Democracy in America


Alexis de Toqueville

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Democracy in America: Chapter 36 Summary & Analysis

Tocqueville contrasts aristocratic etiquette, which creates rules of politeness to which everyone must assent, to democratic communities, where constant intermingling means that no one can agree on the rules of good manners. Therefore, Americans pay little attention to proper forms of etiquette, and are not as sensitive as, say, the French, who are quick to perceive any possible insult stemming from difference in rank. Tocqueville recounts how difficult it was for him in America to make someone see that he didn’t want to spend any more time with him: the only way to get rid of someone is to make a real enemy of him.
Here Tocqueville returns to a bipartite distinction between aristocracy and democracy, using France as an example of the former (even though part of his point is that his own country is moving in the direction of American customs and manners). Tocqueville’s anecdote takes its place among a number of the humorous observations he makes at the expense of Americans, whom he sometimes disparages even while also admiring them.
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Tocqueville asks why Americans immediately become so sensitive when they travel to Europe. He notes that democracies lead to an inherent sense of pride in one’s country and oneself. Upon arriving in Europe, Americans are hurt and annoyed to see that Europeans are not as obsessed by America, that wealth and birth still matter there, and that it’s difficult to know how to act in such a different society. They grow afraid of not attaining proper respect: they scrutinize Europeans’ actions and behavior toward themselves.
Even though Tocqueville has just characterized Americans as being far less sensitive and prone to insults than Europeans, he has to make an exception for the circumstances in which Americans are transplanted into a new society, one in which the rules, manners, and customs still retain the imprint of aristocratic norms.
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At the same time, despite Americans’ pride in their equality of condition, Tocqueville says that there’s barely a single American who doesn’t vaunt his kinship to the original Pilgrims or to England’s noble families. They flaunt their wealth and servants, a characteristic that can be explained by their insecurity when encountering European aristocracies.
Tocqueville makes fun of Americans’ pride and vanity as he observes them, no longer in their “natural habitat,” but in a context of Tocqueville’s own country of birth, where Europeans can feel less of a threat from Americans.
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