Tocqueville: Exterior Form of North America


Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville

Volume 1, Chapter 1, Published 1831

North America is divided into two vast regions, one inclining towards the Pole, the other towards the Equator–Valley of the Mississippi–Traces found there of the revolutions of the globe –Shore of the Atlantic Ocean, on which the English colonies were founded–Different aspects of North and of South America at the time of their discovery–Forests of North America –Prairies–Wandering tribes of natives–Their outward appearance, customs, and languages–Traces of an unknown people.

North America presents in its external form certain general features which it is easy to distinguish at the first glance.

A sort of methodical order seems to have regulated the separation of land and water, mountains and valleys. A simple but grand arrangement is discoverable amid the confusion of objects and the prodigious variety of scenes.

This continent is almost equally divided into two vast regions. One is bounded on the north by the Arctic Pole, and on the east and west by the two great oceans. It stretches towards the south, forming a triangle, whose irregular sides meet at length above the great lakes of Canada. The second region begins where the other terminates, and includes all the remainder of the continent. The one slopes gently towards the Pole, the other towards the Equator.

The territory included in the first region descends towards the north with a slope so imperceptible that it may almost be said to form a plain. Within the bounds of this immense level tract there are neither high mountains nor deep valleys. Streams meander through it irregularly; great rivers intertwine, separate, and meet again, spread into vast marshes, losing all trace of their channels in the labyrinth of waters they have themselves created, and thus at length, after innumerable windings, fall into the Polar seas. The great lakes which bound this first region are not walled in, like most of those in the Old World, between hills and rocks. Their . banks are flat and rise but a few feet above the level of their waters, each thus forming a vast bowl filled to the brim. The slightest change in the structure of the globe would cause their waters to rush either towards the Pole or to the tropical seas.

The second region has a more broken surface and is better suited for the habitation of man. Two long chains of mountains divide it, from one to the other: one, named the Allegheny, follows the direction of the shore of the Atlantic Ocean; the other is parallel with the Pacific.

The space that lies between these two chains of mountains contains 228,843 square leagues.1 Its surface is therefore about six times as great as that of France.2

This vast territory, however, forms a single valley, one side of which descends from the rounded summits of the Alleghenies, while the other rises in an uninterrupted course to the tops of the Rocky Mountains. At the bottom of the valley flows an immense river, into which you can see, flowing from all directions, the waters that come down from the mountains. In memory of their native land, the French formerly called this river the St. Louis. The Indians, in their pompous language, have named it the Father of Waters, or the Mississippi.

The Mississippi takes its source at the boundary of the two great regions of which I have spoken, not far from the highest point of the plateau that separates them. Near the same spot rises another river,S which empties into the Polar seas. The course of the Mississippi is at first uncertain: it winds several times towards the north, whence it rose, and only at length, after having been delayed in lakes and marshes, does it assume its definite direction and flow slowly onward to the south.

Sometimes quietly gliding along the chalky bed that nature has assigned to it, sometimes swollen by freshets, the Mississippi waters over 1,032 leagues in its course.4 At the distance of 600 leagues 5 from its mouth this river attains an average depth of 15 feet; and it is navigated by vessels of 300 tons for a course of nearly 200 . leagues. One counts, among the tributaries of the Mississippi, one river of 1,300 leagues,6 one of 900,7 one of 600,8 one of 500,9 four of 200,10 not to speak of a countless multitude of small streams that rush from all directions to mingle in its flow.

The valley which is watered by the Mississippi seems to have been created for it alone, and there, like a god of antiquity, the river dispenses both good and evil. Near the stream nature displays an inexhaustible fertility; the farther you get from its banks, the more sparse the vegetation, the poorer the soil, and everything weakens or dies. Nowhere have the great convulsions of the globe left more evident traces than in the valley of the Mississippi. The whole aspect of the country shows the powerful effects of water, both by its fertility and by its barrenness. The waters of the primeval ocean accumulated enormous beds of vegetable mold in the valley, which they leveled as they retired. Upon the right bank of the river are found immense plains, as smooth as if the tiller had passed over them with his roller. As you approach the mountains, the soil becomes more and more unequal and sterile; the ground is, as it were, pierced in a thousand places by primitive rocks, which appear like the bones of a skeleton whose flesh has been consumed by time. The surface of the earth is covered with a granitic sand and irregular masses of stone, among which a few plants force their growth and give the appearance of a green field covered with the ruins of a vast edifice. These stones and this sand disclose, on examination, a perfect analogy with those that compose the arid and broken summits of the Rocky Mountains. The flood of waters which washed the soil to the bottom of the valley afterwards carried away portions of the rocks themselves; and these, dashed and bruised against the neighboring cliffs, were left scattered like wrecks at their feet.11

The valley of the Mississippi is, on the whole, the most magnificent dwelling-place prepared by God for man’s abode; and yet it may be said that at present it is but a mighty desert. .

On the eastern side of the Alleghenies, between the base of these mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, lies a long ridge of rocks and sand, which the sea appears to have left behind as it retired. The average breadth of this territory does not exceed 48 leagues; 12 but it is about 300 leagues in length.13 This part of the American continent has a soil that offers every obstacle to the husbandman, and its vegetation is scanty and unvaried.

Upon this inhospitable coast the first united efforts of human industry were made. This tongue of arid land was the cradle of those English colonies which were destined one day to become the United States of America. The center of power still remains here; while to the west of it the true elements of the great people to whom the future control of the continent belongs are gathering together almost in secrecy.

When Europeans first landed on the shores of the West Indies, and afterwards on the coast of South America, they thought themselves transported into those fabulous regions of which poets had sung. The sea sparkled with phosphoric light, and the extraordinary transparency of its waters disclosed to the view of the navigator all the depths of the ocean.14 Here and there appeared little islands perfumed with odoriferous plants, and resembling baskets of flowers floating on the tranquil surface of the ocean. Every object that met the sight in this enchanting region seemed prepared to satisfy the wants or contribute to the pleasures of man. Almost all the trees were loaded with nourishing fruits, and those which were useless as food delighted the eye by the brilliance and variety of their colors. In groves of fragrant lemon trees, wild figs, flowering myrtles, acacias, and oleanders, which were hung with festoons of various climbing plants, covered with flowers, a multitude of birds unknown in Europe displayed their bright plumage, glittering with purple and azure, and mingled their warbling with the harmony of a world teeming with life and motion.15

Underneath this brilliant exterior death was concealed. But this fact was not then known, and the air of these climates had an indefinably enervating influence, which made man cling to the present, heedless of the future.

North America appeared under a very different aspect: there everything was grave, serious, and solemn; it seemed created to be the domain of intelligence, as the South was that of sensual delight A turbulent and foggy ocean washed its shores. It was girt round by a belt of granitic rocks or by wide tracts of sand. The foliage of its woods was dark and gloomy, for they were composed of firs, larches, evergreen oaks, wild olive trees, and laurels.

Beyond this outer belt lay the thick shades of the central forests, where the largest trees which are produced in the two hemispheres grow side by side. The plane, the catalpa, the sugar maple, and the Virginian poplar mingled their branches with those of the oak, the beech, and the lime.

In these, as in the forests of the Old World, destruction was perpetually going on. The ruins of vegetation were heaped upon one another; but there was no laboring hand to remove them, and their decay was not rapid enough to make room for the continual work of reproduction. Climbing plants, grasses, and other herbs forced their way through the mass of dying trees; they crept along their bending trunks, found nourishment in their dusty cavities, and a passage beneath the lifeless bark. Thus decay gave its assistance to life, and their respective productions were mingled together. The depths of these forests were gloomy and obscure, and a thousand rivulets, undirected in their course by human industry, preserved in them a constant moisture. It was rare to meet with flowers, wild fruits, or birds beneath their shades. The fall of a tree overthrown by age, the rushing torrent of a cataract, the lowing of the buffalo, and the howling of the wind were the only sounds that broke the silence of nature.

To the east of the great river the woods almost disappeared, in their stead were seen prairies of immense extent. Whether Nature in her infinite variety had denied the germs of trees to these fertile plains, or whether they had once been covered with forests, subsequently destroyed by the hand of man, is a question which neither tradition nor scientific research has been able to answer.

These immense deserts were not, however, wholly untenanted by men. Some wandering tribes had been for ages scattered among the forest shades or on the green pastures of the prairie. From the 21 . mouth of the St. Lawrence to the Delta of the Mississippi, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, these savages possessed certain points of resemblance that bore witness to their common origin; but at the same time they differed from all other known races of men; 16 they were neither white like the Europeans, nor yellow like most of the Asiatics, nor black like the Negroes. Their skin was reddish brown, their hair long and shining, their lips thin, and their cheekbones very prominent. The languages spoken by the North American tribes had different vocabularies, but all obeyed the same rules of grammar. These rules differed in several points from such as had been observed to govern the origin of language. The idiom of the Americans seemed to be the product of new combinations, and bespoke an effort of the understanding of which the Indians of our days would be incapable.17

The social state of these tribes differed also in many respects from all that was seen in the Old World. They seem to have multiplied freely in the midst of their deserts, without coming in contact with other races more civilized than their own. Accordingly, they exhibited none of those indistinct, incoherent notions of right and wrong, none of that deep corruption of manners, which is usually joined with ignorance and rudeness among nations who, after advancing to civilization, have relapsed into a state of barbarism. The Indian was indebted to no one but himself; his virtues, his vices, and his prejudices were his own work; he had grown up in the wild independence of his nature.

If in polished countries the lowest of the people are rude and uncivil, it is not merely because they are poor and ignorant, but because, being so, they are in daily contact with rich and enlightened men. The sight of their own hard lot and their weakness, which is daily contrasted withthe happiness and power of some of their fellow creatures, excites in their hearts at the same time. the sentiments of anger and of fear: the consciousness of their inferiority and their dependence irritates while it humiliates them. This state of mind displays itself in their manners and language; they are at once insolent and servile. The truth of this is easily proved by observation: the people are more rude in aristocratic countries than elsewhere; in opulent cities than in rural districts. In those places where the rich and powerful are assembled together, the weak and the indigent feel themselves oppressed by their inferior condition. Unable to perceive a single chance of reclaiming their equality, they give up to despair and allow themselves to fall below the dignity of human nature.

This unfortunate effect of the disparity of conditions is not observable in savage life: the Indians, although they are ignorant and J poor, are equal and free.

When Europeans first came among them, the natives of North America were ignorant of the value of riches, and indifferent to the enjoyments that civilized man procures for himself by their means. Nevertheless there was nothing coarse in their demeanor; they practiced habitual reserve and a kind of aristocratic politeness.

Mild and hospitable when at peace, though merciless in war beyond any known degree of human ferocity, the Indian would expose himself to die of hunger in order to succor the stranger who asked admittance by night at the door of his hut; yet he could tear in pieces with his hands the still quivering limbs of his prisoner. The famous republics of antiquity never gave examples of more unshaken courage, more haughty spirit, or more intractable love of independence than were hidden in former times among the wild forests of the New World.18 The Europeans produced no great impression when they landed upon the shores of North America; their presence engendered neither envy nor fear. What influence could they possess over such men as I have described? The Indian . could live without wants, suffer without complaint, and pour out his death-song at the stake.19 Like all the other members of the great human family, these savages believed in the existence of a better world, and adored, under different names, God, the Creator of the universe. Their notions on the great intellectual truths were in general simple and philosophical.20

Although we have here traced the character of a primitive people, yet it cannot be doubted that another people, more civilized and more advanced in all respects, had preceded it in the same regions.

An obscure tradition which prevailed among the Indians on the borders of the Atlantic informs us that these very tribes formerly dwelt on the west side of the Mississippi. Along the banks of the Ohio, and throughout the central valley, there are frequently found, at this day, tumuli raised by the hands of men. On exploring these heaps of earth to their center, it is usual to meet with human bones, strange instruments, arms and utensils of all kinds, made of metal, and destined for purposes unknown to the present race.

The Indians of our time are unable to give any information rela tive to the history of this unknown people. Neither did those who lived three hundred years ago, when America was first discovered, leave any accounts from which even a hypothesis could be formed. Traditions, those perishable yet ever recurrent monuments of the primitive world, do not provide any light. There, however, thousands of our fellow men have lived; one cannot doubt that. When did they go there, what was their origin, their destiny, their history? When and how did they disappear? No one can possibly tell.

How strange it appears that nations have existed and afterwards so completely disappeared from the earth that the memory even of their names is effaced! Their languages are lost; their glory is vanished like a sound without an echo; though perhaps there is not one which has not left behind it some tomb in memory of its . passage. Thus the most durable monument of human labor is that which recalls the wretchedness and nothingness of man.

Although the vast country that I have been describing was inhabited by many indigenous tribes, it may justly be said, at the time of its discovery by Europeans, to have formed one great desert. The Indians occupied without possessing it. It is by agricultural labor that man appropriates the soil, and the early inhabitants of North America lived by the produce of the chase. Their implacable prejudices, their uncontrolled passions, their vices, and still more, perhaps, their savage virtues, consigned them to inevitable destruction. The ruin of these tribes began from the day when Europeans landed on their shores; it has proceeded ever since, and we are now witnessing its completion. They seem to have been placed by Providence amid the riches of the New World only to enjoy them for a season; they were there merely to wait till others came. Those coasts, so admirably adapted for commerce and industry; those wide and deep rivers; that inexhaustible valley of the Mississippi; the whole continent, in short, seemed prepared to be the abode of a great nation yet unborn.

In that land the great experiment of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis was to be made by civilized man; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.

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1 1,341,649 miles. See Darby’s View of the United States, p. 499. I have reduced these miles to leagues of 2,000 toises.

2 France is 35,181 square leagues.

3 Red River [of the North].

4 2,500 miles, 1,032 leagues. See Description of the United States, by Warden, Vol. I, p. 169.

5 1,364 miles, 563 leagues. See ibid., Vol. I, p. 169.

6 The Missouri. See ibid., Vol. I, p. 132 (1,278 leagues).

7 The Arkansas. See ibid., Vol. I, p. 188 (877 leagues).

8 The Red River. See ibid., Vol. I, p. 190 (598 leagues).

9 The Ohio. See ibid., Vol. I, p. 192 (490 leagues).

10 The Illinois, St. Pierre, St. Francis, Des Moines. The above measurements are based on the legal mile ( statute mile) and on the postal league of 2,000 toises.

11 See Appendix A.

12 100 miles.

13 About 900 miles.

14 Malte-Brun tells us (Vol. III, p. 726 that the water of the Caribbean sea is so transparent that corals and fish are discernible at a depth of sixty fathoms. The ship seemed to float in air, the navigator became giddy as his eye penetrated through the crystal flood and beheld submarine
gardens, or beds of shells, or gilded fishes gliding among tufts and thickets of seaweed.

15 see Appendix s.

16 With the progress of discovery, some resemblance has been found to exist between the physical conformation, the language, and the habits of the Indians of North America, and those of the Tungus, Manchus, Mongols, Tatars, and other wandering tribes of Asia. The land occupied by these tribes is not very distant from Behring’s Strait, which allows of the supposition that at a remote period they gave inhabitants to the desert continent of America. But this is a point which has not yet been clearly elucidated by science. See Malte-Brun, Vol. V., the works of Humboldt, Fischer: Conjecture sur l’origine des Am‚ricains, Adair: History of the American Indians.

17 See Appendix C.

18 We learn from President Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, p. 148), that among the Iroquois, when attacked by a superior force, aged men refused to fly, or to survive the destruction of their country, and they braved death like the ancient Romans when their capital was sacked by the Gauls. Further on (p. 150), he tells us that “there is no example of an Indian, who, having fallen into the hands of his enemies, begged for his life, on the contrary, the captive sought to obtain death at the hands of his conquerors by the use of insult and provocation.”

19 See Histoire de la Louisiane, by Lepage Dupratz; Charlevoix: Histoire de la Nouvelle France; Lettres du Rev. G. Heckewelder, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. I; Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, pp. 1″,590. What is said by Jefferson is of special weight on account of the personal merit of the writer, of his peculiar position, and of the matter-of-fact age in which he lived.

20 See Appendix D.

The original copyright for Alexis de Tocqueville’s, “Democracy In America,” Translated by Henry Reeve, 1899, is held in the Public Domain. Formatting of Democracy In America as found on this website Copyright © 2011 -2013 Steve Farrell. Non-commercial, educational use of individual chapters is encouraged with a live link back to the original copy at The Moral Liberal and a courtesy note to the editors.