- Race and Ethnicity in America
Alexis de Tocqueville, as any reader of Democracy in America knows, thought of the United States as a country created and populated by “Anglo-Americans.” They had come from England, Scotland, and Ireland, but had created something new—a society built on social equality and a polity built on democratic self-government. Tocqueville went to America to investigate this new creation and its relevance for France and the Old World.
He could not, of course, discuss democracy in America without coming to grips with its most glaring defects—the institution of slavery and the treatment of the Indians. There are several ways this could have been done. One could envisage—examples in recent decades are too common to bother mentioning—an indictment of American democracy as a hypocritical fraud because of its near-annihilation of the indigenous population, the great crime of slavery, and the massive continuing prejudice and discrimination facing the free black population in the North.
Tocqueville did not choose this path. No one could have been more sensitive than he to the mistreatment of the Indians or more indignant at the fact of slavery and the treatment of blacks even in the states where slavery had been abolished. For the white population, however, social equality and democracy were a reality, far surpassing anything yet seen in Europe. And as Tocqueville so prophetically wrote, this was the wave of the future. Thus it was essential to understand how American democracy worked—its virtues, its defects, and its dangers. This was the task that engaged him, and in most of Democracy in [End Page 95] America he resolutely averted his eyes from the massive failure of American democracy to embrace America’s two other races, concentrating instead on the implications of equality and democracy.
Yet however muted the discussion of slavery and the fate of the Indians was in most of Democracy in America, Tocqueville was well aware of the great flaw in the American experiment that threatened to bring it to an end. He had engaged in many important and deeply pessimistic discussions on the problem of slavery while he was in the United States, including one with former president John Quincy Adams. He was also deeply conscioius of the fate of the Indians, having observed with his own eyes the tragic expulsion of the Choctaws across the Mississippi to new lands to which they had no desire to go.
Yet for the purposes of his analysis he had to set aside the issue of race and the fate of the Indians. There are almost no references to slavery in most sections of Democracy in America. Everything he had to say about these issues was concentrated in a single chapter that concluded Volume I: “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races That Inhabit the Territory of the United States.”
One reason why he felt able to put these issues aside to the extent he did was that he knew his friend and fellow traveler Gustave de Beaumont, who was perhaps even more indignant than Tocqueville at the fate of the Indians and the blacks, was going to take up the subject in his own work, Marie, or Slavery in the United States. Although cast in the form of a novel, Beaumont’s book contained many factual and empirically based appendices on the condition of blacks. In the very first footnote of Democracy in America, Tocqueville refers his readers to Beaumont’s work, which he says “will throw a new and vivid light on the question of slavery, a vital one for the united republics” (I, 15). When Tocqueville finally discusses “The Present and Probable Future Condition of the Three Races,” he once again directs the reader to Beaumont’s work, noting that “M. de Beaumont has plumbed the depths of a question which my subject has allowed me merely to touch upon” (I, 356). Tocqueville’s own treatment of the issues in this chapter is masterful, but before considering it one must say something regarding other aspects of what we now call “diversity.”
Today, Americans are accustomed to seeing themselves as a nation of immigrants, continually being...