Into the Canon: De Tocqueville

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Yesterday, I think we arrived at an interesting historical paradox. The consensus was that, in the slimmest sense, compensated emancipation was possible. But in the actual sense it was impossible. That is because while we were able to imagine the country getting its hands on enough resources to bail-out slave-holders, we could not imagine slave-holders accepting such a bail-out. The only way to make it work would be to compel them to accept--which is just another way of saying "War."  (This, of course, only one of many problems with the counter-factual, and I ask patience as we address the others in the coming days. Again, one post can't do it all.) 


So, of course, this made me to think of De Tocqueville:

The great difficulty was, not to know how to constitute the Federal government, but to find out a method of enforcing its laws. Governments have generally but two means of overcoming the opposition of the governed: namely, the physical force that is at their own disposal, and the moral force that they derive from the decisions of the courts of justice. 

A government which should have no other means of exacting obedience than open war must be very near its ruin, for one of two things would then probably happen to it. If it was weak and temperate, it would resort to violence only at the last extremity and would connive at many partial acts of insubordination; then the state would gradually fall into anarchy. If it was enterprising and powerful, it would every day have recourse to physical strength, and thus would soon fall into a military despotism. Thus its activity and its inertness would be equally prejudicial to the community. 

The great end of justice is to substitute the notion of right for that of violence and to place a legal barrier between the government and the use of physical force. 

Is it fair to say that by 1860, slavery had effectively brought the American government to ruin? Isn't that what secession was? The failure of government? Can we not look at the administration of James Buchannan in the face of the secession crisis and see a weak temperateness and "many partial acts of insubordination?" It is probably not accurate to say that North and South fell in to "despotism" during the War -- there was an election in 1864, and one which Lincoln believed he would lose. But you do see the State strengthening itself and infringing on previously held liberties. 

These are all questions. I don't have much experience with political science or the history of governments. But it would seem that the threat of violence is an indispensable fact of governing ("I got more glocks and techs than you.") And yet having to honor that threat regularly indicates a failure of legitimacy. 

This is disturbingly akin to the West Baltimore of my youth. Without a real power establishing a monopoly on dispensing of beat-downs, pistol-whippings, and shootings, we were left to regulate it ourselves. The kids who were most able to protect their person, were allowed the right of self-governance, and almost never had to fight. The threat of what they might do had to be honored. I, on the other hand, spent the first half of my seventh grade year getting jumped, and the second half fighting. My eighth grade year was considerably less violent. The threat was now honored, and by then I was rolling with a crew.

This is all thinking out loud. We're here in the sandbox together. Let's go.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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