The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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Tocqueville on Aristocratic Indians and Southerners
Peter Augustine Lawler - 01/26/11

The last chapter of volume 1 of Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is about the then-present and probable future of the three races that inhabited our country at the time. Tocqueville identifies them by color—the reds, the whites, and the blacks. That is, the Indians or Native Americans, the Europeans and the descendents of Europeans who emigrated to America, and the descendents of the Africans who were brought to America as slaves (and who, of course, mostly remained slaves themselves).

It turns out that each race—each color—represents the three ways of life that existed in America, and, from a certain view, the three ways of life possible for human beings. Americans, it turns out, are both more and less than middle-class democrats.

The blacks—the African Americans—are slaves. They aren’t free and are compelled to work. That is, work for others.

The whites—the dominant class in America—are members of the middle class. They’re free, and that’s the good news. The bad news is that they have to work. They have to work for themselves in order to survive and prosper. They’re middle class because they’re free like aristocrats to work like slaves. They think of themselves as beings with interests; nobody is above or below being self-interested or responsible for one’s own material needs.

The reds—the Indians or indigenous Americans—Tocqueville describes as aristocrats. For us, it’s not so obvious why Indians belong in the same category as the hereditary aristocrats of Europe. But Tocqueville explains that the Indians—really, the Indian men—pride themselves in not devoting themselves slavishly to manual labor, to say, agriculture. They, like the European aristocrats, think of themselves as free from work so that they might pursue nobler activities—hunting, fighting, and giving speeches about hunting and fighting. And so they regard the way of life of the middle-class as unendurable drudgery. They often pride themselves in believing that they would rather die then surrender their way of life. And they really did display plenty of evidence that their lives were defined more by courage and honor than by fear. Because they knew how to die well, they thought they also knew how to live well.

At a certain point in this chapter, Tocqueville’s analysis takes an unexpected turn. He says that the southern slave owners—the ruling class in the South—are also aristocrats. That is, they are far more like the Indians than like their fellow Europeans in the North. They, like the Indians, prided themselves as being free from the drudgery of manual labor so that they’re free for nobler activities, activities in which they could display their distinctively human virtues—courage above all. Like the Indians, they were all about hunting and fighting and giving speeches about hunting and fighting—which they called politics. They thought, like the Indian, that merely being concerned with one’s interests is slavish.

If we think about it, we actually have more evidence than Tocqueville ever did that the South is the most aristocratic part of our country. We learn from southern writers from William Faulkner through Walker Percy that southern leaders took their bearings from the Stoics, especially the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. They modeled their lives on the great Greeks and Romans and understood themselves as possessing the paternalistic virtues of aristocratic rulers devoted to assuming honorable responsibility for their communities. (Think Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.) But the magnanimity of the Stoic attorney who courageously protected blacks from redneck, lynch-mob lawlessness can’t really be confused with justice. That’s why so many southern gentlemen were stunned when the blacks they thought of as under their protection started “insolently” to demand their rights. Most of those gentlemen were way too slow to see that segregation was always a violation of the spirit of our individualistic law and a sin against the Christian principle of the equality of all human beings under God.

We also know, of course, that our armed forces have always been disproportionately southern. Southerners have always been more devoted to hunting and fighting. There are all sorts of studies that show, for better and worse, that the South remains, even today, the most honor-obsessed and violent (as well as most well mannered) part of our country. It also remains the most spiritual part of the country; genuine or soulful religious belief, Tocqueville reminds us, is an aristocratic inheritance.

Our president has mocked the rural South for its desperate attachment to God and guns. To be fair, he should have added something about the southerner’s proud attachment to his country—reflected, of course, in his country music. There’s a lot to be said for the man who proudly believes that it’s his God-given duty to fight to defend the place that secures his freedom and stands up with tears in his eyes when he hears Lee Greenwood sing. It’s southerners and those with southern envy who are particularly moved by tunes that remind us that every citizen must also be a warrior.

But much of Tocqueville’s analysis of the Indians and southern aristocrats focuses on their weakness and injustice. The honorable superiority of aristocrats, he shows us, is largely (but not completely) imaginary. The Indians styled themselves as above the need to work, but they were all too easily corrupted by the temptation of European luxuries. They fatally compromised themselves by attempting to acquire those unnecessary goods without engaging in productive labor. The Indians could have preserved their way of life much longer had they minimized their contact with European, middle-class civilization. The southern master, in turn, was corrupted by an excessive attachment to luxuries imported from the North or from Europe. His aristocratic agrarianism made him too subject to the manufacturing of cities that were not his own. The rulers of the South—those who dominated the political class and the legislatures—were not the self-sufficient yeoman farmers of Jefferson’s poetic imagination.

The Indian who thought that he could benefit from the fruits of European technology without engaging in technological activities himself was actually unjust. Why should anyone have the benefits of work without working? And by making himself unnecessarily vulnerable to the superior power of European military technology, he made his real defeat on the battlefield all too easy. The southerner, of course, did exactly the same thing. The showdown between honor and high technology on the battlefield—both the Civil War and the Indian Wars showed—usually results in the victory of the side with more real power. Both the Indian’s and the southerner’s imaginary superiority was overwhelmed by the economic and military might that was produced by all the real work done by the northern Europeans.

The injustice of the southerner was, of course, much greater than that of the Indian, because he demanded all the luxury of high civilization without working. He depended on the labor of slaves. And his slavery was much worse—much more monstrously dehumanizing—that that of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the ancient world, the slaves came from countries that lost the last war. Slaves were kept in line through fear, but there was no attempt to destroy their spiritual or intellectual freedom. That’s because everyone knew that slavery was the result of bad luck. Being a slave said nothing about your nature or who you really were. In the ancient world, there were philosopher-slaves, such as the Stoic Epictetus, just as there were a couple of philosopher-emperors.

Only with the influence of Christianity, Tocqueville explains, did human beings come to see that slavery is fundamentally unjust. And so slavery disappeared among the Europeans. It reemerged among the Americans, who contained it to members of one particular race in an attempt to minimize its injustice. It was unjust—contrary to God and nature—to enslave anyone but dark-skinned people of Africa. Even many of the southerners at the time of the Founding knew that the slavery of blacks was unjust as well. But that theoretical conclusion contradicted their aristocratic practice (think Jefferson), and it came to have less and less influence among leading southerners.

The southerners, Tocqueville shows, came to believe that members of one race were slaves by nature. They used racist materialism to account for their aristocratic pride. Modern racism is a monstrous mixture of modern materialism and ancient honor, and it justified unprecedented injustice. The southerners, in effect, tried to make their theory true by engaging in what Tocqueville calls spiritual despotism: they tried to deprive their black slaves of their natural freedom by reducing them to merely material beings. They attempted to enslave not only their bodies but their souls.

The proud and fearful fantasies of the southern imagination—based in part on the horrible injustice of racist slavery—fatally weakened the South. Tocqueville could already see that the South was a lost cause. The North—where everyone worked—was becoming increasingly more productive than the South where, in a way, nobody worked that hard. Neither master nor slave was properly motivated to be all that productive—the master was too proud, and the slave lacked the incentive that comes from working for yourself.

The southerners, Tocqueville added, knew that their cause was lost. They didn’t surrender that cause, in part, out of honorable contempt for being merely middle-class—the same contempt that motivated many of the Indians. But they were also afraid of what would happen if they freed the slaves. They couldn’t help but have various natural intimations of the immensity of their injustice, but they really didn’t think that emancipation was a real option. Their whole way of life would be ruined, and God knows what the blacks, in a way quite justly, would do to them in revenge if given their freedom. The southerners, in truth, thought they were engaged not only in a honorable defense of their way of life, but a fearful defense of their very lives.

So Tocqueville allows us to feel more than a little sympathy for the plight of the southerner of 1830. He even says that their desperation was so deep that they couldn’t bear to speak of it. A war between the states or regions, if it came, would be fueled partly by southern desperation and maybe even more by southern aristocratic indignation. The southerners were enraged at the relative decline of their place in the Union. Tocqueville leaves us with the impression that honorable and violent men would eventually believe that they had no alternative but to fight, and that they would probably fight hard and well—if somewhat unreasonably—and lose. (Lee was a great and honorable general, but he was too enamored with the glory of victory through frontal assaults on the enemy; the South was too short on men and guns for that strategy to succeed over the long term.)

Tocqueville’s basic prediction was of the disappearance of the way of life of the Indian and the southerner. The middle-class, productive way of life of the northerner would increasingly dominate everywhere. It would do so in the name of both justice and power, but it would also do so at a cost. The cost would not only be in diversity, that is, of genuine multiculturalism or multiple ways of life. The cost would also be in terms of diversity of manifestations of genuine human greatness or extraordinary individuality.

And the cost would also be in terms of knowledge of how to live happily and virtuously with what we can’t help but really know. Democratic individuals, Tocqueville observes, are particularly disoriented or rather clueless in terms of knowing who they are and what they’re supposed to do. They can’t experience themselves as merely beings with interests, but they have no point of view by which to discover who else they might be. Aristocrats, by comparison, “know their place” or their humanly worthy purpose. Because they are, in that sense, more spiritual, aristocrats believe, Tocqueville also observes, that they can afford to be less calculating and more spontaneous; they’re less about the pursuit of happiness and more about its enjoyment. The truth is that aristocrats (both the Indians and the southerners) are both more and less deluded than the middle-class Americans who have put them pretty much out of action.

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