Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter 15 a: Of the Gravity of Americans and Why It Does Not Prevent Them from Often Doing Thoughtless Things b - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 4
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chapter 15 a: Of the Gravity of Americans and Why It Does Not Prevent Them from Often Doing Thoughtless Things 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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Of the Gravity of Americans and Why It Does Not Prevent Them from Often Doing Thoughtless Thingsb
The men who live in democratic countries do not value those sorts of unsophisticated, turbulent and crude diversions to which the people devote themselves in aristocracies; they find them childish or insipid. They show scarcely more taste for the intellectual and refined amusements of the aristocratic classes; they must have something productive and substantial in their pleasures, and they want to mix material enjoyments with their joy.
In aristocratic societies, the people readily abandon themselves to the impulses of a tumultuous and noisy gaiety that abruptly tears them away from the contemplation of their miseries; the inhabitants of democracies do not like to feel drawn violently out of themselves in this way, and they always lose sight of themselves with regret. To these frivolous transports, they prefer the grave and silent relaxations that resemble business affairs and do not cause them to forget them entirely. [In this sense you can say that gambling is an entirely democratic pastime.]
There is an American who, instead of going during his moments of leisure to dance joyously in the public square, as the men of his profession continue to do in a great part of Europe, withdraws alone deep within his house to drink. This man enjoys two pleasures at once: he thinks about his trade, and he gets drunk decently at home.c
[≠I have visited peoples very ignorant, very miserable and completely strangers to their own affairs; to me, they appeared, in general, joyous. I have traveled across a country whose inhabitants, enlightened and rich, directed themselves in everything; I always found them grave and often sad [v: worried and taciturn].≠]
I believed that the English formed the most serious nation that existed on earth, but I saw the Americans, and I changed my opinion.d
[≠The inhabitant of the United States has an austere appearance, something anxious and preoccupied reigns in his look; his manner is constrained and you easily see that he never opens to external impressions anything except the smallest part of his soul. He is sometimes somber and always grave.≠]
I do not want to say that temperament does not count for much in the character of the inhabitants of the United States. I think, nonetheless, that the political institutions contribute to it still more.
I believe that the gravity of the Americans arises in part from their pride. In democratic countries, the poor man himself has a high idea of his personal value. He views himself with satisfaction and readily believes that others are looking at him. In this frame of mind, he carefully watches his words and his actions and does not let himself go, for fear of disclosing what he lacks. He imagines that, in order to appear dignified, he must remain grave.
But I notice another more intimate and more powerful cause that instinctively produces among the Americans this gravity that astonishes me.
Under despotism, peoples give themselves from time to time to outbursts of a wild joy; but, in general, they are cheerless and reserved, because they are afraid.
In absolute monarchies, which custom and mores temper, peoples often display an even-tempered and lively mood, because having some liberty and great enough security, they are excluded from the most important cares of life; but all free peoples are grave, because their minds are habitually absorbed by the sight of some dangerous or difficult project.
It is so above all among free peoples who are constituted as democracies. Then, in all classes, an infinite number of men is found who are constantly preoccupied by the serious matters of government, and those who do not think about directing the public fortune give themselves entirely to the concern of increasing their private fortune. Among such a people, gravity is no longer particular to certain men; it becomes a national habit.
You speak about the small democracies of antiquity, whose citizens came to the public square with crowns of roses, and who spent nearly all their time in dances and in spectacles. I do not believe in such republics any more than that of Plato; or, if things happened there as we are told, I am not afraid to assert that these so-called democracies were formed out of elements very different from ours, and that they had with the latter only the name in common.
[<As for me, I cannot prevent myself from believing that a people will be more serious as its institutions and its mores become more democratic.>]
It must not be believed, however, that amid all their labors, the men who live in democracies consider themselves to be pitied; the opposite is noticed. There are no men who value their conditions as much as those men do. They would find life without savor, if you delivered them from the cares that torment them, and they are more attached to their concerns than aristocratic peoples to their pleasures.
[Although the Americans are more serious than the English, you meet among them far fewer melancholy men.e Among a people where all citizens work, there are sometimes great anxieties, miseries and bitter distresses, but not melancholy.]
I wonder why the same democratic peoples, who are so grave, sometimes behave in so thoughtless a way.f
The Americans, who almost always maintain a steady bearing and a cold manner, nonetheless allow themselves often to be carried very far beyond the limits of reason by a sudden passion or an unthinking opinion, and it happens that they seriously commit singular blunders.
This contrast should not be surprising. [<Amid the tumult and the thousand discordant noises that are heard within a democracy, sometimes the voice of truth becomes lost.>]
There is a sort of ignorance that arises from extreme publicity. In despotic States, men do not know how to act, because they are told nothing; among democratic nations, they often act haphazardly, because the desire has been to tell them everything. The first do not know, and the others forget. The principal features of each tableau disappear for them among the multitude of details.
You are astonished by all the imprudent remarks that a public man sometimes allows himself in free States and above all in democratic States, without being compromised by them; while, in absolute monarchies, a few words that escape by chance are enough to expose him forever and ruin him without resources.
That is explained by what precedes. When you speak in the middle of a great crowd, many words are not heard, or are immediately erased from the memory of those who hear; but in the silence of a mute and immobile multitude, the slightest whispers strike the ear.
In democracies, men are never settled; a thousand chance occurrences make them constantly change place, and almost always something unexpected and, so to speak, improvised reigns in their life. Consequently they are often forced to do what they learned badly, to speak about what they scarcely understand, and to give themselves to work for which a long apprenticeship has not prepared them.
In aristocracies, each man has only a single goal that he pursues constantly. But among democratic peoples, the existence of man is more complicated; it is rare that the same mind there does not embrace several things at once, and often things very foreign to each other. Since he cannot understand all of them well, he easily becomes satisfied with imperfect notions.
When the inhabitant of democracies is not pressed by his needs, he is at least by his desires; for among all the goods that surround him, he sees none that is entirely out of his reach. So he does everything with haste, contents himself with approximations, and never stops except for a moment to consider each of his actions.
His curiosity is at once insatiable and satisfied at little cost, for he values knowing a lot quickly, rather than knowing anything well.
He hardly has time, and he soon loses the taste to go deeper.
Thus, democratic peoples are grave, because their social and political state leads them constantly to concern themselves with serious things; and they act thoughtlessly, because they give only a little time and attention to each one of these things.
The habit of inattention must be considered as the greatest vice of the democratic mind.
[a. ] “The Americans are grave because they are constantly occupied by serious things, and they are thoughtless because they have only an instant of attention to give to each one of those things” (YTC, CVf, p. 46).
[b. ] The rubish indicates that in the beginning the chapter was divided into three distinct chapters:
[c. ] Originally, the first chapter ended here.
[d. ] “There is also something Puritan and English in this gravity of the Americans./
“Gravity that is often due to an absence of serenity in the soul” (Rubish, 2).
[e. ] “No melancholy in America. Idea to treat separately afterward.
“[In the margin] Louis” (Rubish, 2).
[f. ] The third chapter began with this paragraph.