What did Tocqueville and Beaumont see in terms of slavery?

Philadelphia | Maryland | Ohio | Kentucky | Tennessee


Tocqueville and Beaumont were interviewing Mr. James Brown on their last day in Philadelphia. They discussed New Orleans, and Mr. Brown said, "There is in New Orleans a class of women dedicated to concubinage, the women of colour. Immorality is for them, as it were, a profession carried on with fidelity. A coloured white girl is destined from her birth to become the mistress of a white. When she becomes marriageable, her mother takes care to provide for her. It's a sort of temporary marriage. It lasts ordinarily for several years, during which it is very rare that the girl so joined can be reproached with infidelity. In this fashion they pass from hand to hand until, having acquired a certain competence, they marry for good with a man of their own condition and introduce their daughters into the same life.

Tocqueville: There's an order of things truly contrary to nature, said I: it must be the cause of considerable disturbance in society.

Mr. Brown: Not so much as you might believe. The rich young men are very dissolute, but their immorality is restricted to the field of coloured women. White women of French or American blood have very pure morals. They are virtuous, first, I imagine, because virtue pleases them, and next because the women of colour are not; to have a lover is to join their class." (Pierson 487)

Pierson traces the burgeoning interest the two friend developed in the institution of slavery (which are according to Tocqueville). The two were in Philadelphia, a place that propounds to abhor slavery ideologically. However, what the two noticed was worse than slavery-all the blacks (and there were lots of them) were treated with great malice.

"Many persons in America, and of the most intelligent, have maintained to me that the Negroes belong to an inferior race," Tocqueville began the 22nd of October. 'Many others have maintained the contrary thesis. The latter in support of their opinion generally cite the aptitude of Negro children in their schools [and] the example of certain Negroes who, in spite of all obstacles, have acquired an independent fortune. Mr. Wood of Philadelphia related to me, among others, the instance of a Negro of this city who has acquired an enormous fortune and own several vessels whose crew and captains are black" (Pierson 512).

"In Massachusetts, Tocqueville had noticed, the Negroes were allowed to vote, but were not permitted in the white schools. In Philadelphia the discrimination was universal. In the Walnut street prison they were separated from the white convicts, even at meals. Perhaps that was natural. But when the comissioners visited the House of refuge, an institution more philanthropic than penal, not a single black child was to be seen. 'It would be degrading to the white children,' the Director had explained, 'to associate them with beings given up to public scorn. Life was hard enough for this despised race; their very mortality rate was double that of the whites, And even into the grave the hatred of society pursued them; they were not allowed interment in the same cemetery" (Pierson 512)

On October 24 Tocqueville interviewed John Jay Smith, who had taught in a coloured Sunday school. "Mr. Smith, a very able and well- informed Quaker, said to us to-day that he was perfectly convinced that the Negroes were of the same race as we, just as a black cow is of the same race as a white cow..."'We asked him if the blacks had the rights of citizenship. He replied: Yes, in law. But they can't present themselves at the polls. Tocqueville: Why so?

Mr. Smith: They would be maltreated.

Tocqueville: And what becomes of the reign of law in this case?'

Mr. Smith: The law with us is nothing if not supported by public opinion. Slavery is abolished in Pennsylvania, but the people are imbued with the greatest prejudice against the Negroes, and the magistrates don't feel strong enough to enforce the laws favorable to them..."

Tocqueville and Beaumont asked him 'what is his opinion was the only means of saving the South from the ills he foresaw.'

'He answered that it was to attach the Negroes to the soil like the serfs of Middle Ages. Serfdom is an evil institution, he said, but it is infinitely better than slavery, properly called. It would serve as a transition to a state of complete freedom. But I am perfectly certain that the Americans of the South, like all other despots, would never consent to give up the least portion of their power; they would wait until it was torn from them,'

Three days later they asked their friend Duponceau the same question. He said:"The great rankling sore of the United States us slavery. The evil only grows. The spirit of the century tends toward giving the slaves their liberty. I don'tdoubt that the blacks will eventually all become free. But I believe that one day their race will disappear from our soil.'

'How so?' Tocqueville wanted to know.

'With us white and black blood will never mingle. The two races abhor each other, and yet are obliged to live on the same soil. This situation is contrary to nature. It must end in the destruction of the two hostile peoples. Now the white race, supported as it is in the West and the North, does not perish in the South. The blacks will arm against it, and will be exterminated. We shall not escape from the position our fathers put us in when they introduced slavery, except by massacre.'

During this time Beaumont wrote his family about what he had observed among Pennsylvania's black population. "they [the blacks] are no longer slaves, 'he had summed up his first impressions and conclusion, 'according to the Constitution they are the equals of the whites and have the same political rights. But laws don't change customs. One is accustomed here to see in a Negro a slave , and as such one continues to treat him. It is curious to see what aristocratic pride is to be found among these free men , whose government reposes on the principle of absolute equality. The colour white his here a nobility, and the colour black a mark of slavery. The fact is not difficult to seize, but it's the consequences that one has to foresee. Each day the ignorance of the blacks diminishes, and when they shall all be enlightened ti is much to be feared that they will avenge by violence the scorn in which they are held.'

The end of October 1831--when Beaumont reached Pennsylvania. Events happening that had racial implication--(pg 515.ff)