Tocqueville’s Women

Guiding Readers Toward the Problem

“Mailer finally came to decide that his love for his wife while not at all equal or congruent to his love for America was damnably parallel.”

– Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night (1968)

Alexis de Tocqueville’s epic Democracy in America (1835/40) offers a curious preview of the American Civil War. In some passages the author doubts there will be a war. Still, he repeatedly affirms that the new nation is really two different nations living as one. Of course, as he demonstrates in the first volume, the U.S. Constitution affords much of the requisite social coordination between the North and the South. Elsewhere, however, he lists a number of what we might call “metaconstitutional” factors that can also unite a split society. These include everything from the threat of external invasion to commerce, religion, literature, and even sexual relations. Let’s examine this last factor. How does Tocqueville fit sexual relations into his liberal vision of America?

Tocqueville’s personal romantic life seems to have been stormy and depressing. More importantly, upon returning from his tour of the U.S. in 1835, he flouted the French aristocracy’s expectations by marrying a middle-class Englishwoman named Mary Mottley. Here we see, as scholar Cheryl Welch once argued, in his writing as in his life, Tocqueville constantly “tries to validate the unwoven threads of his philosophy with his own language of the heart.”

I’ll go further. When it comes to women, Tocqueville exhibits what Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt called “self-fashioning.” When we say someone has fashioned himself, we mean that the overarching symbolism of his life dovetails with his philosophy, and vice versa. It’s impossible to discern how self-aware someone is when he lives his life as a work of art. Does disorder in life prompt one to retroactively impose a fashioned reading of it? Or does one succeed in a conscious effort to live one’s life according to a preconceived fashion? Likely both. Either way, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that Tocqueville’s marriage to Mottley parallels the modern, liberalizing transformation of the old aristocracy throughout the pages of Democracy in America.


Tocqueville argues that, although women don’t have the right to vote, they still exert an outsized influence on American society, one which echoes Aristotle’s vision of the women of Sparta (see Politics 2.1269b–1270a). They do this in two interconnected ways: (1) they are the conservators of religion, and (2) they help regulate domestic values. Tocqueville compares American women to the Senate or the Supreme Court, in that they check many of the innately illiberal impulses of the common man.

In volume one of Democracy in America, having underscored the importance of religion in the new society, Tocqueville places women at the moral helm of the new nation: “Religion is often powerless to restrain man in the face of the countless temptations offered by wealth and cannot moderate his eagerness to become rich, which everything around him helps to stimulate; but it reigns supreme in the souls of women, and they are the protectors of morals” (DA 1.2.9). For an abolitionist author, who in the very next chapter will attack “the evil of slavery,” the temptation to get rich by enslaving another was the one most in need of feminine moderation.

Next, Tocqueville marks the first volume’s climax with a costumbrist sketch of a small girl in the care of two women. These are pillars—monuments, if you will—in the architecture of Tocqueville’s prose, which direct the reader toward the final frontier of human relations:

I recall that one day as I was passing through the forests of the state of Alabama, I reached the log cabin of a pioneer. … As I was there, an Indian woman came up (we were then in the territory of the Creek nation) holding by the hand a small white girl of five or six whom I supposed to be the pioneer’s daughter. A Negro woman was following her. The Indian woman’s dress had a sort of wild luxury … and I saw that she was not married because she was still wearing the shell necklace which it is the custom for a bride to lay upon the marriage bed; the Negro woman was dressed in tattered European clothes. All three came and sat on the edge of the spring and the young Indian, taking the child into her arms, lavished upon her such fond caresses as mothers give, or so you might have thought; the Negro woman, too, sought to attract the young Creole’s attention … Squatting in front of her mistress and watching for her smallest desires, the Negro woman seemed equally divided between an almost motherly attachment and a slavish fear, whereas you could see in the Indian woman, even in the outpouring of her tenderness, the presence of a free, proud, and almost fierce attitude. … something particularly moving took place in the picture I have just drawn; a bond of affection linked in this case the oppressed and the oppressors, and nature’s efforts to draw them close made ever more striking the wide gap between them caused by prejudice and law (DA 1.2.10).

In the nineteenth century, costumbrismo overdetermines the novelistic realism unleashed by early modern texts like Cervantes’s Exemplary Novels (1613). But its attention to detail makes readers ponder a moral predicament. Here we’re shown that Indians and blacks have distinct relations with whites that create distinct levels of respect. Sexuality is a measure of this. The Creek woman displays the dignified signs of premarital virginity; whereas the black woman remains undefined, her clothes connoting abuse and inferior status. According to Tocqueville, this is the effect of prejudice and laws. Halfway through the same chapter he unpacks the same idea with stunning clarity. Prejudice and laws reinforce each other, which is why the southern white American remains socially isolated going forward: “he will dread both resembling his former Negro slave and drifting below the level of his white neighbor.” It’s a simple idea, but easy to miss. A natural desire for status disallows mixing with a caste of slaves. Tocqueville reprises the idea in the climactic chapter of volume two. So let us look there next.

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “A Micro Canon: My Three Essential Books”]

In volume two, the role of women in Democracy in America is again a two-step process, focusing our attention first on morality and then on the new nation’s specific racial injustice. This double role appears in the second volume’s all-important third part, in which the prospects for war are again the overarching concern. We can now set aside any doubts concerning Tocqueville’s analysis of women in volume one.

Five chapters in volume two investigate the general effect of American democracy on the lives of women (DA 2.3.8–12). The point is that American women command respect due to social conditions at the frontier, allowing “a kind of equality to reign around the domestic fireside.” This in turn grounds a “strength of will exhibited by young American wives,” which obviously impresses Tocqueville to no end. “An American girl, whatever her age,” he says, “rarely suffers from childish shyness or ignorance.” Marriage in America, like everything else there, is difficult work. But it’s not a trap; it’s a voluntary contract, and a woman “courageously endures her new state because she has chosen it.” Finally: “Americans constantly display their complete confidence in the understanding of their wives and have a deep respect for their freedom.”

How do we know this is art in the guise of a report and vice versa? Tocqueville says so. Women are at the very crux of his investigation: “No free societies ever existed without morals and, as I have said in the first part of this work, morals are made by women. Therefore, everything connected with the status of women, their habits, and their opinions has great political interest in my view.” Tocqueville will not allow us to read his passages on women apolitically. He has now brought us to the brink of understanding why the women’s rights movement and abolitionism are natural allies. They’re interrelated parts of the same modern momentum toward liberation.

Stick with me. Wedged in volume two’s thick presentation of women is a miniature tale of tragic love. In a single paragraph, Tocqueville deftly sketches out the impossibility of sexual relations between different castes in an aristocratic society. The trauma here contrasts dramatically with the democratic culture of free, marital respect that he has been detailing up to this point:

When a man and a woman wish to come together despite the inequalities of an aristocratic society, they have mighty obstacles to overcome. After breaking down or loosening the ties of filial obedience, they must make a final effort to escape from the power of tradition and the tyranny of public opinion. When at last they reach the end of this arduous undertaking, they find themselves estranged from their natural friends and relatives: the prejudices which they have defied lead to their isolation. This predicament soon wears down their courage and embitters their hearts (DA 2.3.11).

Next, five chapters veer away from women, suggesting an even deeper social labyrinth. The French count now notes the “ill-considered actions” and “national vanity” of many Americans, while also alluding to a certain level of “agitation” in their society. Something is wrong.

Then comes the paradigmatic chapter of the work. The uniquely American concept of honor discussed in DA 2.3.18 is nothing less than the “central point of the forest” in DA 2.3.17. Tocqueville now draws our attention back to the oppressive sexuality of a caste system. First, he indicts the old European aristocracy for its endogamous bias. To be honorable is “to do right,” he says, which includes marrying within the caste; “to do wrong” is to ignore the rule. In the end, what makes the European aristocracy anti-democratic is precisely what makes the American South anti-democratic. And the example Tocqueville draws from American society cuts directly to race and sexuality. Honor might seem arbitrary, silly (see Don Quijote 2.12–15), but it’s not: “whether honor or shame should attach to a man’s actions according to his social status, that was the result of the very constitution of an aristocratic society. In fact, that appears to be the case in all countries which have had an aristocracy. As long as a single trace of this principle remains in force, such peculiarities will be found: to corrupt a colored girl scarcely harms an American’s reputation; marrying her dishonors him.”

[More from Eric Clifford Graf: “Why Do People Teach?”]

Three pages later, lodged in a devastating footnote, Tocqueville exposes his true target. After noting that “every time men come together to form a particular social grouping, a rule of honor is immediately set up among them,” he turns to the case at hand: “We shall find the proof of this among the Americans.3” Imagine John C. Calhoun or Thomas Jefferson reading this footnote: “Here, I am referring to Americans who live in regions where slavery does not exist. These are the only ones who can present the complete picture of a democratic society” (DA 2.3.18n3).

Tocqueville has, in effect, exposed the dishonorable nature of the southern code of honor. The challenge to southern readers is now a paradox: they must transcend the dishonor of their honor precisely for the sake of their honor. Both law and custom must change, and a new, more democratic and exogamic form of honor must emerge from traditional aristocratic endogamy. He urges southerners to do this for patriotic reasons. In other words, he opens the door to a new kind of national honor that can transcend aristocratic honor. It is a brilliant argument. Tocqueville has asserted that to do right is now to disregard the rule in the South.

Tragically, the remnants of aristocratic thinking in the South forbade the kind of true love that might transcend the problem, and they maintained a culture of racist denigration that hindered honorable relationships between the races. A lack of freedom is the core problem. Slavery facilitates racism by way of its caste system, which makes sexual relations with black women acceptable but marriage to them dishonorable. This exposes the unconscious mind of many white men in the South. And all of it is designed to telescope readers toward the key problem that threatens to cleave the republic.

A careful and informed reading of Tocqueville reveals his clear understanding that abolition and women’s rights were legal concepts every bit as embedded in each other as were slavery and misogyny in the American South. This meant that to subvert either of these nefarious cultural institutions was to subvert the other. After writing On Liberty (1859) as a rallying cry prior to the American Civil War, John Stuart Mill indicated the next struggle in The Subjection of Women (1869). Both men saw racism as a threat to liberalism in the Anglo Protestant world, and both men held that we must extend personal liberty beyond white males.

So, what about Tocqueville’s self-fashioning via his marriage to Mary Mottley? Surely there was a physical, moral, and intellectual attraction. But there was symbolism too. There are two critical points about Mademoiselle de Tocqueville’s original surname: (1) Mottley is of English origin and associated with the Irish. Its roots are obscure but carry French echoes of the Norman Conquest of 1066. (2) Mottley is also common in Virginia and the Caribbean. A slew of New World Mottleys are of mixed African descent. Surely a French aristocrat, a man ever conscious of the aura of names, legacies, and quests for honor, would have understood his marriage as a liberal gesture in favor of an outsider. This accords with his political beliefs and his approach to life. Tocqueville didn’t just theorize and write about democracy; he modeled it through a willful rejection of prejudice and unjust laws at a critical moment in the historical proliferation of freedom, equality, and rights (cf. Zoraida-María in Don Quijote 1.37).

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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3 thoughts on “Tocqueville’s Women

  1. Family vote. Interesting. Who could not be for more of those? Yes, the foreignness of the family probably explains a lot of today’s political madness. I am certainly open to the idea that Tocqueville was wrong. He got the Civil War wrong for example. For me the issue is less accuracy than purposefulness. There is a structure to Tocqueville that I suspect is less random than most of us think. At the end of DA 2.3.17, in particular, there is a forest with a point in the middle of it at which all democracies must arrive one way or another. I wager what he has in mind is Jeffersonian individualism, i.e., some protected sphere of personal liberty. Thanks for the imagery, too, Dr. Ed.

    1. Any discussion of the Civil War really ought to include mention of the Hartford Convention (December 15, 1814-January 5, 1815) when Federalist delegates from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont met in secret and may have plotted secession or a separate peace with England (for the ongoing war of 1812). (The embargo acts of Jefferson/Madison did a lot of damage to the trade-based New England economies.)

      This secession crisis had been resolved — and the 1820 Missouri Comprise had calmed the slavery issue down — for the time being. A lot of things happened after Tocqueville was here, Southern resentment of the Underground Railroad and Northern resentment of the Fugitive Slave Acts come to immediate mind, along with John Brown’s raid and the Abolitionists of Maine’s Kennebec River Valley.

      He’s way outside my field, but Tocqueville could only report on the country as it existed at the time — and it did subsequently change.

      As for the centrality of family in early New England, remember that churches had family pew boxes which families owned. See: — and this was the town hall as well. So it was one vote from the box — one vote from the family.

  2. I think it is important to mention that the Creek had Black slaves, actually had them until a separate treaty because the 13th Amendment didn’t apply to the Creek Nation, and there are issues today about if the Creek honored their obligations under the treaty.

    I read Tocqueville the way I read Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons — Wolfe was an outsider and it is quite clear in several places that the undergrads didn’t tell him everything and that he sometimes had no idea what was actually going on around him. My guess is that the same likely was true of Tocqueville — I doubt that he *really* knew what was going on in front of him in the quoted passage, or that anyone involved was really going to tell him. (For all we know, the Creek woman could have been the child’s mother — that happened too.)

    History is complicated, history is messy, and there’s often a lot below the surface that an outsider will never notice.

    And at least in terms of New England, I don’t think he really understood why women didn’t vote — all of the really important votes were cast publicly in Town Meeting, and these were *family* votes, cast by the husband. Even if she wasn’t sitting next to him, her friends would tell her how he voted…

    The most significant vote was to hire or fire the town minister and the women got together and decided how their husbands would vote. The most *controversial* issue was usually the minister’s firewood allotment — how many cords of firewood he would be given to heat both his house and the church, wood which the men of the town would have to cut, split, and haul for him. *That* was controversial — most everything else had already been decided by the women.

    It also needs to be remembered that not all men could vote — there were property requirements to be eligible to vote. It very much was a family-structured society in a way that is foreign to us today.

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