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Monday, October 13, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 1 / Ch 1)

When Tocqueville traveled the U.S. in the 1830’s it was populated mostly by what he called the “European, Native American and Negro” races. He noted that they formed “three naturally distinct, I might almost say hostile, races” who had to somehow live together in the same country. The Native Americans were here first yet their future looked bleak to Tocqueville: “At their backs lies hunger, before them war and everywhere suffering.” He did not predict a bright future for them. This in spite of the fact that George Washington made this plea to Americans: “We are more enlightened and more powerful than the Indian nations; we are therefore bound in honor to treat them with kindness, and even with generosity.” But Washington’s policy was not pursued by the United States government. So Tocqueville predicted that “The Indian tribes will die in the same state of isolation in which they have lived, whereas the fate of the Negroes is, in a sense, intertwined with that of the Europeans…” For various reasons those who originally came from America would cease to prosper and flourish. But those who originally came from Africa and Europe shared a common destiny. Concerning those two races Tocqueville made this prediction: “only two possibilities exist for the future: either Negroes and whites must blend together completely or they must part…” They haven’t parted. How well they have blended together is a topic still much discussed in America.

The federal government played a big role in the blending together of various races. Civil Rights legislation and various other laws have had a huge impact on American society. Since Tocqueville’s time there have also been large migrations of other ethnic races into the United States. This has made immigration policy one of the major questions facing the country today. The main question is: what, if anything, should we do? And when the term “we” is used it almost always refers to the federal government. What makes this a difficult issue is that people can’t agree on what the federal government should do about it. Both sides have very passionate feelings about what should, or should not, be done. Tocqueville believed it was ok for Americans to disagree. He says that “They do not always see eye to eye…but they do agree upon the general principles which should direct human societies…They believe that at birth each person has the capacity for self-government…I am not saying that all opinions are correct but that they are American…”

From this multi-ethnic mass of unruly crowds of immigrants there emerges, every four years, at least two people willing to take on the ultimate leadership role and become The President of the United States of America. The goal is to win over a majority of voters to your side. In America that’s not easy because Americans are hard to please. Tocqueville says “They possess an inordinate opinion of themselves and are not far from believing that they form a species apart from the rest of humanity.” In Tocqueville’s day there emerged a man who also seemed almost like a species apart from the rest of humanity. He was Andrew Jackson, also known as “Old Hickory.” He was from the frontier land of Tennessee - a man of The People and for The People. Some folks loved him. Other folks hated him. Tocqueville was not an admirer. As he saw it, “General Jackson is a slave of the majority: he follows its every wish, desire, half-revealed instincts or rather he guesses what it wants and takes a lead himself…” Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on what you think of the majority being in charge. Jackson obviously liked it.


Blogger SMJ said...

A couple of thoughts on this post: I realize that Tocqueville believes any government formed by the vulgar majority will always interfere with and demean the virtuous spirit of a gentleman like himself, but really... to suggest that integration (i.e, "the blending together of various races" is a byproduct of federal policy overlooks the simple fact that "racial blending" has its roots in the enforced deportation of people from Africa by slave traders and the plantation economy of southern states which relied on these people for cheap labor. In this manner, slavery introduced into America the first immigration problem of how to manage a growing labor force that brings economic benefits to society, while at the same time, minimizing the social upheavals brought about by the proximity of an undesirable population. Once slavery was outlawed, the remnants of this venal practice could not simply be expunged. That left a situation where the descendents of the original settlers from Europe now faced the prospect of living alongside an immigrant population of freed slaves. But these African descendents now had rights of American citizenship and could not simply be forcibly deported back to Africa. Clearly, the problem of integration does not have its roots in a federal policy but in the fabric of our social evolution.

The whole discussion of "blending of races" really belongs in a different conversation-- whether or not two different populations with different cultural and racial traditions can live harmoniously in one society. I think we now see, in the 143 years that has passed since the Civil War, that we can, in fact, live harmoniously together. Immigration, as we know, has been throughout our history a significant part of the American landscape. Fortunately, due to the enormous size of the country, there has always been sufficient room to accommodate newcomers. Some of these new people have been welcomed more than others. In hard economic times, resentment about immigration springs up more frequently due to the competition for jobs. But there is also a strange note of elitism which marks the attitude of people whose ancestors came here one or two generations prior to those who come here today. Many people seem to forget that in a very fundamental sense, we are all immigrants in America, except for the native American people who were displaced by an irresistible wave of future settlers. And though Tocqueville certainly doesn't approve, democracy is the form of government which best identifies us as the progeny of that future.

10/15/2008 9:56 AM  

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