Tocqueville argues that the condition of society is far more significant than climate in the development of morals and manners. American morals are far stricter than in Europe, he notes, which can be directly traced to equality of condition. Aristocracies distinguish men and women so much that they can never be united with each other: as a result, people carry on relationships covertly. But in America, no girl thinks she can’t marry the man she loves because of rank, making infidelity and secrecy much less common.
Even though Tocqueville has, at a number of points, raised the idea that America’s geography and climate have influenced its way of life, he wants to insist on the primacy of social rather than physical factors. By doing so, he can argue for the utility of studying America in order to learn lessons and models in Europe.
Because women are free to marry whomever they choose, and have been educated to choose well, public opinion is strict regarding their faults or mistakes. Aristocracies use marriage to unite property rather than individuals, often when the husband and wife are barely out of childhood. But when men choose a wife freely, it’s far easier to stay faithful, and far less likely that dramatic elopements or affairs will occur.
Here Tocqueville studies “morals” in a specific sense, that is, sexual fidelity versus infidelity in a marriage. He explains that the relatively independent status of women in America, as well as the lack of aristocratic requirements of birth and property, only aid the development of proper morals.
Tocqueville notes that in democracies, almost all men are engaged in public life, while women are confined to the home and domestic economy: the separation of spheres thus prevents men and women from mingling in dangerous ways in society. The tumultuous state of activity in a democracy distracts men from pursuing passions of love; the embrace of manufacturing and commercial assumptions make men more practical, less inclined to romantic reverie.
Although Tocqueville’s promotion of women’s independence is notably open-minded for his time, some of his arguments remain anchored in the common sense of the nineteenth century. He assumes, for instance, that there should be “separate spheres” dividing women and men.
Tocqueville notes that such trends are not yet present in Europe, where it seems like democratization has actually been accompanied by laxer morality. But we shouldn’t be surprised: it takes some time for equality of condition to affect morality and virtue, and indeed nothing is more corrupt than an aristocracy that still has wealth, though no power (as in France). Gradually, though, what is true in America will, he thinks, become applicable to Europe as well.
While the separation of spheres seems to a modern reader a way to deprive women of involvement in public life, Tocqueville hails it as an improvement both for women’s condition in society and for morals in general. His argument is based on an assumption that men and women’s “natural” differences should be maintained.