Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 14 a: Some Reflections on American Manners b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4
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chapter 14 a: Some Reflections on American Manners b - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4 
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. 4.
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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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Some Reflections on American Mannersb
There is nothing, at first view, that seems less important than the external form of human actions, and there is nothing to which men attach more value; they become accustomed to everything, except living in a society that does not have their manners. So the influence that the social and political state exercises on manners is worth the trouble to be examined seriously.c
Manners generally come from the very heart of mores; and sometimes they result as well from an arbitrary convention between certain men. They are at the same time natural and acquired.
When men see that they are first without question and without difficulty; when every day they have before their eyes the great matters that occupy them, leaving the details to others, and when they live with a wealth that they did not acquire and they are not afraid of losing, you easily imagine that they feel a sort of superb disdain for the petty interests and material cares of life, and that they have a natural grandeur in thought that words and manners reveal.
In democratic countries, manners usually have little grandeur, because private life in them is very limited. Manners are often common, because thought has only a few opportunities to rise above the preoccupation with domestic interests.d
True dignity of manners consists of always appearing in your place, neither higher, nor lower;e that is within reach of the peasant as of the prince. In democracies all places seem doubtful; as a result, it happens that manners, which are often arrogant there, are rarely dignified. Moreover, they are never either very well-ordered or very studied.f
Men who live in democracies are too mobile for a certain number of them to succeed in establishing a code of savoir-faire and to be able to make sure that it is followed. So each man there acts more or less as he likes, and a certain incoherence in manners always reigns, because manners conform to the individual sentiments and ideas of each man, rather than to an ideal model given in advance for the imitation of all.
Nonetheless, this is much more apparent at the moment when aristocracy has just fallen than when it has been destroyed for a long time.
The new political institutions and the new mores then gather in the same places men still made prodigiously dissimilar by education and habits and often force them to live together; this makes great colorful mixtures emerge at every moment. You still remember that a precise code of politeness existed; but you no longer know either what it contains or where it is to be found. Men have lost the common law of manners, and they have not yet decided to do without it; but each one tries hard to form a certain arbitrary and changing rule out of the debris of former customs; so that manners have neither the regularity nor the grandeur that they often exhibit among aristocratic peoples, nor the simple and free turn that you sometimes notice in democracy; they are at the very same time constrained and unconstrained.
That is not the normal state. When equality is complete and old, all men, having more or less the same ideas and doing more or less the same things, have no need to agree or to copy each other in order to act and to speak in the same way; you constantly see a multitude of small dissimilarities in their manners; you do not notice any great differences. They never resemble each other perfectly, because they do not have the same model; they are never very dissimilar, because they share the same condition. At first view, you would say that the manners of all Americans are exactly the same. It is only when considering them very closely that you notice the particularities by which they all differ.g
The English have made much fun of American manners; and what is peculiar is that most of those who have given us such an amusing portrait belonged to the middle classes of England, to whom this same portrait very much applies. So that these merciless detractors usually offer the example of what they are blaming in the United States; they do not notice that they are scoffing at themselves, to the great delight of the aristocracy of their country.h
Nothing harms democracy more than the external form of its mores. Many men would readily become accustomed to its vices, who cannot bear its manners.
I cannot, however, accept that there is nothing to praise in the manners of democratic peoples.
Among aristocratic nations, all those who are near the first class usually try hard to resemble it, which produces very ridiculous and very insipid imitations. If democratic peoples do not possess the model of grand manners, they at least escape from the obligation of seeing bad copies every day.
In democracies, manners are never as refined as among aristocratic peoples; but they also never appear as crude. You hear neither the gross words of the populace, nor the noble and select expressions of the great lords. There is often triviality in the mores, but not brutality or baseness.
[If it is true that the men who live among these peoples scarcely ever offer to render small services, they readily oblige you in your needs; manners are less polite than in aristocracies and more benevolent.]
I said that in democracies a precise code regarding savoir-faire cannot evolve. This has its disadvantage and its advantages. In aristocracies, the rules of propriety impose on each man the same appearance; they make all the members of the same class similar, despite their particular propensities; they adorn the natural and hide it. Among democratic peoples, manners are neither as studied nor as well-ordered; but they are often more sincere. They form like a light and poorly woven veil, through which the true sentiments and individual ideas of each man are easily seen. So the form and the substance of human actions there often have an intimate rapport, and, if the great tableau of humanity is less ornate, it is more true. This is why, in a sense, you can say that the effect of democracy is not precisely to give men certain manners, but to prevent them from having manners.
You can sometimes find again in a democracy some of the sentiments, passions, virtues and vices of aristocracy, but not its manners. The latter are lost and disappear forever, when the democratic revolution is complete.j
It seems that there is nothing more durable than the manners of an aristocratic class; for it still preserves them for some time after having lost its property and its power; nor anything as fragile, for scarcely have they disappeared than any trace of them is no longer found, and it is difficult to say what they were from the moment that they are no more. A change in the social state works this wonder; a few generations are enough.
The principal features of aristocracy remain engraved in history when aristocracy is destroyed, but the light and delicate forms of its mores disappear from the memory of men, almost immediately after its fall. Men cannot imagine them once they are no longer before their eyes. They escape without men seeing or feeling it. For, in order to feel the type of refined pleasure obtained by the distinction and the choice of manners, habit and education must have prepared the heart, and the taste for manners is easily lost with the practice.
Thus, not only can democratic peoples not have the manners of aristocracy, but they do not conceive or desire them; they do not imagine them; the manners of aristocracy are, for democratic peoples, as if they had never been.
[You would be wrong to believe that the model of aristocratic manners can at least be preserved among a few remnants of the old aristocracy. The members of a fallen aristocracy can indeed preserve the prejudices of their fathers, but not their manners.]
Too much importance must not be attached to this loss; but it is permitted to regret it.k
I know that more than once it has happened that the same men have had very distinguished mores and very vulgar sentiments; the interior of courts has shown enough that great appearance could often hide very base hearts. But, if the manners of aristocracy did not bring about virtue, they sometimes ornamented virtue itself. It was not an ordinary spectacle to see a numerous and powerful class, in which all of the external actions of life seemed, at every instant, to reveal natural nobility of sentiments and thoughts, refinement and consistency of tastes, and urbanity of mores.
The manners of aristocracy gave beautiful illusions about human nature; and, although the tableau was often false, you experienced a noble pleasure in looking at it.m
[a. ] Manners come from the very heart of mores and sometimes result as well from an arbitrary convention between certain men.
Men of democratic countries do not naturally have grand manners because their life is limited.
Moreover, they do not have studied manners because they cannot agree on the establishment of the rule of savoir-faire. So there is always incoherence in their manners, above all as long as the democratic revolution lasts.
That aristocratic manners disappear forever with aristocracy, that not even the taste or the idea of them is preserved.
You must not be too distressed about it, but it is permitted to regret it (YTC, CVf, p. 45).
The manuscript of this chapter contains another version of the beginning, contained in a jacket that explains: “Piece that began the chapter which I removed because it seemed to me to get back into often reproduced deductions of ideas, but which I must have copied and read.” This fragment, with the exception of the description of aristocratic society (reproduced in note f) is not very different from the published version.
Tocqueville began the writing of this chapter at the beginning of the month of September 1837. “Here I am at manners, a very difficult subject for everyone, but particularly for me, who finds himself ill at ease in the small details of private life. Consequently I will be brief. I hope in about a week to have finished and to be able to get into the great chapters that end the book” (Correspondance avec Corcelle, OC, XV, 1, p. 86).
[b. ] On the jacket of the manuscript: “Courtesy, civility. Neglected words that must be used by going over it again.”
On the jacket of the rubish: “To reexamine with more care than the other rubish. A fairly large number of ideas that I was not able to express at first are found here in germ or in development.
“Courtesy, civility, civil: words that I have neglected” (Rubish, 2).
In another place: “I do not think that it is unworthy of the gravity of my subject to examine the influence that democracy can exercise on manners. Form influences more than you think the substance of human actions” (Rubish, 2).
[c. ] If after having considered the relationships that exist between the superior and the inferior, I examine the relations of equals among themselves, I discover facts analogous to those that I pointed out above.
There are a thousand means indeed to judge the social state and political laws of a people once you have well understood what the various consequences are that flow naturally from these two different things. The most trivial observations of a traveler can lead you to truth on this point as well as the searching remarks of philosophers. Everything goes together in the constitution of moral man as well as in his physical nature, and just as Cuvier, by seeing a single organ, was able to reconstruct the whole body of the entire animal, someone who would know one of the opinions or habits of a people would often be able, I think, to conceive a fairly complete picture of the people itself.
If an ignorant (illegible word) of the Antipodes told me that, in the country that he has just traveled across, certain rules of politeness are observed as immutable laws and that the least actions of men there are subjected to a sort of ceremonial from which no one can ever depart, I will not be afraid to assert that I already know enough about it to assert that the inhabitants of the country that he is speaking to me about are divided among themselves in a profound and permanent way by different and unequal conditions.
When the human mind is delivered from the shackles that inequality of conditions imposed on it, it does not fail to attach a certain cachet of individual originality to its least as to its principal conceptions.
I accept without difficulty that men change their laws [v: constitution] more readily than the customs of etiquette and that they modify the general principles of their morals more easily than the external form of their words. I know that innovations usually begin with the important classes of things before arriving at the least important. But finally they arrive there, and after overturning the dominion of the rule in politics, in sciences, in philosophy, the human mind escapes from it in the small actions of every day.
It is impossible to live for a time in the United States without discovering that a sort of chance seems to preside in social relationships. Politeness is subjected to laws less fixed, less detailed, more arbitrary, less complicated than in Europe. It is in some way improvised each day (illegible word), each man following the utility of the moment. More value is attached there to the intention of pleasing than to the means that are used to do so. Custom, tone, example influence the actions of men, but they do not link their conduct to them in as absolute a manner as in the civilized portions of the Old World.
It would be good to insert here a small portrait in the manner of Lettres persanes or of Les Caractères of La Bruyère. But I lack the facts. [They (ed.)] must be taken from France.
You notice something analogous among us in Europe.
[In the margin: Perhaps the notes of Beaumont will provide [some (ed.)].]
Among the nations of Europe where a great inequality of conditions still reigns, most of the small daily relationships of men with each other continue to be subjected to fixed and traditional rules that give society, despite the changes that are taking place within it, an unchanging aspect. On the contrary, among peoples whose social state is already very democratic, the exceptions to this rule become so numerous every day that it is difficult to say if the rule exists or where it is found.
So if you see each man dress himself more or less as he pleases, speak or keep quiet as he desires, accept or reject generally received formulations, subject himself to the rule of fashion or escape from it with impunity, if each man escapes in some way from common practice and easily gets himself exempted, do not laugh; the moment has come to think and to act. These things are trivial, but the cause that produces them is serious.You have before your eyes the slightest symptoms of a great illness. Be sure that when each man believes himself entitled to decide alone the form of an item of clothing or the proprieties of language, he does not hesitate to judge all things by himself, and when the small social conventions are so badly observed, count on the fact that an important revolution has taken place in the great social conventions.
So these indications alone should be enough for you to understand that a great revolution has already taken place in human societies, that it is good from now on to think about tightening the social bond which on all sides is trying to become looser, and that, no longer able to force all men to do the same things, a means must be found to lead them to want to do so (YTC, CVk, 2, pp. 33-37).
You find this note in the rubish:
There is in the bundle entitled: Detached piece on the philosophical method of the Americans . . . ideas and sentences that I should make use of when I review the chapters relative to the relationships of the son with the children [sic ], of the servant with the master . . ./
Idem when I arrive at the customs of society. In fine good piece./
Idem at the chapter on revolutions. Note at the head of the piece entitled new sources of beliefs./
26 November 1838 (Rubish, 2).
[d. ] To put with manners./
How under democracy citizens, although perfectly equal civilly and politically,having daily relationships and no ideas of preeminence over each other, divide themselves however into distinct societies for the charm and usefulness of life, according to their education and their fortune.
That the continual jumble and meeting in the same places for the same enjoyments of dissimilar men is a crude notion of equality (Rubish, 2).
[e. ] “I believe that good taste like beauty has its foundation in nature itself. It is or is not, apart from the will of men; but the natural rules in the matter of good taste can only be collected and put in order by a select society, enlightened enough and small enough in number always to hold onto the rules that it acknowledged at one time as the best. So there is something conventional in matters of taste, whereas there is hardly any convention possible under democracies” (Rubish, 2).
[f. ] So an aristocratic class not only has grand manners, but it also has well-ordered and studied manners. Although the form of human actions originally emerged there, as elsewhere, from the substance of sentiments and ideas, it ended over time by being independent of sentiments and ideas; and custom there finally became an invisible and blind force that constrains different beings to act in an analogous manner and gives all of them a common appearance.
Among the multitude of all the small particular societies into which the great democratic body is divided, there is not a single one that presents a similar tableau.
There are rich men in a democracy, but there is no rich class. You find powerful men there, but not powerful families, or those that have habitually, over several generations, hereditarily had before their eyes the great spectacle of grandeur; if by chance there are a few of this kind, they are not naturally or solidly attached to each other and do not form a separate body within the general society. So they cannot regulate in a detailed and invariable way the external actions of their members. If they had the will to do so, time is lacking. For each day they are themselves swept along, in spite of their efforts, in the democratic movement that sweeps everything along.
Fragment contained in the jacket of the manuscript to which note a for p. 1262 makes reference.
[g. ] “You can say however that customs, mores are more well-ordered in the United States than in France. That results from Puritan opinions that order life and from commercial habits that direct it” (Rubish, 2).
[h. ] Perhaps Tocqueville is alluding to Basil Hall.
[j. ] “In democracies individuals very distinguished in taste and manners can be found, but such a society [v: class] is never found” (Rubish, 2).
[k. ] ≠It is often by necessity as much as by taste that the rich [v: the upper classes] of democracies copy the people’s ways of acting.≠ In the United States the most opulent citizens show haughty manners only in the intimacy of their home [v: are very careful not to flaunt their grandeur].... They readily listen to them [the people (ed.)], and constantly speak to them.
The rich of democracies draw toward them the poor man and attach him to themselves by manners more than by benefits. The very greatness of the benefits, which brings to light the difference of conditions, causes a secret irritation in those who profit from them. But simplicity of manners has nearly irresistible charms. Their familiarity inveigles, and even their crudeness does not always displease. This truth penetrates only very slowly the mind of the rich.
[In the margin: They go out constantly to mingle with the people. They readily listen to them and speak to them every day in the countries of Europe that turn to democracy.]
They usually understand it only when it is too late to make use of it. They agree to do good to the men of the people, but they want to continue to hold them carefully at a distance. They believe that is enough, but they are wrong. They would ruin themselves in this way without warming the heart of the population that surrounds them. It is not the sacrifice of their money that is asked of them, it is that of their pride.
[In the margin: They resist it as long as the revolution lasts and they accept it only a long time after it has ended.]
26 September 1839 [1837? (ed.)] (YTC, CVk, 1, pp. 6-7).
[m. ]Democracy. Manners.In France the elegant simplicity of manners is hardly found except among men belonging to old families; the others show themselves either very affected or very vulgar in their way of acting. That comes, I think, from the state of revolution in which we are still. It is a time of crisis that must be borne. Amid the confusion that reigns in all things, new men do not know precisely what must be done in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Some believe that the best means to show yourself superior is to be rude and forward; others think that on the contrary you must be particular about even the least details for fear of betraying your common origin at some point. Both are anxious about the results of their efforts, and their agitation betrays itself constantly amid their simulated assurance. Men who, on the contrary, have had a long habit of being without question and by heredity the first are not anxious about these things. They have a natural ease, and they attain without thinking about it the goal toward which the others tend, most often without being able to attain it. A time will come, I hope, when there will be among us a fixed and settled model of what is suitable and in good taste, and each man will conform to it without difficulty. Then to all well-bred men will happen what happened formerly within the aristocracy, when there was a certain code of proprieties to which each man submitted without discussing it and so to speak without knowing it.
You see that my tendencies are always democratic. I am a partisan of democracy without having any illusion about its faults and without failing to recognize its dangers. I am even all the more so as I believe that I see both more clearly, because I am profoundly convinced that there is no way to prevent its triumph, and that it is only by marching with it and by directing its progress as much as possible that you can decrease the evils it brings and produce the good things that it promises (Rubish, 2). This fragment is written on the writing paper of Tocqueville.