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Democracy in America I: Chapter XVIII, part V

When I contemplate the condition of the South, I can only discover two alternatives which may be adopted by the white inhabitants of those States; viz., either to emancipate the negroes, and to intermingle with them; or, remaining isolated from them, to keep them in a state of slavery as long as possible. All intermediate measures seem to me likely to terminate, and that shortly, in the most horrible of civil wars, and perhaps in the extirpation of one or other of the two races. Such is the view which the Americans of the South take of the question, and they act consistently with it. As they are determined not to mingle with the negroes, they refuse to emancipate them.

Not that the inhabitants of the South regard slavery as necessary to the wealth of the planter, for on this point many of them agree with their Northern countrymen in freely admitting that slavery is prejudicial to their interest; but they are convinced that, however prejudicial it may be, they hold their lives upon no other tenure. The instruction which is now diffused in the South has convinced the inhabitants that slavery is injurious to the slave-owner, but it has also shown them, more clearly than before, that no means exist of getting rid of its bad consequences. Hence arises a singular contrast; the more the utility of slavery is contested, the more firmly is it established in the laws; and whilst the principle of servitude is gradually abolished in the North, that self-same principle gives rise to more and more rigorous consequences in the South.

The legislation of the Southern States with regard to slaves, presents at the present day such unparalleled atrocities as suffice to show how radically the laws of humanity have been perverted, and to betray the desperate position of the community in which that legislation has been promulgated. The Americans of this portion of the Union have not, indeed, augmented the hardships of slavery; they have, on the contrary, bettered the physical condition of the slaves. The only means by which the ancients maintained slavery were fetters and death; the Americans of the South of the Union have discovered more intellectual securities for the duration of their power. They have employed their despotism and their violence against the human mind. In antiquity, precautions were taken to prevent the slave from breaking his chains; at the present day measures are adopted to deprive him even of the desire of freedom. The ancients kept the bodies of their slaves in bondage, but they placed no restraint upon the mind and no check upon education; and they acted consistently with their established principle, since a natural termination of slavery then existed, and one day or other the slave might be set free, and become the equal of his master. But the Americans of the South, who do not admit that the negroes can ever be commingled with themselves, have forbidden them to be taught to read or to write, under severe penalties; and as they will not raise them to their own level, they sink them as nearly as possible to that of the brutes.

The hope of liberty had always been allowed to the slave to cheer the hardships of his condition. But the Americans of the South are well aware that emancipation cannot but be dangerous, when the freed man can never be assimilated to his former master. To give a man his freedom, and to leave him in wretchedness and ignominy, is nothing less than to prepare a future chief for a revolt of the slaves. Moreover, it has long been remarked that the presence of a free negro vaguely agitates the minds of his less fortunate brethren, and conveys to them a dim notion of their rights. The Americans of the South have consequently taken measures to prevent slave-owners from emancipating their slaves in most cases; not indeed by a positive prohibition, but by subjecting that step to various forms which it is difficult to comply with.

I happened to meet with an old man, in the South of the Union, who had lived in illicit intercourse with one of his negresses, and had had several children by her, who were born the slaves of their father. He had indeed frequently thought of bequeathing to them at least their liberty; but years had elapsed without his being able to surmount the legal obstacles to their emancipation, and in the mean while his old age was come, and he was about to die. He pictured to himself his sons dragged from market to market, and passing from the authority of a parent to the rod of the stranger, until these horrid anticipations worked his expiring imagination into frenzy. When I saw him he was a prey to all the anguish of despair, and he made me feel how awful is the retribution of nature upon those who have broken her laws.

These evils are unquestionably great; but they are the necessary and foreseen consequence of the very principle of modern slavery. When the Europeans chose their slaves from a race differing from their own, which many of them considered as inferior to the other races of mankind, and which they all repelled with horror from any notion of intimate connection, they must have believed that slavery would last forever; since there is no intermediate state which can be durable between the excessive inequality produced by servitude and the complete equality which originates in independence. The Europeans did imperfectly feel this truth, but without acknowledging it even to themselves. Whenever they have had to do with negroes, their conduct has either been dictated by their interest and their pride, or by their compassion. They first violated every right of humanity by their treatment of the negro and they afterwards informed him that those rights were precious and inviolable. They affected to open their ranks to the slaves, but the negroes who attempted to penetrate into the community were driven back with scorn; and they have incautiously and involuntarily been led to admit of freedom instead of slavery, without having the courage to be wholly iniquitous, or wholly just.

If it be impossible to anticipate a period at which the Americans of the South will mingle their blood with that of the negroes, can they allow their slaves to become free without compromising their own security? And if they are obliged to keep that race in bondage in order to save their own families, may they not be excused for availing themselves of the means best adapted to that end? The events which are taking place in the Southern States of the Union appear to me to be at once the most horrible and the most natural results of slavery. When I see the order of nature overthrown, and when I hear the cry of humanity in its vain struggle against the laws, my indignation does not light upon the men of our own time who are the instruments of these outrages; but I reserve my execration for those who, after a thousand years of freedom, brought back slavery into the world once more.

Whatever may be the efforts of the Americans of the South to maintain slavery, they will not always succeed. Slavery, which is now confined to a single tract of the civilized earth, which is attacked by Christianity as unjust, and by political economy as prejudicial; and which is now contrasted with democratic liberties and the information of our age, cannot survive. By the choice of the master, or by the will of the slave, it will cease; and in either case great calamities may be expected to ensue. If liberty be refused to the negroes of the South, they will in the end seize it for themselves by force; if it be given, they will abuse it ere long.xx

rr This opinion is sanctioned by authorities infinitely weightier than anything that I can say: thus, for instance, it is stated in the “Memoirs of Jefferson” (as collected by M. Conseil), “Nothing is more clearly written in the book of destiny than the emancipation of the blacks; and it is equally certain that the two races will never live in a state of equal freedom under the same government, so insurmountable are the barriers which nature, habit, and opinions have established between them.”

ss If the British West India planters had governed themselves, they would assuredly not have passed the Slave Emancipation Bill which the mother-country has recently imposed upon them.

tt This society assumed the name of “The Society for the Colonization of the Blacks.” See its annual reports; and more particularly the fifteenth. See also the pamphlet, to which allusion has already been made, entitled “Letters on the Colonization Society, and on its probable Results,” by Mr. Carey, Philadelphia, 1833.

uu This last regulation was laid down by the founders of the settlement; they apprehended that a state of things might arise in Africa similar to that which exists on the frontiers of the United States, and that if the negroes, like the Indians, were brought into collision with a people more enlightened than themselves, they would be destroyed before they could be civilized.

vv Nor would these be the only difficulties attendant upon the undertaking; if the Union undertook to buy up the negroes now in America, in order to transport them to Africa, the price of slaves, increasing with their scarcity, would soon become enormous; and the States of the North would never consent to expend such great sums for a purpose which would procure such small advantages to themselves. If the Union took possession of the slaves in the Southern States by force, or at a rate determined by law, an insurmountable resistance would arise in that part of the country. Both alternatives are equally impossible.

ww In 1830 there were in the United States 2,010,327 slaves and 319,439 free blacks, in all 2,329,766 negroes: which formed about one-fifth of the total population of the United States at that time.

xx This chapter is no longer applicable to the condition of the negro race in the United States, since the abolition of slavery was the result, though not the object, of the great Civil War, and the negroes have been raised to the condition not only of freedmen, but of citizens; and in some States they exercise a preponderating political power by reason of their numerical majority. Thus, in South Carolina there were in 1870, 289,667 whites and 415,814 blacks. But the emancipation of the slaves has not solved the problem, how two races so different and so hostile are to live together in peace in one country on equal terms. That problem is as difficult, perhaps more difficult than ever; and to this difficulty the author’s remarks are still perfectly applicable.