goes beyond the ordinary limits of human cupidity; tormented by a longing for wealth, he boldly follows every path to fortune that is open to him; he is equally prepared to turn into a sailor, pioneer, artisan, or cultivator, facing the labors or dangers of these various ways of life with even constancy; there is something wonderful in his resourcefulness and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.

The American on the left bank scorns not only work itself but also enterprises in which work is necessary to success; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost some of its value in his eyes; he is less interested in wealth than in excitement and pleasure and expends in that direction the energy which his neighbor puts to other use; he is passionately fond of hunting and war; he enjoys all the most strenuous forms of bodily exercise; he is accustomed to the use of weapons and from childhood has been ready to risk his life in single combat.  Slavery therefore not only prevents the white men from making their fortunes but even diverts them from wishing to do so.

The constant operation of these opposite influences throughout two centuries in the English North American colonies has in the end brought about a vast difference in the commercial capabilities of southerners and northerners.  Today the North alone has ships, manufactures, railways, and canals.

Such differences can be noticed not only between South and North but also between different people living in the South.  Almost all those in the most southern states who have gone in for commercial undertakings and try to make a profit out of slavery have come from the North; northerners are daily spreading over that part of the country, where they have less competition to fear; there they discover resources which the inhabitants have not noticed, and complying with a system of which they disapprove, they turn it to better advantage than those who founded and maintain it still.

Were I inclined to continue the parallel, I could easily demonstrate that almost all the marked differences in character between northerners and southerners have their roots in slavery, but at the moment I am not concerned with all the effects of slavery, but only with those that affect the material prosperity of those adopting that system.

Antiquity could only have a very imperfect understanding of this effect of slavery on the production of wealth.  Then slavery existed throughout the whole civilized world, only some barbarian peoples being without it.

Christianity destroyed slavery by insisting on the slave's rights; nowadays it can be attacked from the master's point of view; in this respect interest and morality are in harmony.

As these truths become clear in the United States, one finds slavery retreating in face of education and experience.
 
 

Reference

1 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 12th Edition, 1848, edited by J. P. Mayer, translated by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York, 1969; pp. 344-348.  Note too the previously published Tocqueville acknowledgments and links.



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