Tocqueville characterizes manners as simultaneously natural and acquired, based on character but also convention. True dignity in manners, he thinks, is available to anyone regardless of class, because it simply consists in accepting one’s proper station—but in a democracy, where all ranks are in flux, manners are often undignified and uncertain.
Tocqueville’s definition of manners might seem idiosyncratic to a modern reader: while he’s talking about agreed-upon customs regarding social behavior, he also assumes a link between manners and satisfaction with the status quo.
Still, once equality of condition is long established, manners will differ only in small degrees, due to homogeneous social conditions. Only at close quarters can one differentiate the manners of Americans from each other. Tocqueville acknowledges that bad manners are among what’s worst in a democracy. The only advantage is that manners never reach the exaggerated refinement of aristocracies, while also avoiding the lower classes’ coarse, crude manners. Even as other aspects of aristocratic conditions persist after a democratic revolution, manners are quickly forgotten: thus democratic societies soon are unable to even comprehend aristocratic manners. This is to be regretted, given that while manners are not the same thing as virtue, they often increase and embellish virtue.
Tocqueville tends to characterize democracies as “middling” or “leveling” in a number of different domains: here, the mediocrity of Americans’ manners is both a consequence of their equality of condition to be lamented (he thinks) and something that nonetheless allows them to avoid the pitfalls of both high and low society. At the same time, Tocqueville has a greater affinity with and sympathy toward aristocratic manners, even if he acknowledges that behaving in a proper way is not the same thing as behaving ethically.