Beaumont on Men and Women in Early America

Gustave de Beaumont was Alexis de Tocqueville’s companion on his trip to the United States. Like de Tocqueville, he commented on the freedom of American customs and the morality of American marriage:

It is impossible not to admit that there is much morality in this people. (This at first glance seems hard to reconcile with what precedes) but I explain. Morals there are extremely pure. A woman who does not conduct herself well is cited as an extreme rarity. To tell the truth, you meet only happy households. People get together often in winter; but everything in the last analysis comes down to family life. Unmarried men pay attention only to girls; these once married think only of their husbands. So long as they are not engaged, they exercise an extreme freedom in their relations. One sees them out walking alone, for example. A young man accosts them, goes to the country with them, and this is considered quite natural. They receive at home without their parents finding fault. But this life of freedom ends for them the day they get married. In short, the happiness which seems to reign in their families has something tempting in it. Doubtless I should never want to marry in a foreign country, because such a union entails a host of unpleasant consequences. But Tocqueville and I, glimpsing the happiness so common here and so rare in other countries, were unable to keep from saying that, if we should ever be victimized by political circumstances in France, we would come to live here with our wives and children.

He connects American morality to American popular entertainment. What would he think of us now?

If large theaters are rare, small ones are unknown. This absence of liking for the drama is doubtless part of morality for American society, who, having no theaters, do not go each evening to laugh at cuckolded husbands, to applaud happy lovers, and to look with indulgence on adulterous wives. The Americans are moral because they have no plays; they have no plays because of their morality. This is cause and effect in one.

Like de Tocqueville, he identifies Americans as money-grubbing materialists. This forms the basis of his critique of American men:

The morality of a population may be judged by that of its women, and one cannot observe the society of the United States without marveling at the respect in which the married state is held. This respect never existed to so high a degree among any of the ancient peoples, and European society, corrupt as it is, cannot conceive of such moral purity.

In America they are no severer than elsewhere toward the irregular life and toward even the debauches of a bachelor; many young men can be found here whose dissoluteness is well known, and whose reputations do not suffer thereby; but their excesses, to be pardoned, must be committed outside the circle of family and friends. While indulgent concerning the pleasures obtainable from prostitutes, society condemns without pity those who obtain them at the expense of conjugal fidelity; it is as inflexible toward the man who incites the transgression as toward the woman who acquiesces. Both are banished from society; and to incur this punishment it is not even necessary to have been guilty; to have aroused the suspicion suffices. The domestic hearth is an inviolable shrine which no breath of impurity must besmirch.

The morality of American women, fruit of a serious and religious upbringing, is protected further for other reasons.

Completely engrossed in practical matters, the American man has neither the time nor the temperament for tender sentiments or gallantry; he is gallant once in his life, when he wishes to marry. He is undertaking a business affair, not a love affair.

He has no leisure to love, still less to make himself loved. The taste for fine arts, which is so closely allied to the pleasures of the heart, is forbidden him. If, emerging from his industrial sphere, a young man displays a passion for Mozart or Michelangelo, he loses public esteem. Fortunes are not made by listening to sounds or looking at colors. And how chain to the accountant’s stool one who has once known the charms of a poetic life?

Thus doomed by the traditions of the country to confine themselves to practicality, young Americans are neither preoccupied with pleasing women nor skillful at winning them.

Moreover, there is a corrupt element, influential in European society, which is not to be met with in the United States: this is the idle rich and the soldiers in garrison. The wealthy without professions and the soldiers without glory have nothing to do; their sole pastime is the corruption of women–impetuous, open-handed youth, in need of space and action; comparable to the flood waters of the Mississippi: beneficial when flowing freely, deadly when stagnant.

In America, everyone works, because no one is born rich, (It does happen, by accident, that a few young people are conditioned by an inherited fortune and a polite education to gallantries and social intrigues, but they are too few in number to be a nuisance, and if they give the least indication of troubling the peace of a family, they find the American world leagued solidly against them to oppose and crush the common enemy. This explains why American bachelors of wealth and leisure do not stay in the United States but come to live in Europe, where they find men of intellect and corrupt women.) and the dreary idleness of the garrison is unknown here, because the country has no standing army.

Thus, the women escape the perils of seduction; if they are pure, one cannot tell if it is due to their virtue, for this has not been put to the test.

The extreme ease of becoming rich also comes to the aid of upholding morality; money is never an essential consideration in marriages; commerce, industry, the practice of a profession, assure young people of a living and a future. They marry the first woman they fall in love with; and nothing is rarer in the United States than a bachelor of twenty-five. Society thereby gains more married men in place of licentious bachelors. Finally , the condition of equality protects marriages, while difference in rank obstructs them in our country. In the United States there is only one class; no barrier of social distinction separates the young man and young girl who agree to become united. This equality, propitious to legitimate unions, is highly embarrassing to those which are not. The seducer of a young girl necessarily becomes her husband, whatever the difference in their economic position, because while superiority of fortune exists, there is no difference at all in rank. The rectitude of tradition, which applies less to individuals than to society as a whole, gives a serious cast to all American society.

This country is dominated by a public opinion, from whose rule no woman can flee… [it] condemns all passion without pity, and authorizes calculation alone; indifferent to sentiment, it is exacting concerning moral obligation.

Love, the charms of which form the whole life of some European peoples, is not understood in the United States.

What are we to make of this critique? To some extent he simply uses America as a foil for France. If Americans are moral, it is because they lack some aspect of French society that leads to immorality, but which makes the French somehow spiritually superior. As for his comments on American love – are European gallantries an answer to an American defect, and were they then? I tend to think not, and to see such elaborate and mannered rituals as part of the historical problem that has led sex relations to where they are today. If the Europeans caused a mess by overfeeding women’s love of flattery and drama, however, the extreme practicality of relations between the sexes in early America may also have contributed to the problem by underfeeding them. While game might be viewed as a kind of modern version of the European gallantries to which Beaumont refers, no amount of game expertise on the part of American men will fix our society without a fundamental shift in women’s behavior.

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About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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