In July 1830, the last of the French Bourbon kings Charles X was overthrown by Louis-Philippe causing another wave of revolutionary upheavals in France. During this time of the tyranny of the majority, French political theorist Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville decided to take this opportunity to study the role of democracy in the American penitentiary system and have a better idea of the circumstances that had befallen France.
After receiving permission from the French Ministry of the Interior, Tocqueville set sail on the Havre in 1831 with publicist and writer Gustave de Beaumont to examine the American Penitentiary system. (i) Fortunately receiving a great deal of support from the prisons, the French magistrates were able to obtain a wide array of information that explained the varying degrees of effectiveness of French and American prisons. (ii) In 1833, these field notes were compiled in the French joint publication On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France which was also published in English to reach a large European and American audience.
Throughout these visits and within his careful examinations, Tocqueville questioned the responsibility of democracy. He wondered how society was to respond to criminals, and asked if it was even possible to reform a person of crime and indulgence into a person of productivity and virtue. Prefacing On the Penitentiary System, Tocqueville asked, “Is it not the interest of society to try all means at its disposal to reclaim a criminal?” (iii) Tocqueville tried to find answers for this question of interest commenting often on the accommodations and the efforts made at reforming the inmates–especially in his examination of Sing Sing. Looking at reform provided a backbone for his publication with Beaumont, but Tocqueville would continue to expand on these theories and publish them in his famous Democracy in America in 1835.
On May 28, 1831 before visiting Sing Sing, Tocqueville wrote to Abbe Lesueur–his priest at the Royal College of Metz–about finding the American prisons thus far to be “much better than those of France.” (iv) Optimistic, he described how “delighted” he was to see Sing Sing the next day remarking on how beautiful he imagined it would be sitting high up on the Hudson River. (v) Unfortunately, Tocqueville would not retain this delight.
Arriving at Sing Sing, Tocqueville and Beaumont were “astonished to find nine hundred completely unfettered prisoners, overseen by only thirty guards (who meted out merciless floggings with cat-o’-nine-tails for the tiniest infractions) laboring assiduously in open-air quarries, digging up marble” for Greek Revivalist New York. (vi) Looking around, they noted that the “place was bathed in heat and in an unnatural silence” that had an “unmistakable undercurrent of terror.” (vii) Beaumont wrote to his mother,“Nothing is rarer than an [escape]”–a fact he found to be self-evident upon immediate arrival. (viii)
Baffled at the sheer size of the prison, Tocqueville and Beaumont noted how “few departments would have a prison so numerously filled as that of Sing Sing.” (ix) While overcrowding was typical with the rate of convicts increasing faster than the rate of prisons being erected, Sing Sing reached a new intensity of overcrowding. (x) Yet, there was silence and order.
According to Beaumont and Tocqueville, the answer to this conundrum lay in the rule of Agent Elam Lynds. Lynds had been principal keeper at the Auburn State Prison in 1817, but left that prison in 1823 to oversee the erection of Sing Sing prison. When Tocqueville and Beaumont asked why he found his prison to be effective, he cited the utmost importance of maintaining “uninterrupted silence and uninterrupted labor.” (xi)
All the prisons–Sing Sing, Wethersfield, Boston, and Philadelphia–of the Auburn system functioned on these indivisible, Quaker-derived principles of “solitude and labor.” (xii) By keeping the prisoner in a silent isolation broken only by the crack of the whip, an “unavoidable necessity of obedience” was forced upon prisoners through the knowledge of the “certainty and instantaneousness” of punishment. (xiii)
While this “mind over matter” principle was the norm, Tocqueville and Beaumont noted the intensity at which Sing Sing observed this. (xiv) At Sing Sing, silence was strictly observed with inmates having to “take their meals separately” in their cells. (xv) In a nighttime tour of the cells with Lynds, Tocqueville felt shock in the silence. “It was a tomb of the living dead,” he wrote. “We could not realize that in this building were nine hundred fifty human beings.” (xvi)
It is important to note how Tocqueville referred to the inmates as human beings first and foremost. Lynds, while employing an effective way of keeping order, neglected a real mission of reform and desired instead to create a “passive obedience” amongst the convicts. (xvii) Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote at length about Lynds stressing “the necessity of breaking a prisoner’s spirit, after which, the most dangerous situation becomes safe.” (xviii) The “most dangerous situation” referred to two hundred fifty prisoners, who had “all committed acts of violence indicating a dangerous character,” working with a stone cutter’s ax daily. (ixx) Lynds counteracts the level of this danger through the intensity of the punishment. The very institution of Sing Sing was built by one hundred convicts set to work by Lynds who kept them in check by “the firmness of his character and the energy of his will.” (xx) The back-breaking labor and immediacy of punishment made the hardest part of running the prison finding “keepers who were not too lenient.” (xxi) Because the prison relied so heavily on the power of the guards, the budgets for surveillance would outweigh all other sectors. (xxii)
Tocqueville commends Lynds and Sing Sing for the perfect discipline commenting on how one cannot see the prison and its labor system “without being struck by astonishment and fear.” (xxiii) Tocqueville recognizes the extreme order and efficiency of Sing Sing, but he writes that he cannot help but feel that it all rests upon a “fragile foundation” that would make it impossible “not to fear some sort of catastrophe in the future.” (xxiv) Tocqueville feels that this uneasiness rests in Sing Sing’s lack of a long term plan. In his questioning of the necessity of reforming inmates, Tocqueville sees problems with Lynds wishing to only create “useful citizens [who] contracted habits of constant labor” as it does not break down the mind of the inmate. (xxv) There is a lack of willingness to see this reform through. (xxvi) Tocqueville says he sees an absence of any “great moral reform affected by the Sing Sing system” and for that reason he advises against implementing a penitentiary system like Sing Sing saying that it seems “dangerous to apply.” (xxvii)
After their time spent viewing the penitentiaries of America and France in 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont concluded that while Sing Sing has the highest level of discipline by far, the means for obtaining this discipline of silence and continual labor are simply too dangerous to apply. Comparing the system of Sing Sing to the running of a steamboat, the French magistrates commended it for its perfection in the “ordinary run of things,” but forewarn the deathly disaster that will come with the smallest break: “If some bit of the apparatus goes out of order, the boat, the passengers and the cargo fly into the air.” (xxviii)
-Isabella St. Ivany
(i) New York Evening Post, May 11, 1831.
(iii) G. de Beaumont and A. de Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and its Application in France (Princeton, 1833), xix.
(iv) De Tocqueville letter to Abbe Lesueur (Yale University: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, May 28, 1831).
(vi) Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: V.1: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), 506.
(vii) George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 102.
(viii) Ibid, 101.
(ix) Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System, 102.
(x) Ibid, 161.
(xi) Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System, 201.
(xii) Ibid, 22.
(xiii) Ibid, ix.
(xiv) Ibid, 26.
(xv) Ibid, 31.
(xvi) Denis Brian, Sing Sing: The Inside Story of a Notorious Prison (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2005), 28.
(xvii) Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System, 50.
(xviii) Ibid, 28.
(ixx) George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 101.
(xx) Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System, 7.
(xxi) Ibid, 291.
(xxii) Ibid, 80.
(xxiii) George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville and Beaumont in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1938), 102.
(xxiv) Ibid, 103.
(xxv) Beaumont and Tocqueville, On the Penitentiary System, 202.
(xxvi) Ibid, 55.
(xxvii) Ibid, 211.
(xxviii) Ibid, 209.
Figure 1: Chassériau, Théodore. Alexis De Tocqueville. 1850. In Wikimedia Commons. August 19, 2010. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexis_de_tocqueville.jpg.
Figure 2: Gustave De Beaumont. 1848. Gravure De La Série Les Représentants De 1848. In Wikimedia Commons. September 6, 2006. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beaumont,_Gustave_de.jpg.
Figure 3: Beaumont and Tocqueville. On the Penitentiary System in the United States, and its Application in France. Princeton, 1833.
Figure 4: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing Prison and Tappan Sea” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 30, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-2359-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 5: Elam Lynds. c. 1840-1850. In Wikimedia Commons. May 7, 2011. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elam_Lynds.png.
Figure 6: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Sing Sing Prison.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e81-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Figure 7: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Prison, Sing Sing, N.Y.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-5e76-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99