Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Slavery and Race in America from Tocqueville

Somebody recently said that Tocqueville is more often quoted than read. FLG thinks that somebody was over at LOG, but can't find it.

Interesting digression on the topic of quoting but not reading Tocqueville, well not so interesting but certainly a digression, there's a scene in the 1993 version of Born Yesterday (which you don't need to see if you haven't, and if you have -- I'm sorry) where Melanie Griffith, having become smart and empowered by reading Democracy in America, ask an NPR talk show host, played by Nora Dunn, a question about the book. Nora Dunn responds something like, "I haven't read it. Nobody has, but everybody in Washington has it on their shelves as if they have." FLG is pretty sure that quote is an accurate portrayal of Washington.

Anyway, FLG has read it, and this passage popped in his head today while thinking about the plight of Detroit:
It is important to make an accurate distinction between slavery itself and its consequences. The immediate evils produced by slavery were very nearly the same in antiquity as they are among the moderns, but the consequences of these evils were different. The slave among the ancients belonged to the same race as his master, and was often the superior of the two in education and intelligence. Freedom was the only distinction between them; and when freedom was conferred, they were easily confounded together. The ancients, then, had a very simple means of ridding themselves of slavery and its consequences: that of enfranchisement; and they succeeded as soon as they adopted this measure generally. Not but that in ancient states the vestiges of servitude subsisted for some time after servitude itself was abolished. There is a natural prejudice that prompts men to despise whoever has been their inferior long after he has become their equal; and the real inequality that is produced by fortune or by law is always succeeded by an imaginary inequality that is implanted in the manners of the people. But among the ancients this secondary consequence of slavery had a natural limit; for the freedman bore so entire a resemblance to those born free that it soon became impossible to distinguish him from them.


It's a tremendously obvious point, but also incredibly important.

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