The Contributions of Beaumont to Democracy in America: His Analysis of Race Relations and Slavery

By Clignet, Remi | American Studies International, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Contributions of Beaumont to Democracy in America: His Analysis of Race Relations and Slavery


Clignet, Remi, American Studies International


Alexis de Tocqueville has become famous for his analysis of the foundations of American democracy. Tocqueville's close friend, Gustave de Beaumont, on the other hand, who accompanied him during his journey to the United States in 1831-1832 fell into oblivion. Democracy in America, which focused on the pragmatism underlying the functioning of American democracy, has been reprinted a number of times. In contrast, the latest French version of Beaumont's novel, Marie, which deals more explicitly with issues slavery and race relations, dates back to 1847. It was not translated into English until 1959 and its readership to this day remains limited.(1) The contrast between the literary fates of these two writers and their works is particularly telling since they shared the same social background and childhood experiences, underwent the same formal training, and were both local judges. Further, not only were their observations of the American social scene convergent, but they were and remained close friends throughout their lives.(2) Beaumont served as Tocqueville's literary executor. The opposite trajectories of the works of these two men reveal the complexities underlying the selective nature of the responses to what strangers observe and report (Simmel, 1950).

My main purpose in this paper is to restore Beaumont's historical-standing by evaluating his contributions to our understanding of American race relations as they prevailed in Jacksonian America. While Beaumont consciously explores how race and slavery were and are embedded in a tension between nature and culture as social constructs, his contributions in this regard also represent unwitting reflections of the social position he occupied as a French aristocrat playing the role of a stranger in the New World. Further, as the relative stress that the prevailing ideology placed on nature and culture evolves slowly, most of his observations remain relevant today.

The venue

There are two likely reasons for which Beaumont chose the novel as a literary form to convey his observations about race in America. First, he probably feared that the French literary market was too cramped to bear simultaneously two analogous social science analyses of American society. In his introduction to Marie, he indicates that he divided the work to be done regarding the account of their American experiences with Tocqueville. Tocqueville would write about institutions, Beaumont would report about mores. Secondly, by adding scientific appendices, he sought to distance himself significantly from the material he presented in the novel itself. The early variety of science/fiction that Marie represents was in his eyes one way of dampening the negative reactions that his evaluation of race relations in America could provoke both locally and at home.

Briefly, Beaumont's novel is about the tragedy stemming from the reciprocal love binding Ludovic, a French traveler, and Marie, a beautiful young American woman whose some grand mother has some "Negro blood." As is often the case in the romantic tradition, their association is doomed. Their involvement triggers violence and contributes to tearing apart the local social fabric. The two main characters go into an exile which ultimately causes Marie's death. As for the twelve appendices, three concern race relations (A, K, and L); eight are about various facets of American social life (B, C, D, E, G, H, I, and J) and one is about the organization of Native American domestic life (F). Directly or indirectly, the practices, ideas or feelings they describe affect the outcome of the bond woven between Marie and her French lover.

Placing Beaumont's work in the History of the Tension between Nature and Culture

Since Nature and Culture are and have a history (Moscovici, 1968), there are recurrent shifts in their respective social representations. During the Enlightenment and the early phase of the Romantic period, European dominant constructions of Nature and Culture concepts evolved between two poles. …

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