ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Up From Slavery: A Documentary History of Negro Education
Compiled By Rudolph Lewis
Alexis de Tocqueville Comments on Negro Slavery in the United States, 1835
When I contemplate the condition of the South, I can discover only two modes of action for the white inhabitants of those States: namely, either to emancipate the Negroes and to intermingle with them, or, remaining isolated from them, to keep them in slavery as long as possible. All intermediate measures seem to me likely to terminate, and that shortly, in the most horrible of civil wars and perhaps in the extirpation of one or the other of the two races. Such is the view that the Americans of the South take of the question, and they act consistently with it. As they are determined not to mingle with the Negroes, they refuse to emancipate them.
Not that the inhabitants of the South regard slavery as necessary to the wealth of the planter; on this point many of them agree with their Northern countrymen, in freely admitting that slavery is prejudicial to their interests; but they are convinced that the removal of this evil would imperil their own existence. The instruction which is now diffused in the South has convinced the inhabitants that slavery is injurious to the slave-owner, but it has also shown them, more clearly than before, that it is almost an impossibility to get rid of it. Hence arises a singular contrast: the more the utility of slavery is contested, the more firmly is it established in the laws; and while its principle is gradually abolished in the North, that selfsame principle gives rise to more and more rigorous consequences in the South.
The legislation of the Southern states with regard to slaves presents at the present day such unparalleled atrocities as suffice to show that the laws of humanity have been totally perverted, and to betray the desperate position of the community in which that legislation has been promulgated. The Americans of this portion of the Union have not, indeed, augmented the hardships of slavery; on the contrary, they have bettered the physical condition of the slaves. The only means by which the ancients maintained slavery were fetters and death; the Americans of the South of the Union have discovered more intellectual securities for the duration of their power. They have employed their despotism and their violence against the human mind. In antiquity precautions were taken to prevent the slave from breaking his chains; at the present day measures are adopted to deprive him even of the desire for freedom.
The ancients kept the bodies of their slaves in bondage, but placed no restraint upon the mind and no check upon education; and they acted consistently with their established principle, since a natural termination of slavery then existed, and one day or other the slave might be set free and become the equal of his master. But the Americans of the South, who do not admit that the Negroes can ever be commingled with themselves, have forbidden them, under severe penalties, to be taught to read or write; and as they will not raise them to their own level, they sink them as nearly as possible to that of the brutes.
The hope of liberty had always been allowed to the slave, to cheer the hardships of his condition. But the Americans of the South are well aware that emancipation cannot but be dangerous when the freed man can never be assimilated to his former master. To give a man his freedom and to leave him in wretchedness and ignominy is nothing less than to prepare a future chief for a revolt of the slaves. Moreover, it has long been remarked that the presence of a free Negro vaguely agitates the minds of his less fortunate brethren, and conveys to them a dim notion of their rights. The Americans of the South have consequently taken away from slave-owners the right of emancipating their slaves in most cases. [Emancipation was not prohibited, but surrounded with such formalities as to render it difficult.]
I happened to meet an old man, in the South of the Union, who had lived in illicit intercourse with one of his Negresses and had had several children by her, who were born the slaves of their father. He had, indeed, frequently thought of bequeathing to them at least their liberty; but years had elapsed before he could surmount the legal obstacles to their emancipation, and meanwhile his old age had come and he was about to die. He pictured to himself his sons dragged from market to market and passing from the authority of a parent to the rod of the stranger, until these horrid anticipations worked his expiring imagination into a frenzy. When I saw him, he was a prey to all the anguish of despair; and I then understood how awful is the retribution of Nature upon those who have broken her laws. . . .
The American of the North sees no slaves around him in his child-hood; he is even unattended by free servants, for he is usually obliged to provide for his own wants. As soon as he enters the world, the idea of necessity assails him on every side; he soon learns to know exactly the natural limits of his power; he never expects to subdue by force those who withstand him; and he knows that the surest means of obtaining the support of his fellow creatures is to win their favor. He therefore becomes patient, reflecting, tolerant, slow to act, and persevering in his designs.
In the Southern states the more pressing wants of life are always supplied; the inhabitants, therefore, are not occupied with the material cares of life, from which they are relieved by others; and their imagination is diverted to more captivating and less definite objects. The American of the South is fond of grandeur, luxury, and renown, of gayety, pleasure, and, above all, of idleness; nothing obliges him to exert himself in order to subsist; and as he has no necessary occupations, he gives way to indolence and does not even attempt what would be useful.
But the equality of fortunes and the absence of slavery in the North plunge the inhabitants in those material cares which are disdained by the white population of the South. They are taught from infancy to combat want and to place wealth above all the pleasures of the intellect or the heart. The imagination is extinguished by the trivial details of life, and the ideas become less numerous and less general, but far more practical, clearer, and more precise. As prosperity is the sole aim of exertion, it is excellently well attained; nature and men are turned to the best pecuniary advantage; and society is dexterously made to contribute to the welfare of each of its members, while individual selfishness is the source of general happiness.
The American of the North has not only experience but knowledge; yet he values science not as an enjoyment, but as a means, and is only anxious to seize its useful application. The American of the South is more given to act upon impulse; he is more clever, more frank, more generous, more intellectual, and more brilliant. The former, with a greater degree of activity, common sense, information, and general aptitude, has the characteristic good and evil qualities of the middle classes. The latter has the tastes, the prejudices, the weaknesses, and the magnanimity of all aristocracies.
If two men are united in society, who have the same interests, and, to a certain extent, the same opinions, but different characters, different acquirements, and a different style of civilization, it is most probable that these men will not agree. The same remark is applicable to a society of nations.
Slavery, then, does not attack the American Union directly in irs intere;ts, but indirectly in its manners. . .
Phillips Bradley (ed.), Democracy in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), I, 378-80; 394-95.
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Alexis de Tocqueville Bio
Tocqueville, Alexis de, 180559, French politician and writer. He was prominent in politics, particularly just before and just after the Revolution of 1848, and was minister of foreign affairs briefly in 1849. His observations made during a government mission to the United States to study the penal system resulted in De la démocratie en Amérique (2 vol., 1835; tr. Democracy in America, 4 vol., 183540), one of the classics of political literature. A liberal whose deepest commitment was to human freedom, Tocqueville believed that political democracy and social equality would, inevitably, replace the aristocratic institutions of Europe. He analyzed the American attempt to have both liberty and equality in terms of what lessons Europe could learn from American successes and failures. Tocqueville’s other important works are L’Ancien Régime et la révolution (1856; tr. 1856), which stressed the continuance after the French Revolution of many trends that had begun before, and his Recollections (1893; tr. by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, 1896; complete ed. by J. P. Mayer, 1949). There are numerous English editions of his works, correspondence, and travel notebooks.
See biography by J. P. Mayer (tr. 1960, repr. 1966); studies E. T. Gargan (1965), M. Zetterbaum (1967), S. I. Drescher (1968), R. Boesche (1987), L. E. Shiner (1988), and S. A. Hadari (1989).
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Sources: Chapter VI. “The Instruction of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight. A Documentary History of Education in the South before 1860. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, 1953
Chapter 10 “Up From Slavery: Educational and other Rights of Negroes.” In Edgar W. Knight and Clifton L. Hall. Readings in American Educational History. New York Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1951.
Many states had laws prohibiting the education of blacks; here black youngsters are turned away at the school door
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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10 January 2012