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Some of the keenest observations made by Alexis De Tocqueville in Democracy in America were made in his comparisons between the agrarian South and industrialized north. Tocqueville’s characterization of the two regions of the new American republic was so powerful they still passively influence regional stereotypes even in the modern era. The northern eastern United States is presented as a bustling hub for commerce and productivity. The south being caricatured as being rural, lackadaisical, underdeveloped, and board-line primitive. This may have been somewhat true in the 19th century. However, to hold such a view as being accurate today would be a gross demonstration of ignorance. Not too much it would require drastically underestimate the economic potential of cities such as prosperous Atlanta, Georgia, or the buzzing tourist town of Nashville.

In the nascent period of American history, southern states weren’t luring northern away from  Boston with low taxes and warm weather. The South was still primarily reliant on agriculture to fuel its economy. As we all know most of the labor was done by slaves. Tocqueville goes so far to point to the use of slaves in the south being the core differentiating attribute between the North and the South (p. 408).  Why? The practice of slavery in the south influenced many aspects of southern culture at the time. The absence of the practice in the north also helped shape the industrialized economy and culture of New England. Where the Weberian Protestant work ethic was very much salient. Through possessing a steadfast and unwavering focus on commerce the north ended up outpacing the south economically and technologically. Due to the lack of industrialization, much of the southern United States was less apt to become urbanized. However, considering the large plots of land required for agriculture lack of infrastructure and urbanization is understandable.

Farming is certainly a labor-intensive vocation. Requiring years of dedication spending engaging in hours of back-breaking working daily. How could we say that southerners of the 1800s did not possess a strong work ethic? The typical plantation owner did not do the work themselves. They had their slaves sweat and toil to produce the crops they sold. Making labor a necessity of the less fortunate. As ascribed by Tocqueville this subordination of work not only would be indicative of the luxuries of “idle men” (p. 407) but a more pervasive attitude towards labor. Relegating work to being only acceptable for the poor or slaves, it implies those above a specific status should not work. Especially when men of money have much more entertaining pursuits to indulge in. Such as hunting, gambling, socializing, womanizing, participating in local politics, etc. Drawing a sharp contrast with the self-made tycoons of the industrialized northeast. Where wealth was more of the byproduct of enterprising wit than old money or traditional social arrangements. Almost expressing a distant desire to return to the days of the monarchy. Where the slaving owning elites would either serve as the ruling class. Their slaves would be nothing more than captive constituents Analogous to the serfs of medieval. However, while the serfs were owned by lords only be being tied to the land and insurmountable debts. In the humid countryside of 19th century Georgia, the plantation owner possessed the land and the workers.   

Alexis De Tocqueville did point out that slave owners advocated for the continuance of the institution for the sake of profits. But rather to maintain their aristocratic lifestyles. To many unacquainted with the economics of slavery, this may come as a bit of shock. Tocqueville flat out declares slavery less efficient than free labor. A view is also expressed in the book The Real Lincoln by economist Thomas DiLorenzo. Tocqueville citing that the observation that paid workers tend to work faster than slaves (P.406). This being a core driving force of any economy. What Mr. Tocqueville is implying that the slave owners could not possibly be solely concerned about profits. If they were they would have switched over to paid labor. Due to the increase in efficiency and decreased production costs (food, room/board, and clothing for the slaves). In contrast, the profit-centric northern capitalists would see this transition as a no-brainer and a strategic shift in production methods. This would require the southern elites to become more involved in managing the process. Rather than have administrative and managerial matters handled by slaves that have proven themselves capable of such higher-level tasks. Hence, foiling the regal lifestyle fulfilled with entitlement, unearned honor, and leisure.

11 thoughts on “Tocqueville on The South and Slavery

  1. I haven’t read much from Tocqueville. Most of my knowledge about American history has been acquired from works like “The Federalist Papers”, John Locke’s “Two Treatise of Government and a Letter On Toleration” (more of a manuscript of ideas), and the personal writings of the founders (Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, Franklin, etc..). But then again these are works pertaining to younger years of our nation, Tocqueville’s perspective is written much later. If I were to read Tocqueville, what would you recommend I begin with?

    Great post by the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you sir. I would recommend starting with Democracy in America. It’s the only book I have read by Tocqueville so far. But it is also his best known work. Very well written. I found the Issac Kramnick translation to be an absolute joy to read. So if you are looking to read DIA, that would be an excellent version to start with ( published by Penguin Classics).

      While I would recommend reading DIA due to its influence and the fact this book is widely quoted, another notable book by Tocqueville is
      The Old Regime and the Revolution. I haven’t read it nor do I know much about it.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. This information was very helpful and saved me a considerable amount of time. I have recently been enlarging my library, for a variety of purposes, and Tocqueville has yet to make his appearance in my collection.

        Anyway, thank you for the recommendations. I will definitely be referring to them soon.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I alright so I found Hume’s essay in the below link. There are a few things that strike me immediately about this essay.

          1.) Hume acknowledges commerce to service to the public. Which is interesting because many of the modern Austrian economists who focus on the study of entrepreneurship emphasize how being entrepreneur is about service to others. Through providing needed/ desired products and services that make the lives of others easier/happier.

          2.) Hume also touches upon how we are better off when we trade. We produce whatever possesses the lowest opportunity cost for our country to produce/ harvest. We sell it abroad. Is not only efficient ,but enriches our lives( in your face Trump’s protectionist tariffs).

          3.) In order to engage in meaningful trade we need to advance beyond producing for mere subsistence. Producing beyond our own personal consumption. This helps make the economy become more complex. Leading to more labor specialization. Having some farmers efficiently producing a surplus that can feed the whole nation frees up others to pursue other lines of work. Leading to innovation which spurs advancement and overall betterment.

          4.) The advancement of an economy generates a market demand for luxury goods, which perpetuates more technological development.

          5.) War inhibits trade. Instead of trading with our neighbors we are diverting resources away from commercial production to bomb them (obviously more of a modern description of warfare).

          So potentially Tocqueville’s judgement of the lack of industrialization in the south was misplaced. As the south was only working to their comparative advantage. Utilizing vast and fertile land to produce agricultural goods. Something the north was as well equipped to take on a large scale. The real snag up was slavery. Beyond the moral considerations, due to the fact the practice was economically inefficient. Also created a paradoxical production dynamic. Wanting unearned luxury without the labor. This is part of the reason why Tocqueville’s observation of slavery devaluing work so intriguing.

          Also, there is no denying Hume’s influence on Ricardo and Adam Smith.

          Click to access Hume-Selected-Essays.pdf

          Liked by 1 person

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