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Celebrating the Chains of “Past” Regimes: Examination of Indians in "Democracy in America" by Alexis de Tocqueville

The Unknown's picture

Alexis de Toqueville introduces history as an intended and well-thought-out project in Democracy in America. Tocqueville claims that the European invasion and rule of Indian land was determined by Providence. Tocqueville asserts that though America has the most democratic characteristics of any nation, it is not a perfect democracy because of the racism towards “Negroes” and “Indians.” Tocqueville explains the two-fold result of the expansion of civilization, which both decreased Indian economic subsistence, while deepening their interest in the commodities offered by civilization. Though Tocqueville claims that the Indians did not have very much agency over their mistreatment and extermination, they fought fiercely and courageously in the face of their insurmountable challenges. 

The Indian tribes are progressively being swallowed by America due to the demands of white people who steal their land and use Indians to complete menial tasks. Tocqueville asserts that the invasion of the pilgrims made it difficult for Indians to survive. Europeans see the Indians as reliant and defeated aliens. According to Tocqueville, the Indians are as smart as the Europeans, but they are accustomed to a distinct societal organization and daily life, which cannot be changed to appropriately correspond to European civilization. Europeans are relentless in their affirmation of their own societal customs and opportunities that are offered to few. Many groups have tried to instill their beliefs and intelligence upon the Indians, including the Jesuits in Canada, and the Puritans in New England, but none of them have had long-term success. Indians keep a strong hold onto their roots, histories, and traditions.

The native tribes had a distinct social arrangement, which was basic and not as refined as Europe’s society, but they had certain respectability, at least in Tocqueville’s assessment. Though they were uneducated, according to Toqueville, they were not subservient like the majority of the less privileged were in aristocratic countries. Traces of former civilizations have been discovered, but people do not know much about them. Since the Indians were hunters, they did not actually own the land they lived on. According to Toqueville, people become landowners through agriculture:

Although the vast country just described was inhabited by numerous tribes of native peoples, one can justly say that at the time of its discovery it was still no more than a wilderness. The Indians occupied it but did not possess it. It is through agriculture that man takes possession of the soil, and the first inhabitants of North America lived by hunting. Their implacable prejudices, their unbridled passions, their vices, and, perhaps most of all, their savage virtues marked them out for inevitable destruction (Tocqueville 29).  

Tocqueville draws a stark distinction between ownership and occupying land. He even goes so far as to link discovery with the establishment of agriculture. Tocqueville asserts that before the Europeans came to America, the Indians lived peacefully in the woods.  In order to civilize a group, it is essential that the group is first settled, which can only be achieved through forced and administered agriculture. The nomadic Indians did not take advantage of what Europeans saw as an opportunity for wealth, the cultivation of the land, and therefore Tocqueville describes America as a destitute place that was prepared to meet the needs of the colonizers. Tocqueville here couples agriculture, not only with wealth, but also societal structure and organization, which he sees as an essential ingredient in an ideal “democracy.” 

Tocqueville describes the Indian “nations” as places directed by beliefs and “mores” (331). Though the Indians have continued to develop their own cultural and religious practices, their civilization has been divided and subsequently corrupted by colonization. Their families were broken apart. The infringement and colonization by the Europeans result in the despair and suffering of the Indians. The Indian tribes are steadily dying out due to the invasion and pressures to become a part of a society that has been designed to keep the Indians enslaved in lower-class, mostly powerless positions. Tocqueville observes that the Indians are not capable of inhibiting or counteracting the domination of the Europeans. Tocqueville concludes that the Indians are condemned to permanent silence because they refuse to incorporate the predominant, oppressive culture and its customs.

Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” claims that though the Indians may be "poor and ignorant," they are also "equal and free" (Tocqueville 27). Tocqueville describes the Indians as valiant, but also as “savages” and steadfast in their assertion of the purpose and continuation of their traditions (Tocqueville 27). Tocqueville attributes this savagery to the oppression of the Europeans. The Europeans overshadowed the Indians’ customs. Tocqueville claims that he has observed the agony and pain of the Indians. At one point, Tocqueville describes seeing Choctaws march and die with conviction on their journey for a better life (Tocqueville 374).  When the Indians were robbed of their daily practices and became forcefully acquainted with alcohol, weapons, and destitution, they became more savage.

Many lawmakers have tried to disseminate wisdom to the Indians, attempting to halt their inclinations to be nomads. According to Tocqueville, these lawmakers miscalculated that to civilize a group of people, it is imperative that the people establish themselves for a long period of time in one place, which cannot be accomplished without agriculture. In this case, since the Indians do not want to learn the practices involved in agriculture since it is against their interests and customs, it has been difficult for Europeans to civilize them. Tocqueville believes that not only are Indians so unaccustomed to agriculture, but they would have a difficult time learning how to work the land and remain sedentary. Peoples, who have gotten used to and enjoyed the unsettled and intrepid lifestyle of the hunter, feel an overwhelming and almost permanent repugnance for the settled lifestyle.

Indians will not conform to the demands of white European norms through knowledge of white civilization, specifically through the introduction of agriculture. As stated by Tocqueville, the Indians see the lifestyle of the middle-class as consistently completing unbearable, menial work. Tocqueville articulates that he Indians would choose death over complete submission and assimilation:

Far from wishing to bend his mores to ours, he clings to barbarity as a distinctive sign of his race, and he rejects civilization not so much because he hates it, perhaps, as because he is afraid of resembling the Europeans (Tocqueville 368-369).

The Indians find dignity in refusing to dedicate themselves to manual labor, such as agriculture. The Indians defend their traditional wandering, and aggressive, hunting lifestyle. The Indians refuse to participate in this type of labor so they can participate in more dignified endeavors, such as hunting or fighting and spreading knowledge about these two activities. When the Indians lived alone in the wilderness, they did not have many needs. As the needs of the Indians developed, the resources they began to depend on started to diminish. Tocqueville asserts that in the two hundred years that the nomadic Indians have encountered the Europeans, they have never adopted one of its notions or practices. Though the pilgrims have made the Indians more imprudent, the Indians have not become more European (Tocqueville 368).

According to Tocqueville, though the Indians understood how to die, they also thought that they understood how to live. Though Tocqueville does not outwardly criticize or diminish the importance of Indian customs, he does conclude that several eastern tribes have been exterminated. There have been many attacks on the Indians’ lifestyles, such as the European removal of the buffalo and other animals that were essential suppliers of nutrients for the Indians. Tocqueville equates the dislocation of the Indians to the dislocation of the feudal civilization by modern democracy. The European settlement and subsequent farming depreciated wild animals, which were also used in commerce. Through the destruction of wild animals, the Europeans were able to effect tribal lifestyle and sustenance before they even encountered certain groups of Indians.

It is difficult to outline Indian land because the outer limits of the nomadic huntsman are not clearly delineated. Tocqueville states that the federal government could not defend the Indians from the states or the settlers.

The Europeans have brought about anguish and sorrow upon the Indians. The union and the state act relentlessly and mercilessly towards the Indians.  Tocqueville thinks Indians are going to be destroyed because they refuse to adapt the dominant culture and they are not capable of defending themselves against European domination. The Indians have continued to be autonomous but their civilization has been divided and therefore degraded. The Europeans displace Indians through laws, so they can rest on stolen land.

Tocqueville details the impact of the expansion of civilization in impairing Indian subsistence while at the same time augmenting the Indians’ want for the goods of civilized society. This is a complex contradiction that was implanted among the Indians when the Europeans arrived. The Indians were forced to assimilate into the dominant culture and lost many of their sacred ways of life, which according to Tocqueville could have been avoided if they had not had as much interaction with Europeans. The Indians were quickly bribed and demeaned by the allurement of European opulence. They dishonored themselves by trying to obtain superfluous personal possessions without working in a way that could have been more fruitful for and accepted by society. Also, with the advancement of materialism and mass-produced goods, which became increasingly accessible, the desire for commerce increased. The economic pressure resulted in environmentally forced migrations into lands, which were inhabited by other native tribes. As a result of limited resources and quarrels over rights to reside on certain land, disputes and fighting ensued.

Through European domination, the Indians’ customs were altered and their needs were exponentially deepened and developed. Coupled with the damage to their ethical and corporal well-being, the Indians’ savagery strengthened with their suffering. Even with this immense bloodshed, the Europeans never succeeded in marking the Indians as only a piece in the structure of society, and the Europeans were never able to make the Indians fully conform to European customs, practices, and beliefs. Tocqueville does not see any solution to the displacement and continuous exploitation of the Indians. He thinks that Indians cannot successfully oppose whites in their own way and using their knowledge. Tocqueville concludes that the Indians will soon cease to exist and would rather die than give up the distinctive characteristics of their race.

Works Cited

Tocqueville, Alexis De, Arthur Goldhammer, and Olivier Zunz. Democracy in America.    New York: Library of America Paperback Classics, 2012. Print.


This was an extremely difficult paper to write. My understanding and opinions about how Alexis de Tocqueville describes and classifies Indians changed throughout my writing and presenting process. Though I was told to consolidate my ideas and pinpoint exactly what messages and information Tocqueville was trying get across, I struggled to navigate through his complex and sometimes contrasting illustrations of “Indians.” In this strange way, Tocqueville both feels despair at the site of the abuse of the Indians, and at the same time removes himself from their lifestyle and customs. Though my presentation and this paper confront past atrocities and how people learn about them, tell them, and they are remembered, my presentation focused more on memory. I became lost in pinpointing the many layers and facets of memory, rather than embracing their complexities and their inability to be fully grasped or understood.

I was instructed to more thoughtfully consider the pain involved in reliving past tribulations. I was given advice to be more articulate and precise. It was difficult not to implant my own ideas into Tocqueville’s assertions or comment on his generalizations, and actually my opinions are probably hinted at many times throughout this work. I learned that I found that I wanted to cover as many areas as I can rather then delve deep into one aspect. I still feel like there are so many facets of Tocqueville’s classification of Indians that I have not explored. For instance, in this paper, I think there could be more examples and quotes could be linked more clearly to previous or future assertions. 


jschlosser's picture

I hope everyone in the 360 will read this essay and see how Tocqueville struggles the threatened life of the Native Americans as he understands them. You do a good job laying out his conflicting sentiments; with more time I think you might even have discovered the deeper logic beneath their apparent disorder.

A couple of questions:

1. You write that Tocqueville "introduces history as an intended and well-thought-out project." What's your evidence for this? Could it be that Tocqueville is telling a story about American democracy for a purpose -- and that this isn't exactly what history in your sense is?

2. This idea of ownership versus occupancy is fascinating -- Tocqueville repeatedly refers to the "wilderness" Americans confront, ignoring the occupancy by native peoples. There's a whole history of challenging precisely this understanding of land, mostly in the anarchist tradition (thinking of Proudon's "Property is Theft" all the way through David Graber's work on debt). And it might also be away to approach the questions about art and property we raised last week.

3. Probably the most disturbing and stirring part of your essay was when you wrote: "Tocqueville concludes that the Indians are condemned to permanent silence because they refuse to incorporate the predominant, oppressive culture and its customs." I'm curious about how this might connect with other reflections on silence as well as the broader political implications. Can societies prevent this silencing? Is the choice only between assimilation and silence? And are native peoples actually "silenced" the way Tocqueville thinks they are?