Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.
Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.
Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.
On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.
And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.