Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 2 Part 3 Chapters 11 18 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 2, Part 3, Chapters 11–18 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11: How Equality of Conditions Contributes to Maintaining Good Mores in America

In this chapter, Tocqueville tackles the sensitive topic of marital fidelity, as well as other issues that reflect on a nation's good (or not-so-good) mores. He compares and contrasts the Americans' rigorous insistence on marital fidelity with the dissolute mores of the French aristocracy. He attributes the difference in part to the equality of conditions and the freedom to marry whom one chooses. When political stability returns to France and the French realize all the fruits of democracy, Tocqueville dares to hope for an improvement in the mores of his native country.

Chapter 12: How the Americans Understand the Equality of Man and Woman

Tocqueville begins this chapter with the speculation that democracy, sooner or later, will equalize the currently unequal status of men and women. Tocqueville comments with evident approval on gender roles in 19th-century America. In a typically aphoristic comment, he remarks, "In the United States women are scarcely praised, but it is shown daily that they are esteemed." American respect for women's honor and independence is shown by the severe criminal penalties in America for rape. By contrast, French juries typically display in their laxity both contempt for chastity and contempt for women. Readers of this chapter should recognize that Tocqueville does not mean by "equality of genders" that men and women are identical in their capabilities.

Chapter 13: How Equality Naturally Divides the Americans into a Multitude of Particular Little Societies

Tocqueville devotes this chapter to refuting the unwarranted assumption that democracy results in homogeneity. He asserts that in America society is extremely diverse, with the consequence that numerous distinct, small associations are formed. Americans see themselves as equals from the perspective of citizenship, but they never receive any but a very few as their friends and guests.

Chapter 14: Some Reflections on American Manners

Tocqueville asserts that American manners are rarely dignified, for several reasons. First, the equality of conditions in democracy tends to blur people's social station. Second, men in democracies are commonly too mobile to establish a stable code of social graces. The English often make fun of American manners, not realizing that they are guilty of the same faults themselves.

Chapter 15: On the Gravity of the Americans and Why It Does Not Prevent Their Often Doing Ill-Considered Things

Tocqueville considers that the overall gravity, or serious demeanor, of the Americans results in part from their pride and in part from their concern with the affairs of government. Gravity, however, does not prevent some Americans from acting impulsively or foolishly upon occasion, a result large part of the rapid pace of life in the United States. Tocqueville concludes the chapter by remarking that "the habit of inattention ought to be considered the greatest vice of the democratic mind."

Chapter 16: Why the National Vanity of the Americans Is More Restive and More Quarrelsome than That of the English

Different peoples manifest their national pride in different ways, Tocqueville observes. American patriotism, for example, is expansive and wordy, while English pride is reserved and disdainful, "it lives on itself" without any need to be nurtured.

Chapter 17: How the Aspect of Society in the United States Is at Once Agitated and Monotonous

If there is a single constant feature of life in America, it is mobility, agitation, and change in society. Constant movement becomes, in itself, monotonous, as does the American preoccupation with the love of wealth. Throughout the world, Tocqueville finds that "variety is disappearing from within the human species." He diagnoses the cause as a steady, progressive abandonment of particular ideas of a specific caste, profession, or family. Such a divergence drives people to depend on the basic constitution of man, which is everywhere the same.

Chapter 18: On Honor in the United States and in Democratic Societies

In this chapter, Tocqueville discusses various senses of the word honor (honneur in French). In a footnote at the outset, he specifies that honor" may denote esteem and glory, as in the expression "to win honor." This word may also, however, refer to a code of noble or admirable behavior, as in the expression "the laws of honor." Tocqueville uses the word in this second sense. In the United States, with its obsession with making fortunes, a person's honor does not suffer if he goes bankrupt in commerce. Warlike valor is little prized, and courage is more to be found in commercial ventures than on the battlefield. In America, there is honor in work and dishonor in idleness. In sum, dissimilarities and inequalities create the concept of honor; as these decrease with the rising equality evident in democracies, the concept of honor is transformed.

Analysis

In evaluating Tocqueville's analysis and argumentation in Chapter 12 on equality between men and women in America, readers should keep in mind that, at the time Democracy in America was written, no nation in the western world extended suffrage (the right to vote) to women. This would have furnished full-fledged political equality. In the absence of equality, it should be remembered that the American woman's suffrage movement, with such leaders as Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), began to gain traction well within Tocqueville's lifetime, with such landmark events as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. In this event American women passed a resolution demanding the right to vote, which was eventually won with the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920. In France women's first votes were not cast until 1945—making it one of the last Western democracies to grant women suffrage.

Readers of Chapter 14 may want to explore another, contemporaneous foreign view of American manners published in 1832: Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1779–1863), mother of the British novelist Anthony Trollope. Frances Trollope, whose travels took her to Cincinnati and Niagara Falls among other places, held largely unfavorable opinions about the Americans. She often emphasizing their coarse behavior. Her book, though, was highly successful.

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