Age 21 to Smoke: What Would Tocqueville Say?

The $1.4 trillion spending package signed into law provides plenty of cause for lamentation, as Scott Sumner has discussed. One provision raises the federal legal age for purchase of tobacco and e-cigarettes from 18 to 21. Although 20 states had already set the age at 21, the new provision raises it in the other states.

In the 1830s, the great Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville described the American character, outside the slave states. His description probably continued to fit pretty well right up to the 20th century. Much that he described, we Americans today might well be glad to have shed: the naïveté, the insensibility to art and refinement, the repression of aesthetic delights, the conformism. But what of the goodwill, the hope, the self-reliance, the pride in oneself?

Tocqueville described Americans in his first great work Democracy in America. Can we see in Americans today the following characteristics?

  • “In America there is, strictly speaking, no adolescence: at the close of boyhood the man appears and begins to trace out his own path… [A]s soon as the young American approaches manhood, the ties of filial obedience are relaxed day by day; master of his thoughts, he is soon master of his conduct…. [T]he son looks forward to the exact period at which he will be his own master, and he enters upon his freedom without precipitation and without effort, as a possession which is his own and which no one seeks to wrest from him….” (2:202–3)
  • Mattie Ross from “True Grit” (1969),
    played by Kim Darby

    “Long before an American girl arrives at the marriageable age, her emancipation from maternal control begins; she has scarcely ceased to be a child when she already thinks for herself, speaks with freedom, and acts on her own impulse.…[T]he vices and dangers of society are early revealed to her; as she sees them clearly, she views them without illusion and braves them without fear, for she is full of reliance on her own strength, and her confidence seems to be shared by all around her….

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