We use cookies on this site. By browsing our site you agree to our use of cookies. Close this message Find out more

Home > History home > News and events > America through French Eyes: Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont
More in this section News and events

America through French Eyes: Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Nell Irvin Painter

Robinson Lecture 16th March 2007


nellpainterThank you so much, Penelope Corfield and your Hayes Robinson Lecture committee, for this opportunity to speak about one aspect of the history of white people, a topic I am addressing in a full length study to be published in early 2009. Today I concentrate on the contrasting vision of two French travelers to the antebellum United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, whom you probably know, and his life-long friend and intellectual partner, Gustave de Beaumont, whom you probably do not recognize. Before turning to Beaumont and Tocqueville, let me say a few words about the larger work, The History of White People.

The History of White People examines the views of a variety of observers regarding white race identity. By “white race identity” I do not mean what white people have thought of or done two others. I mean what people of many backgrounds have thought and written about white people qua white people: white racial classification, white racial traits, different races of white people. Racial classification serves to explain social hierarchy, which in the United States relates to the class system. Race explains why some people work and others profit, why some people are poor and others not. Race structured the political economy of slavery and of immigration by racing the people who labor for no pay or low pay. American black/white racial classification arose to structure slavery. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Races of Europe system of ranking different races of white people served to structure a society in which poor immigrants from Europe did the dirty work.

We are all accustomed to the system of racial classification that has prevailed in the United States and, increasingly since the Holocaust, in Europe: white versus non-white. The American system, originally built around slavery, did not function in a vacuum in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beside the American system of race marking blacks, Indians, and Asians, there arose a plural, “Races of Europe” system to deal with poor immigrants. The “Races of Europe” system divided Europeans into a number of races. One hundred years ago they included Teutonics/Nordics, Aryans, Alpines, Mediterraneans, Slavs, and Jews, etcetera. The “Races of Europe” system ranked various people we now lump together as white and laid the theoretical basis for federal immigration restrictionHR2007Ripley1legislation in the United States in the 1920s.

The “Races of Europe” system of racial classification is pretty well ignored today because, on the one hand, Nazism and the Holocaust utterly destroyed its respectability. On the other hand, immigration to the US now comes largely from Latin America. Today immigrant workers can be stigmatized as non-white. Meanwhile, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of formerly racialized Europeans embrace a white racial identity, though many also additionally cherish what they term a white ethnic identity, such as Italian or Irish or Jewish. This racial vs. ethnic scheme dates from the twentieth-century interwar era.

My work, therefore, constitutes what Michel Foucault called an “archaeology of knowledge,” for I am excavating an episteme that no longer exists, or that no longer exists, as it did before 1945, in respectable circles. After 1945, the idea of race lodged firmly in the bodies of people of color. People of European descent formerly stigmatized by race as, say, Alpine or Mediterranean or Jewish, entered an enlarged system of racially undifferentiated whiteness.

Not surprisingly, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America regained enormous popularity in the US beginning in the 1950s, having fallen out of favor during the era of heavy European immigration. The postwar/Cold War resurgence of Democracy in America resulted from its stress on the equality of condition of all “Americans.” Tocqueville did not consider people of African or Native American Indian descent as “Americans.” His concept fit well with popular American thinking during the 1950s, when “the Negro” formed a marked counterpoint to “American.” Tocqueville perfectly suited an era in which most American white people of recent immigrant background sought and found an elevated racial identity in an American whiteness.

I don’t want to spend too long on my book before turning to Tocqueville and Beaumont, but just to give you a sense of the kind of materials it deals with, let me share two sources with you. At the turn of the twentieth century the work of John Beddoe, a leading British anthropologist, and William Z. Ripley, a Harvard professor, exerted great influence on expert and popular thinking about the white races. Theirs were far from the only books along this line—the bibliography is enormous—but as respected texts, they will give you a sense of the tenor of the literature. Before the interwar period of the twentieth century, educated Americans and Britons believed in the existence of more than one white race.

Beddoe and Ripley belong to the turn of the twentieth century. We go now to two French travelers in the United States, to the 1830s, before the appearance of masses of poor European immigrants. In the 1830s, American race still appeared in a black/white guise. Although black and white would seem clearly distinguishable, questions still arose in the 1830s over the definition of American whiteness and therefore of American identity. Alexis de Tocqueville took care of that by largely overlooking the existence of people of color in his theories on American institutions. This huge generalization instantly demands qualification, but I lack the space here to modify. Tocqueville’s dear friend and traveling partner devoted an entire book to the matter. Both Beaumont and Tocqueville assumed “Americans” to be white people. Therefore the question of who counted as white encompassed the definition of who counted as American.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America must hold the record as the most quoted French text in the United States. The Princeton University Library holds twenty-two editions of the originally two-volume work, published to great acclaim in 1835 and 1840. Tocqueville came from a conventionally Catholic, conventionally conservative aristocratic family in Normandy, France. He rose in the legal service of Charles X, prospering in Versailles until the king’s abdication in the wake of the 1830 July Revolution. Upheaval at the top threatened Tocqueville’s future, so he and a dear friend, Gustave de Beaumont, another aristocratic lawyer of a progressive turn of mind, took a self-financed sabbatical from France in 1831, ostensibly to study prison reform in HR2007Ripley2the United States. Prisons quickly became boring.

Through mid-1832, Tocqueville and Beaumont intended to write a joint study of the United States in general, Institutions et moeurs Américains. But then their interests diverged, with Beaumont more interested in the contradictions in American moeurs and Tocqueville concentrating on American institutions. On their return to France in 1832, Tocqueville fell into a depressed funk, leaving Beaumont to write their report on prisons, Du Systeme pénitentiare, published in 1833 under both their names. Beaumont then wrote a novel, Marie: ou, L'esclavage aux États-Unis, tableau de moeurs américaines (Marie: or Slavery in the United States, a picture of American manners), to which I will return. Tocqueville revived and wrote his own study of the United States, Democracy in America, which immediately made him famous. To this day, Tocqueville is known for seeing equality of conditions as the defining characteristic of American society. He had actually conceived of this “idée mere” even before setting foot in the United States. This central concept jelled during Tocqueville and Beaumont’s first week in the US, in New York City. Tocqueville did not alter his view, although Beaumont subsequently renounced it.

Beaumont came to see the US as an aristocracy rather than a democracy: a white race aristocracy. Beaumont’s and Tocqueville’s contrasting views of the US lead to a question I want to discuss with you at the end of my lecture: who is white? But now let me survey the two books resulting from Beaumont and Tocqueville’s nine-month visit to the US.

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes an exceptional society. He locates the source of this exceptionalism in American democracy. American political democracy sets the tone in both the private and public spheres. “Equality” provides the keyword.

The first page of Democracy in America mentions “the equality of social conditions” twice. The following 300+ pages elaborate that basic fact. The opening statements and the hundreds more pages establish the United States not only as a country populated by white people, but as a population directly descended from the English. The phrase “the English race” appears repeatedly in headings and in the body of the text. In the Conclusion of the Volume 1 Tocqueville glimpses “the whole future of the English race in the New World.” Chapter 3 of Volume 2 bears the title: “Why the American Show More Aptitude and Taste for General Ideas than their forefathers the English.”

The American of Democracy in America is a white, male northerner, usually a New Englander of British, Puritan descent. He lacks brilliance and bores his guests, for he concentrates on making money. The American’s heart is in the right place, right enough for him to be about building a country of certain future greatness. Tocqueville’s description flattered Americans and elevated Tocqueville’s stature as a keen analyst. This, however, was neither to be Beaumont’s America or Beaumont’s literary reception.

Gustave de Beaumont, Tocqueville’s fellow lawyer, roommate in Versailles in the 1820s,HR2007Beddoe4traveling companion, lifelong friend, biographer, and literary executor, traveled beside him in the US in 1831-1832, the UK, and Ireland. They contrasted in appearance and in mien. Beaumont, three years older than Tocqueville was taller, heavier, stronger, and healthier. A kind of good ole boy, Beaumont made friends easily and fit in with the crowd. Tocqueville, in contrast, was short (about 5’ 6”), sickly, and appeared rigid, affected, and a bit pompous. The Paris-based German poet Heinrich Heine summed them up: ”One, the severe thinker, the other, the man of gushing feeling, so together like a bottle of vinegar and a bottle of oil.”

Beaumont took more interest than Tocqueville in conventions of identity in a multi-racial society. Beaumont’s sociological novel, Marie, ou l’Éscalvage aux Etats-Unis, Tableau de moers américaines (Marie, or Slavery in the United States) made racial identity an integral, rather than an incidental facet of American society. Marie appeared in two volumes in 1835, the same year as the first volume of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Both books won prizes and gained their authors entry into the Academie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, though only Tocqueville went on to induction into the far more prestigious Academie Française.

Beaumont’s protagonists Ludovic, a French immigrant to the United States, and his beloved American, Marie, the daughter of a Bostonian and a woman from New Orleans, are both white skinned. Ludovic describes eighteen-year-old Marie as “a dazzling beauty,” her complexion “even whiter than the swans of the Great Lakes.” Marie’s “lily whiteness” “surpasses [marble] in whiteness.” “One would have thought her a European girl,” for she combined all the best qualities of women throughout the Western world.

According to American mores, however, Marie is not white. Through her Louisianan mother, Theresa Spencer, Marie has received the invisible taint of black blood. Theresa’s great-grandmother was a mulatto, placing even Theresa’s already attenuated African ancestry a century in the past.

If time permits after my remarks, I would like to hear from you on whether or not you think Marie white.

Marie’s “taint” does not dissuade her French suitor Ludovic, but Americans’ inherited aristocracy of race makes her black even in the so-called free North. Indeed, Beaumont calls her a colored girl. Marie’s infinitesimal invisible blackness transforms her marriage to a Frenchman into miscegenation, an infraction sufficient to inspire a full-scale riot in New York City. Their marriage disrupted, Ludovic and Marie flee to the end point of civilization, Saginaw, Michigan. There Marie dies. Ludovic remains in exile in the wilds of Michigan. Grim though its message, Marie also pokes a little fun at white Americans’ racial mores.


In the Foreword to Marie, Beaumont relates an anecdote illustrating Americans’ preposterous racial convictions:

The first time I attended a theater in the United States [in October 1831, actually in New Orleans], I was surprised at the careful distinction made between the white spectators and the audience whose faces were black. In the first balcony were whites; in the second, mulattoes; in the third, Negroes. An American, beside whom I was sitting, informed me that the dignity of white blood demanded these classifications. However, my eyes being drawn to the balcony where sat the mulattoes, I perceived a young woman of dazzling beauty, whose complexion, of perfect whiteness, proclaimed the purest European blood. Entering into all the prejudices of my neighbor, I asked him how a woman of English origin could be so lacking in shame as to seat herself among the Africans.

HR2007Beddoe3"That woman," he replied, "is colored."

"What? Colored? She is whiter than a lily!"

"She is colored," he repeated coldly; "local tradition has established her ancestry, and everyone knows that she had a mulatto among her forebears."

He pronounced these words without further explanation, as one who states a fact which needs only be voiced to be understood.

At the same moment I made out in the balcony for whites a face which was very dark. I asked for an explanation of this new phenomenon; the American answered:

"The lady who has attracted your attention is white."

"What? White! She is the same color as the mulattoes."

"She is white," he replied; "local tradition affirms that the blood which flows in her veins is Spanish."


Following the anecdote, Beaumont explains the deadly meaning of race prejudice in the United States. Echoing St. John de Crevecoeur and Thomas Jefferson, Beaumont says white supremacy in America corrupts whites by making them lazy and schooling them in “domination and tyranny.” Tocqueville and Beaumont were in the US when Nat Turner and his insurrectionists in Virginia killed sixty white people, putting actual, bloody vengeance right in the travelers’ faces. Beaumont blamed white supremacy for blasting the fates of the Negroes and engendering in them violent hatreds and resentments bound to provoke bloody crisis. A sub-plot of Marie picks up on the theme of racial vengeance. Marie’s twenty-year-old brother George, white skinned but tainted in blood, puts himself in the service of the interests of his people along the lines of invisibly Jewish Daniel Deronda in George Eliot’s last (1876) novel of the same name. George leads an insurrection of Indians and slaves in the South, in which struggle he dies.

Beaumont disagrees with his friend over the nature of US society. Tocqueville sees democracy where Beaumont sees barriers as impassable as Europe’s. White Americans, Beaumont concludes, belong to a hereditary aristocracy by dint of the myths of tainted blood and invisible ancestry. The existence of an American aristocracy of whiteness destroys the possibility of true democracy.

Beaumont’s mouthpiece Ludovic corrects a traveler from France who mistakenly assumes Americans to be “liberal and generous. Every man’s rights are protected here.” Ludovic, with the experience behind him of living violence aimed at a family considered tainted, dismisses such impressions as “illusions” and “chimeras.” The traveler, Ludovic says, is “misled.” In the factual appendices following the novel, Beaumont spells out this point more directly. White Americans see white skin as “the mark of nobility,” and the equality of condition among whites is nothing more than “the regard and honor habitual among the members of a privileged class.”


Tocqueville's and Beaumont's books experienced contrasting fates in English. While Democracy in America was translated into English immediately upon its original publication in 1835, Marie had to wait until 1958 for its first English translation. An accessible paperback edition did not appear until the Johns Hopkins University Press edition of 1999. The changing title of the definitive study of Tocqueville and Beaumont's American travels encapsulates the elevation of Tocqueville at the expense of Beaumont: In 1938 George Wilson Pierson published Tocqueville and Beaumont in America based on their notebooks and letters. By the time the Johns Hopkins University Press republished Pierson’s book in 1996, Beaumont had disappeared from the title. Now the book is entitled simply Tocqueville in America. Beaumont and his troubled, multiracial United States cedes place to Tocqueville's egalitarian democracy of white men.

I have spoken too long, but if your patience holds out, I would like to hear from you: Was Marie, with a mulatto great-great-grandmother, white? Do recent discoveries in genetics affect your views?

There followed a discussion with the audience, who expressed a range of views including the following responses:

  • Marie was white, because that is what she looked like and because the majority of her ancestors were white.
  • Marie was black because that was how she viewed herself and how her society classified her.
  • Marie was what is sometimes termed ‘mixed’ race.
  • Marie was of the human race.
  • Why does it matter?
  • Does it matter?

Comment on this page

Did you find the information you were looking for? Is there a broken link or content that needs updating? Let us know so we can improve the page.

Note: If you need further information or have a question that cannot be satisfied by this page, please call our switchboard on +44 (0)1784 434455.

This window will close when you submit your comment.

Add Your Feedback