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1838

Race and the American Union

European Views of American Democracy, No. 2

Tocqueville believed that America’s race problems could destroy the Union, but O’Sullivan naively argues that Manifest Destiny was unavoidable.

Editor’s Note

In our final piece of Tocqueville criticism from John L. O’Sullivan, our author concludes his remarks with a discussion of American race relations and federalism. During his travels to America—which included leisurely tours through southern plantation mansions—Tocqueville apparently imbibed a common point of view: the different races simply could not coexist with one another absent the institution of slavery. Tocqueville expressed a belief that both Native and African Americans were likely to “disappear from the continent” in the long run under pressure from white expansion and institutions which protected white interests. Though Tocqueville certainly harbored his doubts about democracy and American culture, the “general state of national and individual prosperity” provided a “brilliant picture” of the average (white) American’s future. The specific political institutions so revered by those average Americans, however, did not enjoy such hopeful prospects. Though his contemporaries regularly discussed the possibilities of secession and civil war over a variety of issues (though, perhaps, such conversations usually referenced slavery), O’Sullivan thought such calamities nearly impossible. While Tocqueville believed the Union “a fortunate accident” of post-colonial American history, O’Sullivan presages the Lincolnian idea that the Union was a deeper historical force than the merely formalizing Constitution. According to O’Sullivan, “We consider the Union as the natural position of the States, and as the indispensable condition of the continuance of democratic institutions.” Without the kinds of democratic, republican, authentically American cultural norms Young American writers like O’Sullivan proliferated throughout the Jacksonian era, the Review maintained that the Union would crumble into a set of warring states and powerful military chieftains. Precisely because American were democrats and republicans in mass, the Union existed as the natural space in which a free people could interact with one another.

But what about all of those decidedly unfree people Tocqueville no doubt noticed toiling away in the fields from his seat on the master’s majestic porch? Few Jacksonians and their contemporaries expected Native Americans’ condition to improve, but there were millions of slaves and tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of antislavery northerners just waiting for the right message or moment to activate them and cause irreparable political damage to the project of Union. In many ways, O’Sullivan saw his own role at the Democratic Review as that of a cultural prophet leading his people to the glories of paradise with the powerful and majestic Union as their vehicle. Tocqueville believed that political conflict between the states would paralyze the national government and render it incapable of accomplishing the people’s work. O’Sullivan countered that experience showed otherwise. In fact, he argues, most people agreed that the main problem with government was that it did too much! To him, this was proof that even a democracy deeply divided over some sectional issues like slavery could coexist in federal union without paralysis and dissolution. “The Union,” was not, he thought, “exposed to any danger, either present or future.” Rather, the (white male’s) democratic-republican Union of states was—at that very moment—accomplishing “the rapid settlement of the country, the increase of population, and the improvements in the communications between the different States.” The deeper the cultural bonds, the stronger the political bond.

But—again—what if O’Sullivan was not only wrong, but terribly wrong in his assumption that those ‘cords of Union’ would never snap?

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

European Views of American Democracy – No. II

U.S. Magazine & Democratic Review 2, No. 8 (July 1838): 337-357. (Selections)

The work of M. de Tocqueville concludes with a very interesting discussion of the probable future condition of each of the three races which now people the territory belonging to the United States.  This is one of the most curious chapters in the second volume, but it opens a field of inquiry into which we have now no room to enter at large.  Our author predicts, with apparent conviction, the entire disappearance, at no very remote period, of the few existing remnants of the native tribes.  Of the fate of the blacks he is less confident, but, on the whole, inclines to the opinion, that while they will triumph in the West Indian Islands, they will ultimately disappear from the continent.  This opinion is, in our view, extremely probable.  The attempt to raise them to a political equality with the white race, has not succeeded in practice in the States where it has been carried into effect in theory.  It will probably never be made in the States where the slaves constitute a large portion of the population.  But the very decided superiority of an entire free population over a mixed population of freemen and slaves, which is shown too clearly in the progress of the United States to be in any way questionable, will gradually make itself felt over the whole surface of our territory, and will substitute the former for the latter in all the States by an operation as unerring though somewhat slower than that which substitutes the white population in the place of the Indians.  The Colonization Society, although it can have but little operation in diminishing the evil of slavery at home, will, by establishing a line of free black States along the coast of Africa, do much for the future civilization of that continent, and make some imperfect compensation to its unfortunate inhabitants for the cruelties inflicted upon them through so many ages, by the professors of a religion that inculcates as the great duties of man, peace, kindness, and brotherly love.

As respects the future fortunes of the white race our author is a prophet of almost unmixed good.  A rapidly progressive population, the permanence of our democratic institutions, and a general state of national and individual prosperity, are the leading traits in the brilliant picture which he traces of our destiny.  He is less confident of the continuance of the Union than he is of the continuance of democratic institutions in the States; but he considers the Union as less important than it is generally supposed to be in this country, and, in fact, as a fortunate accident.  On this head we cannot agree with him.  We consider the Union as the natural position of the States, and as the indispensable condition of the continuance of democratic institutions.  The argument on this head is extremely simple, and is too familiar to need repetition.  A separation of the States would be followed, probably accompanied, by wars among them, and wars would bring into action successful military chieftains with large and permanent military establishments.  If M. de Tocqueville supposes that these can be reconciled with the existence of purely democratic institutions, he must have read history to little purpose.  For ourselves, we are fully persuaded that the democratic institutions of the States would not survive, for a single moment, the termination of the Union.  We believe that the act of separation, should it ever take place, must be attended by a series of military movements, which would bring about, at the same time, the establishment of military governments in some, and ultimately, in all quarters of the country.

This result, however, we look upon as entirely hypothetical.  We differ from M. de Tocqueville upon this head, and do not consider the Union as exposed to the slightest danger, either present or prospective.  We regard it as the natural condition of the States through the whole period of their progress, maturity, and decline.  M. de Tocqueville does not himself point out, with much precision, the sources of the supposed danger; he even admits that experience has dissipated many vague apprehensions upon this subject, and has increased the general confidence in the stability of the Union. Where then is the cause for distrust? M. de Tocqueville speaks rather loosely of the multiplication of the States, which would be sufficient, he thinks, to break the federal bond, and of the tendency of circumstances to diminish rather than increase the power of the General Government, which he appears to suppose would operate in the same way.  We will advert, for a moment, to both these points.

The multiplication of the States and the extension of the territory of the Union, far from having any tendency to break the federal bond, have always appeared to us to be among the causes that have operated, and were likely to operate, most favorably upon its continuance.  The great danger to be apprehended in democratic States is the effect of sudden impulses resulting from merely accidental causes, such, for example, as the influence of a popular individual. The frame-work of a government, which supposes the sovereignty of the popular will, gives way, at once, when that will is concentrated in a single individual, and before there is time to recover from a temporary delusion the liberty of the State is lost.  In this way Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, and so many others in all ages, have effected revolutions in States, which consisted virtually of single cities.  In an extended territory, and especially in a Union of different States this danger is completely neutralized.  There is the same opportunity for sudden impulses, and for individual influence, but their effects are confined to the points where they immediately operate.  The vast field upon which the general political action is conducted, affords no scope for personal, local, or sectional influences to obtain the ascendency so as to modify the principles of the government.  One trifling aberration neutralizes another, and the general result is conformable to the laws of the system, and favorable, of course, to its continuance.  Thus in a widely extended Republic the great elemental powers of time and space are enlisted in favor of the existing state of things, and to a certain extent, guaranty its perpetuity.  If our country were a single consolidated State there might be more plausibility in the objection, although experience is, after all, far from showing that large States, under whatever form administered, have been less durable than small ones.  But, considered as a union of States, there can be no doubt, we think, that the system acquires strength by every extension, as the great Indian banyan tree roots itself more firmly in the ground by every new perpendicular shoot which descends from its branches.  We see no reason, other than the merely material inconvenience of assembling representatives from so great a distance, why the Union may not cross the Rocky Mountains with as much facility as it has done the Alleghanies, and spread itself from the Arctic Sea to the Gulf of Mexico with as much safety as it did of old from Maine to Georgia.

The apprehension of weakness in the federal bond resulting from a supposed tendency in the progress of events, to diminish the attributions of the Federal Government is, in our view, not less groundless than the one just adverted to.  There may have been, as M. de Tocqueville supposes, a growing disposition to contest the power of the General Government upon certain points, particularly that of making internal improvements, and a willingness in the administration of the Federal Government to yield, in this respect, to what may have appeared to be the public opinion.  We rejoice at this tendency of events to restrain the central action of our system and to diffuse the functions of government as widely as possible among the local sovereignties of the States.  But the powers so contested might be given to or taken from the government without affecting its ability to sustain itself against any danger from within or without to which it is exposed.  The purse and the sword are the essential elements of power, and they belong, by universal admission, to the Federal Government.  There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent the Federal Government from declaring war against any nation on the globe, at any session of Congress, raising a million of men to carry it on with, and borrowing a hundred millions of dollars to pay the expenses.  All these gigantic operations are within the admitted, uncontested attributions of the Union.  Whether, in addition to these substantial and masculine powers, the Union do or do not possess those of laying out a road, chartering a bank, or founding an university, are practical questions of great importance, but having little or no effect upon the ability of the Government to sustain itself against attack or perpetuate its existence.  The Federal Government possesses, in fact, for the purposes for which it is constituted, all the strength that can possibly belong to any government.  If it has appeared, at times, to sustain itself against attacks from at home or abroad with less vigor than governments of a different kind might, perhaps, have done, it has not been for want of constitutional authority, but because the agents who administer it are appointed in a different way, and, being subject to the variable impulses of the popular will, are less likely than they would be under other circumstances, to exercise their powers in the same bold, unflinching spirit in which they were given.  There has been however, of late, no apparent tendency in the federal authorities to shrink from responsibility; on the contrary, the last President, by the freedom and firmness with which he used his legislative veto, and asserted his right to act upon the Constitution, as he understood it, developed the energies of the government in a point where they had been previously dormant, and thus left it more efficient than he found it.  M. de Tocqueville notices this feature in the administration of General Jackson, without appearing to remark that it is rather at variance with his theory of a constantly increasing weakness in the Federal Government.  The popular complaint, for some years past, has been, as is well known, of a directly opposite character.  It has pointed to federal usurpation, rather than imbecility in the federal authorities, as the crying evil of the times.  This clamor has, probably, very little foundation, but may serve, at least, to show that there is no important error on the other side.

The Union, therefore, we repeat, is not, in our view, exposed to any danger, either present or future. There is no general cause in operation, of which we are aware, that has any powerful tendency to relax its bonds, while on the other hand, the rapid settlement of the country, the increase of population, and the improvements in the communications between the different States, are constantly bringing them into closer connexion, and thus strengthening, in the most unexceptionable, and, indeed, the only effectual way, the ties that unite them together.  We are satisfied that the loss of the Union would carry with it the loss of all our national advantages; and we are also satisfied that it is the natural form of the existence of the States; that it is beyond the reach of accident or of the perversity of any individual, State, or even generation of the citizens which might attempt to destroy it; that it must and will endure, through the whole period, whether long or short, of our national being, and can only perish by the decay and ruin of the members that compose it.

With these remarks, we close our notice of this valuable work.  The importance which we attach to it has been sufficiently shown by the space which we have devoted to it, as well as by the unequivocal commendation which we have given to its general character.  We recommend it, in conclusion, as a valuable study to the young inquirer for political truth, and a most interesting and useful contribution to the library of the general reader.  We anticipate much gratification from the further publications which are already announced from the same source, and assure them, in advance, a friendly welcome in our pages.

Further Reading

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1981.

May, Robert. Manifest Destiny’s Underworld: Filibustering in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2002.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York: Knopf. 1963.

Morrison, Michael. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 1997.

Scholnick, Robert. “Extermination and Democracy: O’Sullivan, the Democratic Review, and Empire, 1837-1840,” American Periodicals 15, No. 2 (2005): 123-141.

Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill & Wang. 1995.

Weinberg, Albert. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansionism in American History. Chicago: Quadrangle Books. 1963. Originally Published: 1935.

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