Tocqueville Didn’t Get to First Base in New York: Lewis Lapham

In the spring of 1831 the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville came to New York City on the first leg of his journey across America to examine prison conditions.

He was invited to endless dinner parties and balls by ambassadors, judges, politicians and the richest bankers, but despite the social whirl, Tocqueville found himself stranded in a sexual desert. Young women flirted shamelessly but then laughed and flitted away, while married women seemed puritanically chaste.

“Would you believe,” he wrote to his brother, Edouard, “Since our arrival in America we have been practicing the most austere virtue? Not the slightest lapse. Monks could do no more.”

Stunned by the sharp contrast to France, where marriage was still a dynastic affair and sex more freely available, Tocqueville pondered how wedlock might play out differently in a commercially-obsessed and more egalitarian society. It became one theme of his prescient and still-influential book, “Democracy in America.”

I spoke with Leo Damrosch, author of “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), on the following topics:

1. Energy & Entrepreneurship

2. Shocking South

3. Provisional Frontier Culture

4. Women and Family Focus

5. Manipulation of the Masses

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s Magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

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