In Alexis de Tocqueville's Letter to Countess de Tocqueville, what was his justification for removing the Native Americans outside the U.S.?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This is a letter that is in many collections of primary sources on American history.  It is, for example, in For the Record edited by Shi and Mayer.  In the letter, Tocqueville says that the American way of getting rid of the Indians is much more humane than the Spanish way.  However, it is not at all clear that he actually approves of what the Americans are doing.  He seems to be sarcastic when he approves of this.

To Tocqueville, the American justification for moving the Indians is the fact that the Americans can make much better use of the land than the Indians can.  He says that Americans can support 10 people on the amount of land that can support only one Indian.  Therefore, it is logical that the Indians should be removed.  In addition, the land to which the Indians are being removed is said to be much better than that on which they are now living.

Again, Tocqueville does not appear to be serious here.  He appears to be sarcastic in approving of this way of thinking.  Therefore, we should say that it is the Americans’ justification, not his. 

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Alexis de Tocqueville's Letter to Countess de Tocqueville delineates for the reader an impartial observation of the suffering of Native Americans under The Indian Removal Act. My colleague above is absolutely right that deTocqueville is not himself justifying the removal of the Native Americans. His sympathetic descriptions of the plight of the Native people betray his pity and his compassion.

He tells us that the American position is vested in the distinction between savagery (Native Indian) and civilization (American). The Americans justify their faulty logic by asserting that a small area of land could sustain ten times more civilized Americans than savage Natives.  He also states that the Americans imagine themselves a 'rational and unprejudiced people,' utterly confident that 'God had given them the New World and its inhabitants as complete property.' According to this logic, it follows then that savagery should 'give way' to civilization; after all, the Native ownership of land encompassed mere 'uncultivated wilderness, woods, swamps, truly poor property.'

Although he seems to contrast the Spanish treatment of the Native Americans with the American treatment of Native Americans, his contrast only seems to highlight the barbarism of both governments. It seems to us that deTocqueville's sympathy towards the Native American people is evident through his unvarnished description of their suffering. He describes the 'despondent air' among the Native Americans, is horrified by the emaciated body of a grandmother, and sickened at heart by the fractured, frostbitten arm of a little girl. All are forced to travel, bereft of medical care or proper food.

As an impartial observer, deTocqueville is able to both describe the American justification for the Indian Removal Act eloquently, as well as to share with us his dismay at the suffering of the Native Americans due to such a law.


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