I'm basically finished with the first volume Democracy In America. Yesterday I arrived at the final chapter on Whites, Black s and Indians--"The Three Races Of America" as Tocqueville calls them. It was actually a huge disappointment.
And it wasn't disappointing because it was racist--you expect that in the writing of the time. It was disappointing because it felt thin and devoid of the sort of skepticism which Tocqueville shows in admirable quantity throughout the book. I've actually read better and more probing discussions of slavery from actual slave-owners. (I'm thinking of Thomas Jefferson, for instance.)
The best part of DIA is Tocqueville's skepticism never slips into cynicism. In the last chapter that's exactly what happens. It's just rather uninteresting doom-saying. I really had the feeling that he hadn't spent much time on actual plantations. His description of the difference between Ohio and Kentucky is often quoted:
Upon the left bank of the Ohio labor is confounded with the idea of slavery, upon the right bank it is identified with that of prosperity and improvement; on the one side it is degraded, on the other it is honored; on the former territory no white laborers can be found, for they would be afraid of assimilating themselves to the negroes; on the latter no one is idle, for the white population extends its activity and its intelligence to every kind of employment. Thus the men whose task it is to cultivate the rich soil of Kentucky are ignorant and lukewarm; whilst those who are active and enlightened either do nothing or pass over into the State of Ohio, where they may work without dishonor.
But feels really too pat and too clean.
As I recall, someone commented here that he spent very little time in the South. I turn that back over to the Horde: Does anyone know how much time Tocqueville spent down South? Did he encounter people like George Calhoun? I ask because Calhoun's thoughts on slavery are much more illuminating. Did he see any of the white yeoman farmers along the Appalachian ridge? Am I wrong in thinking--for reasons beyond its racism--that this is a particularly weak point in the book?
Any help would be appreciated. As with TTLIS threads this will be curated heavily. Don't do a quick google search. Answer because you have something to contribute, not because you're bored at work. The OT will be up soon anyway.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power