Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 1: Exterior Configuration of North America - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
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CHAPTER 1: Exterior Configuration of North America - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 1.
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This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
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Exterior Configuration of North America
North America divided into two vast regions, the one descending toward the pole, the other toward the equator.—Valley of the Mississippi.—Traces found there of global upheavals.—Coast of the Atlantic Ocean where the English colonies were founded.— Different appearance that South America and North America presented at the time of discovery.—Forests of North America.— Prairies.—Wandering tribes of natives.—Their outward appearance, their mores, their languages.—Traces of an unknown people.
North America, in its exterior configuration, presents general features that are easy to distinguish at first glance.
A kind of methodical order presided over the separation of land and waterways, mountains and valleys. A simple and majestic arrangement is revealed even in the midst of the confusion of objects and among the ex treme variety of scenes.
Two vast regions divide North America almost equally.*
One is limited, in the North, by the Arctic pole; in the East, in the West, by the two great oceans. Then it advances southward and forms a triangle whose sides, irregularly drawn, finally meet below the Great Lakes of Canada.
The second begins where the first finishes and extends over the entire remainder of the continent.
The one inclines slightly toward the pole; the other, toward the equator.
The lands included in the first region descend toward the north in a slope so slight that they could almost be said to form a plateau. In the interior of this immense flatland, there are neither high mountains nor deep valleys.
There the waterways wind as if haphazardly. The rivers mingle, join together, part, meet again, vanish in a thousand swamps, are lost continually within a watery labyrinth that they have created, and only after in numerable twists and turns do they finally reach the polar seas. The Great Lakes, where this first region terminates, are not, like most of the lakes of the Old World, steeply embanked by hills and rocks; their shores are flat and rise only a few feet above sea level. So each of them forms some thing like a vast basin filled to the brim: the slightest changes in the structure of the globe would hurl their waters toward either the pole or the tropical sea.
The second region is more uneven and better prepared to become the permanent dwelling place of man; two long mountain ranges divide it along its length: one, named the Allegheny Mountains, follows the shores of the Atlantic Ocean; the other parallels the Pacific Ocean.
Yet this vast territory forms only a single valley that descends from the rounded summits of the Allegheny Mountains, and, without meeting any obstacles, climbs again to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
At the bottom of the valley flows an immense river. From all directions, waterways descending from the mountains are seen to rush toward it.
Formerly the French called it the Saint Louis River, in memory of the absent homeland; and the Indians, in their pompous language, named it the Father of Waters, or the Mississippi.
The Mississippi has its source at the boundaries of the two great regions that I spoke about above, near the top of the plateau that separates them.
Near the source of the Mississippi another river3 arises that empties into the polar seas. Sometimes even the Mississippi seems uncertain of the path it should take; several times it retraces its steps, and only after slowing its pace amidst lakes and marshes does it finally settle upon its route and set its course slowly toward the south.
Sometimes calm within the clayey bed that nature has dug for it, some times swollen by storms, the Mississippi waters more than a thousand leagues along its way.4
Six hundred leagues5 above its mouth, the river already has an average depth of 15 feet, and vessels of 300 tons go up for a distance of nearly two hundred leagues.
Fifty-seven large navigable rivers flow into it. The tributaries of the Mississippi include a river with a length of 1,300 leagues,6 one of 900,7 one of 600,8 one of 500,9 four of 200,10 without considering an innumerable multitude of streams that rush from all directions to become lost within it.
The valley watered by the Mississippi seems to have been created for it alone; there the river dispenses good and evil at will, and seems like a god. Near the river, nature displays an inexhaustible fecundity. As you move away from its banks, plant energies fail; the soil thins; everything languishes or dies. Nowhere have the great convulsions of the earth left clearer traces than in the Mississippi Valley. The whole appearance of the country attests to the action of water. Its sterility, like its abundance, is the work of water. At the bottom of the valley, the waves of the early ocean built up huge layers of vegetable matter and then wore them down over time. On the right bank of the river you find immense plains, made smooth like the surface of a field worked over by the farmworker’s roller. In contrast, the closer you get to the mountains, the more and more broken and sterile the ground becomes; the soil is pierced, so to speak, in a thousand places; and here and there primitive rocks appear, like the bones of a skeleton after time has consumed the surrounding muscles and flesh. Granite sand and stones of irregular size cover the surface of the earth; the shoots of a few plants grow with great difficulty among these obstacles; it seems like a fertile field covered by the ruins of some vast edifice. By analyzing these stones and this sand, it is in fact easy to notice a perfect analogy between their materials and those that form the dry and broken peaks of the Rocky Mountains. After pushing the earth headlong into the bottom of the valley, the water almost certainly ended up carrying along a portion of the rocks themselves; it rolled them along the nearest slopes; and, after grinding them against each other, it scattered these fragments, torn from the summits, at the base of the mountains.b (A)
On the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountains, between the foot of the mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, stretches a long band of rocks and sand that the sea seems to have forgotten as it withdrew. This territory is, on average, only 48 leagues wide,11 but it is 390 leagues long.12 The soil, in this part of the American continent, lends itself to cultivation only with difficulty. Vegetation there is sparse and uniform.
On this inhospitable coast the efforts of human industry were first concentrated. On this strip of arid land were born and grew the English colonies, which would one day become the United States of America. Still today the center of power is found there, while behind, almost in secret, gather the true elements of a great people to whom the future of the continent no doubt belongs.
When Europeans landed on the shores of the Antilles and later on the coasts of South America, they thought themselves transported into the fabled regions celebrated by poets.e The sea sparkled with the fiery glow of the tropics. For the first time, the extraordinary transparency of the waters exposed the depth of the ocean bottom to the eyes of the navigator.13 Here and there small perfumed islands appeared, seeming to float like baskets of flowers on the calm surface of the Ocean. In these enchanted places, all that came into view seemed prepared for the needs of man or planned for his pleasures. Most of the trees were laden with nourishing fruits, and those least useful to man charmed his vision with the vividness and variety of their colors. In a forest of fragrant lemon trees, of wild figs, of myrtle oaks, of acacias and of oleanders, all intertwined by flowering creepers, a multitude of birds unknown in Europe flashed their wings of crimson and azure and mingled the chorus of their songs with the harmonies of a nature full of movement and life.fB
Death was hidden under this brilliant cloak; but it was not noticed at all at that time. Moreover, in the air of these regions, there reigned I do not know what enervating influence, attaching man to the present and rendering him unmindful of the future.
North America presented another appearance; everything there was grave, serious, solemn. You could have said that it had been created to be come the domain of the mind, as the other was to be the dwelling place of the senses.
A turbulent and foggy ocean enveloped its coasts; granite rocks or sandy shores girdled it; the forests that covered its banks displayed a somber and melancholy foliage; hardly anything other than pine, larch, holm oak, wild olive and laurel grew there.
After penetrating this first barrier, people entered into the shade of the central forest; there the largest trees that grow in the two hemispheres were found mixed together. The plane tree, catalpa, sugar maple, and Virginia poplar [eastern poplar][*] intertwined their branches with those of the oak, the beech and the linden.
As in forests subjected to the dominion of man, death struck here with out respite; but no one took responsibility for clearing the remains that death had caused. So they piled up; time could not reduce them to dust quickly enough to prepare new places. But in the very midst of these re mains, the work of reproduction went on without ceasing. Climbing plants and weeds of all types grew up through the obstacles; they crept along the fallen tree trunks, wormed into their dust, lifted up and broke the withered bark that still covered them, and cleared a path for their young offshoots. Thus, in a way, death there came to the aid of life. They were face to face, and seemed to want to mix and mingle their work.g
These forests concealed a profound darkness. A thousand small streams, not yet channeled by human effort, maintained an unending humidity. Scarcely any flowers, wild fruits, or any birds were seen.
Only the fall of a tree toppled by age, the cataract of a river, the bellowing of the buffalo and the whistling of the winds disturbed the silence of nature.h
East of the great river, the woods partially disappeared; in their place spread limitless prairies. Had nature, in its infinite variety, denied the seeds of trees to these fertile fields, or had the forest that once covered them been destroyed long ago by the hand of man? This is something that neither tradition nor scientific research has been able to discover.
These immense wilderness areas were not entirely without the presence of man however; for centuries, a few small tribes wandered in the shade of the forest or across the prairie lands. From the mouth of the Saint Lawrence to the delta of the Mississippi, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, these savages shared certain similarities that testified to their common origin. But they also differed from all known races.14 They were neither white like the Europeans, nor yellow like most of the Asians, nor black like the Negroes. Their skin was reddish; their hair, long and lustrous; their lips, thin; and their cheekbones, very prominent. The languages spoken by the savage tribes of America differed from each other in words, but all were bound by the same grammatical rules. On several points, these rules deviated from those that, until then, had seemed to govern the formation of human language.
The idiom of the Americans seemed to result from new combinations; it indicated on the part of its inventors an exercise of intelligence of which the Indians of today seem little capable.C
The social state of these peoples also differed in several respects from what was seen in the Old World: it could have been said that they multiplied freely in their wilderness, without contact with more civilized races. So among them, you found none of those doubtful and incoherent notions of good and evil, none of that profound corruption which is usually combined with ignorance and crudeness of mores among civilized nations who have descended into barbarism again. The Indian owed nothing to anyone except himself. His virtues, his vices, his prejudices were his own work; he grew up in the wild independence of his own nature.
The coarseness of common men, in civilized countries, comes not only from their ignorance and poverty, but also from their daily contact, as ignorant and poor men, with those who are enlightened and rich.
The sight of their misfortune and weakness, which is in daily contrast to the good fortune and power of certain of their fellows, excites anger and fear simultaneously in their heart; the feeling of their inferiority and dependence irritates and humiliates them. This inner state of soul is reproduced in their mores, as well as in their language; at the very same time, they are insolent and servile.
The truth of this is easily proved by observation. The people are more coarse in aristocratic countries than anywhere else, and in opulent cities more than in the countryside.j
In these places, where men so rich and powerful are found, the weak and poor feel as though overwhelmed by their low condition; finding no point by which they can regain equality, they completely lose hope in themselves and allow themselves to fall below the dignity of human nature.
This unfortunate effect of the contrast in conditions is not found in savage life; the Indians, at the same time that they are all ignorant and poor, are all equal and free.k
At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the native of North America was still unaware of the value of wealth and showed himself indifferent to the material well-being that civilized man obtains from it. He exhibited no coarseness however; on the contrary, an habitual reserve and a kind of aristocratic courtesy governed the way he behaved.
In peace, mild and hospitable, in war, merciless even beyond the known limits of human ferocity, the Indian risked death by starvation in order to aid a stranger who knocked at night on the door of his hut and, with his own hands, tore apart the quivering limbs of his prisoner. The most famous republics of antiquity never admired firmer courage, prouder souls, a more uncompromising love of independence than what was then hidden in the wild forests of the New World.15 The Europeans made only a small impression when landing on the shores of North America; their presence gave rise to neither envy nor fear. What hold could they have over such men? The Indian knew how to live without needs, how to suffer without com plaint, and how to die singing.16 Like all the other members of the great human family, moreover, these savages believed in the existence of a better world, and under different names worshipped God, creator of the universe. Their notions about the great intellectual truths were generally simple and philosophical.D
Yet, no matter how primitive the people whose character we are describing may appear, it cannot be doubted that they had been preceded in the same regions by another people, more civilized and advanced in all ways.
An obscure tradition, but one widespread among most of the Indian tribes along the Atlantic coast, teaches us that long ago the dwelling place of these very bands was located west of the Mississippi. Mounds raised by human hands are still found every day along the banks of the Ohio and throughout the central valley. We are told that when you dig into the center of these monuments, you hardly ever fail to find human bones, strange instruments, weapons, implements of all sorts that are made of a metal or that recall uses unknown to the present races.n
The Indians of today can give no information at all about the history of this unknown people. Nor did those who lived three hundred years ago, at the time of the discovery of America, say anything from which even an hypothesis could be inferred. Traditions, those perishable and constantly recurring memorials of the primitive world, furnish no light whatsoever. It cannot be doubted, however, that thousands of people similar to us lived there. When did they come there; what was their origin, their destiny, their history? When and how did they perish? No one could say.
Strange thing! Some peoples have so completely disappeared from the earth that even the memory of their name has been blotted out; their languages are lost; their glory has faded like a sound without an echo. But I do not know if there is even one who has not at least left one tomb to mark its passage. Thus, of all the works of man, the most durable is still the one that best recounts his nothingness and his woes!
Although the vast country just described was inhabited by numerous tribes of natives, you could justly say that, at the time of discovery, it was still only a wilderness. The Indians occupied, but did not possess it. Man appropriates the soil by agriculture, and the first inhabitants of North America lived by the hunt. Their implacable prejudices, their untamed passions, their vices, and perhaps even more their wild virtues delivered them to an inevitable destruction. The ruin of these people began the day Europeans landed on their shores; it has continued constantly since then; to day it reaches completion. Providence, while placing them in the midst of the riches of the New World, seemed to have given them only a short usufruct; in a way, these people were there only waiting. These coasts, so well prepared for commerce and industry; these rivers, so deep; this inexhaustible Mississippi Valley; this entire continent, appeared at that time as the still empty cradle of a great nation.o
That is where civilized men had to try to build society on new foundations. Applying, for the first time, theories until then unknown or considered inapplicable, civilized men were going to present a spectacle for which past history had not prepared the world.p
[* ] See the map placed at the end of the volume. [See volume II, following p. 687. This map was deleted after the first editions. (ed.)]
[2. ] France measures 35,181 square leagues.
[3. ] The Red River.
[4. ] 2,500 miles, 1,032 leagues. See Description of the United States, by Warden, vol. I, p. 166.
[5. ] 1,364 miles, 563 leagues. See id., vol. I, p. 169.
[6. ] The Missouri. See id., vol. I, p. 132 (1,278 leagues).
[7. ] The Arkansas. See id., vol. I, p. 188 (897 leagues).
[8. ] The Red River. See id., vol. I, p. 190 (598 leagues).
[9. ] The Ohio. See id., vol. I, p. 192 (490 leagues).
[10. ] The Illinois, the Saint Peter [the Minnesota (ed.)], the Saint Francis, the Des Moines.
In the measurements above, I have taken as a measure the legal mile (statute mile) and the postal league of 2,000 toises.
[b. ] In the margin: “≠For more exactitude in this picture consult and cite Volney. Examination of trees, nature of lands, shape of the country.≠”
[c. ] “The general population doubles in 22 years, that of the Mississippi Valley in 10 years. 3.25% for the whole, 5% in the valley. Darby, p. 446, calculates that in 1865 the preponderance will be in the Mississippi Valley” (YTC, CVh, 1, p. 63).
[d. ] Here Tocqueville tries to convey the sense of the English word wilderness, for which Beaumont had proposed sauvagerie. For him, throughout his book, désert designates the virgin forest, unexplored and not cultivated. See Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 1-7.
[11. ] 100 miles.
[12. ] About 900 miles.
[e. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “Alexis thinks correctly that the description of South America must be shortened a great deal, perhaps even removed entirely. 1. Because he was not there. 2. Because South America is entirely outside of his subject” (YTC, CIIIb, 3, p. 45).
[13. ] The waters are so transparent in the Caribbean Sea, says hMalte-hBrun, vol. V, p. 726, that corals and fish are distinguishable at a depth of 60 fathoms. The ship seems to glide on air; a kind of vertigo grips the traveler whose view plunges beyond the crystalline fluid into the midst of underground gardens where shellfish and gilded fish shimmer among the clumps of fucus and the thickets of marine algae.
[f. ] In the manuscript: “The objects that caught the eye in these enchanted places appeared destined to satisfy needs or to give rise to pleasures. Most of the trees produced fruits; and all of them, flowers. (The wild fig, the lemon tree, the myrtle oak and the oleander grew in dense groves. The acacia arose from the middle of the beach and scattered its fragrant remains over the shores.
The bignonias, the granadillas [passion fruit], the acacias with large pods, fifty species of creepers were thrown as) species of garlands thrown from tree to tree or branch to branch, repeating the image of the works of man in the middle of the inimitable charms of nature. A multitude of birds unknown to Europe made these flowery arches and domes of greenery sparkle with their many colors. There you heard resounding from all directions the sound of a thousand living creatures.
Death was ...”
The published version is in Gustave de Beaumont—s hand (YTC, CIIIb, 3, pp. 42-43). See note e supra, in which Tocqueville—s desire to shorten this description is clear.
[[*]. ] See Tableau des Etats-Unis, by Volney, p. 9.
[g. ] Cf. Journey to Lake Oneida, pp. 1295-1302, in the fourth volume.
[h. ] In this paragraph as in the preceding one, Tocqueville took into account the sty listic modifications suggested by Beaumont (YTC, CIIIb, 3, p. 44).
[14. ] Some similarities have since been discovered between the physical structure, the language and the habits of the Indians of North America and those of the Tungus, Manchus, Mongols, Tartars and other nomadic tribes of Asia. The latter occupy a position near the Bering Strait, which allows the supposition that, at a period long ago, they were able to come to people the empty American continent. But science has not yet succeeded in clarifying this point. On this question, see Malte-Brun, vol. V; the works of Humboldt; Fischer, Conjectures sur l—origine des Américains; Adair, History of the American Indians.
[j. ] Hervé de Tocqueville: “This entire paragraph is well thought out and strikingly true. But isn’t it a little long? You could perhaps delete the section from the words cited above [The truth of this, etc..... (ed.)] to these: This unfortunate effect. It seems to me that the expression of the thought would gain in precision.”
édouard de Tocqueville: “This thought is excellent. I do not know what must be deleted or cut, but it seems to me that you must revise and rework this entire passage, perfect in thought and uneven and not very refined in style” (YTC, CIIIb, 3, p. 46). Nonetheless, Tocqueville did not modify the passage, identical in the manuscript and in the published version.
[k. ] Note in the margin: “≠Idea of K[ergorlay (ed.)]. What makes the lower classes coarse is contact with the upper classes and the feeling of their low condition. All the savages are equal and free.≠”
[15. ] Among the Iroquois, attacked by superior forces, says President Jefferson (Notes sur la Virginie, p. 148), one saw old men disdain to flee or to outlive the destruction of their country and to brave death, like the old Romans during the sack of Rome by the Gauls. Further along, p. 150: “There never was an instance known, he says, of an Indian begging his life when in the power of his enemies; on the contrary, that he courts death by every possible insult and provocation.”
[Documents on the Indians./
See the work entitled Historical Collections of the Indians in New England, by Daniel Gookin, printed in 1792. It is found in the historical collections of Massachusetts, vol. 1, p. 141-226 (ed.)].
Gookin says that there are people who believe that the Indians are the descendents of the ten tribes of Israel, which explains the state of barbarism and darkness in which they are found. “But this opinion [.... (ed.) ....], says Gookin, doth not greatly obtain. [But (ed.)] surely it is not impossible and perhaps not so improbable as many learned men think” [p. 145 (ed.)].
See as well a work entitled Key into the Language of the Indians of New England by Roger Williams, printed in London in 1643. It is found reprinted in the collection of the historical society of Massachusetts, vol. 3, p. 203 [-238 (ed.)].]
[n. ] Cf. Conversation with Mr. Houston, December 31, 1831 (Notebook E, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage, OC, V, 1, p. 264). This fragment also recalls the “journal sans date” of the Voyage en Amérique of Chateaubriand (Oeuvres romanesques et voyages, Paris: Pléiade, 1969, I, pp. 710-13).
[o. ] Cf. A Fortnight in the Wilderness (appendix II, especially p. 1354 of the fourth volume).
[p. ] In this place are found remarks on the Governor, reproduced in note b of pp. 140-42.