Democracy at home; slavery abroad

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Sep 10 06:51:46 MDT 2003

Alexis de Tocqueville. Writings on Empire and Slavery. Edited and
translated by Jennifer Pitts. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 2001. xxxviii + 277 pp. Bibliography, index. $47.00
(cloth), ISBN 0-8018-6509-3; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8018-7756-3.

Reviewed by Laura J. Mitchell, Department of History, University of
California, Irvine.
Published by H-Africa (July, 2003)

Liberal Imperium? Comparisons and Contradictions in a Colonial Age
Jennifer Pitts's translation of Alexis de Tocqueville's Writings on
Empire and Slavery brings together a series of essays, letters, and
reports previously unavailable in English, tied together with a concise
introduction by Pitts. The majority of the pieces represent
Tocqueville's evolving thoughts on French ambitions in Algeria from 1833
to 1847, with a single piece advocating the emancipation of slaves
tacked on to the end. The book's subject makes it most appealing for
scholars of Tocqueville or of Algeria, specialists for whom a
translation is probably not necessary. The collection of all of
Tocqueville's evaluations of French empire in one place, and in English,
does, however, make for an intriguing book premise. The collection
provokes readers without Francophone specializations to consider an
intellectual framework of colonialism while it offers valuable
comparative material.


Since the bulk of this volume is a translated presentation of
Tocqueville's views, terms such as "primitive" and "tribal" are not
problematized. Nor is the teleological assumption of social development
that characterizes Tocqueville's comparative politics challenged. As
such, the individual essays afford the reader glimpses of
nineteenth-century ethnography, both in the summarized descriptions of
Berbers and Arabs contained in the 1837 "First Letter on Algeria" as
well as in Tocqueville's own descriptions of French bureaucratic culture
in Paris and North Africa. Thus an "against the grain" reading of the
1841 writings, "Notes on the Voyage to Algeria" and "Essay on Algeria,"
makes Tocqueville an unwitting ethnographer of French colonial
officials, including portrayals that are intentionally unflattering to
the service of the motherland.

Tocqueville and his intellectual trajectory provide the backbone of this
book, but it is informative at other levels as well. First, this
collection provides a starting point for unpacking nineteenth-century
colonial projects. Elements of social Darwinism (pp. 138-139), a
civilizing mission (p. 26), and a search for the noble savage (pp. 6-7)
all emerge in these chapters. Second, these essays force readers to
recalibrate conventional colonial chronologies, firmly situating
self-conscious imperial goals and preemptory strategies up to fifty
years prior to the Berlin Conference.

Third, Pitts explicitly challenges readers to problematize both
democracy and empire, thinking about these concepts as they were
formulated by nineteenth-century policy makers responsible both for
governing France and authorizing colonial expansion. In a similar vein,
locating these ideas in the person of Alexis de Tocqueville forces a
juxtaposition of colonization in Algeria and the United States. A
Republic constantly reinventing itself throughout the nineteenth
century, contesting ideals of individual liberty and representative
government at home while sanctioning slavery in its Caribbean
possessions and practicing ruthless military expropriation in North
Africa, is no more contradictory than the slave labor and expropriation
of indigenous land that underpinned the Republic that Tocqueville so
admired in America.



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