Tocqueville and Beaumont on Slavery and the Indian Problem

Tocqueville and Beaumont made their precipitous journey in 1830 during a time of heated debate over a number of racial issues. What they saw was significant, and their moments of sensitivity, and at times insensitivity, reflect interestingly upon the regional differences of their informants. However, what they didn't see, or neglected to record, is also vital to a concise reading or race in nineteenth century America.

Why are Tocqueville and Beaumont's observations so important to our reading of racial relations? What could two French young men reveal about American culture that Americans couldn't divine themselves? Undeniably, many people opened up to the foreigners in a way that they wouldn't have opened to fellow Americans. The young men were mere novices to American culture, and their interviewees seemed happy to guide the young acolytes to a better understanding of the way things work in America.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes a scene which is an excellent metaphor for this project. He states:

I remember that while I was traveling through the forests which still cover the state of Alabama, I arrived one day at the log house of a pioneer. I did not wish to penetrate into the dwelling of the American, but retired to rest myself for a while on the margin of a spring, which was not far off, in the woods. While I was in this place (which was in the neighborhood of the Creek territory), an Indian woman appeared, followed by a Negress, and holding by the hand a little white girl of five or six years, whom I took to be the daughter of the pioneer. A sort of barbarous luxury set off the costume of the Indian; rings of metal were hanging from her nostrils and ears, her hair, which was adorned with glass beads, fell loosely upon her shoulders; and I saw that she was not married, for she still wore that necklace of shells which the bride always deposits on the nuptial couch. The Negress was clad in squalid European garments. All three came and seated themselves upon the banks of the spring; and the young Indian, taking the child in her arms, lavished upon her such fond caresses as mothers give, while the Negress endeavored, by various little artifices, to attract the attention of the young Creole. The child displayed in her slightest gestures a consciousness of superiority that formed a strange contrast with her infantine weakness, as if she received the attentions of her companions with a sort of condencension. The Negress was seated on the ground before her mistress, watching her smallest desires and apparently divided between an almost maternal affection for the child and servile fear; while the savage, in the midst of her tenderness, displayed an air of freedom and pride which was almost ferocious. I had approached the group and was contemplating them in silence, but my curiosity was probably displeasing to the Indian woman, for she suddenly rose, pushed the child roughly from her, and, giving me an angry look, plunged into the thicket.

Tocqueville could not have set out a better passage describing his view of American racial relations than this simple anecdote. The Indian woman and Negress are set as binary oppositions in this scenario; the Indian woman is alluring, proud, and free, while the Negress is squalid, servile, and in bondage. The white girl displays her birthright as dominator even though she is only five or six years old, and both the Indian woman and the Negress assume their "proper roles" by her side: the former is maternal and makes constant physical contact with the child (i.e. holding her hand, lavishing fond caresses on her), while the Negress, paralyzed by "servile fear" cannot make any maternal advances and must revert to "artifice' to even attract the girl's attention.

In terms of physical description, the Negress is entirely nondescript, implying that to Tocqueville as the observer she has lost his interest because of her adoption of "squalid European garments." The Indian woman, however, is described in minute, even sensuous detail. Tocqueville notices not only that she is adorned with metal rings and glass beads, but the exact position of her hair as it "fell loosely upon her shoulders." Furthermore, he emphasizes her Otherness by including a bit of cultural distinction-he recognizes the meaning of the shell necklace that she wears as marking her as unmarried. The Negress, on the other hand, is not described, nor identified as possessing any culture at all.

This is the key to Tocqueville's and Beaumont's observations, which will be explored further in the following pages. Implicit in their observations and musing is the assumption that African Americans, because of their separation from their native homeland and through their own fault, have lost the culture that marks them as distinctive. Once cultureless, they lack the very thing that makes them human. Once this ideology was in place, it was acceptable to hear suggestions that the African American is the missing link between apes and humanity. Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores this idea further: "As Edward Long put the matter in The History of Jamaica (1774), there was a natural relation between the ape and the African and "If such has been the intention of the Almighty, we are then perhaps to regard the orang-outang as, '-the lag of human kind,/ Nearest to brutes, by God designed.' For Long, the ape and the African were missing links, sharing 'the most intimate connexion and consanguinity,' including even 'amorous intercourse.'" (11).

And even this subjugation was not complete. Left only with the minimized integrity of their "race" and 'nature," this too was degenerated. Indeed, Tocqueville states: "The Negro makes a thousand fruitless efforts to insinuate himself among men who repulse him; he conforms to the taste of his oppressors, adopts their opinions, and hopes by imitating them to form a part of their community. Having been told from infancy that his race is naturally inferior to that of the whites, he assents to the proposition and is ashamed of his own nature" (334).

Unlike African Americans who are assumed to be culturally devoid and racially degenerate, American Indians are culturally saturated and racially proud . While African Americans are often posited as sub-human, Indians are assumed to be human, except in an early form which European civilization has already surpassed. Indians are only interesting and only discussed because of their "Otherness." When they become acculturated, or even tainted by civilization, they become pitiful and inauthentic. When Beaumont and Tocqueville witness the Choctaw removal across the Mississippi river to Arkansas, or when they witness inebriated Indians in Utica, they are assured by informants that they are not witnessing "real Indians": real Indians were out west, staying away from the advance of civilization for as long as they could.

For Tocqueville and Beaumont, the issue of race becomes complicated in more ways than one. For example, Beaumont receives a lesson in miscegenation when he attends a theatre in Baltimore and is shocked to see a seemingly white woman sitting in the mulatto section of the theatre. When he expresses his shock, he learns that the woman has a few drops of black blood in her, marking her indelibly as black. Her "blackness" is a taint that is not easily removed with subsequent generations. American Indians, however, occupy a very narrow ledge in the 1830s. The only authentic Indians are those that have escaped or are resisting acculturation; those that are anglicized no longer can proudly claim their "Indianess."

So why this apparent paradox? Tocqueville certainly recognizes it and attempts to ease it out, but ultimately is doomed to fail. He asserts: "The Negro, who earnestly desires to mingle his race with that of the European, cannot do so; while the Indian, who might succeed to a certain extent, disdains to make the attempt. The servility of the one dooms him to slavery, the pride of the other to death" (335). Tocqueville reveals his naiveté here, for if American Indians did "make the attempt" to mingle with white "race," they would be in a similar position to that of the African American-allegedly cultureless, disdained because of their lack of place in the dominant society. Moreover, it is not African Americans' desire to mix their race with the Europeans' that ensures their servility, but the fact of their situation-they were brought into bondage, and outright rebellion would certainly ensure their swift death, the future that Tocqueville promises American Indians.

The Slavery Problem The Indian Problem