American Aristocrats: Indians and Southerners

Peter Lawler has a very thoughtful and provocative piece about Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that the true aristocrats in antebellum America were southern slaveholders and Indians. Here is a taste:

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.

Read rest here.