Tocqueville and Beaumont recorded their observations of the houses they saw in America with great detail. The descriptions from their diaries and journals surround Democracy in America with an intimate account of the activities of the young Frenchmen in America. The entries also give background to generalizations about the American character that are developed in Democracy in America. Intrigued by the frontier, many of their descriptions focused on experiences in Kentucky and Tennessee, "the soil in the two states seemed still almost entirely covered by forests. Once every so often a line of rails, some burnt trees, a field of corn, a few cattle, a cabin of tree trunks placed one on the other and roughly squared, announced the isolated dwelling of a settler. You see hardly any villages. The habitations of the farmers are scattered in the woods." And later adding the comment, "Nothing is more rare to encounter a house of brick in Kentucky; we didn't see ten in Tennessee, Nashville excepted" (Pierson, 584).
A bias for the Northern sections of the country may be explained by such passages as this: "The interior of these dwellings attests the indolence of the master even more than his poverty. You find a clean enough bed, some chairs, a good gun, often books, and almost always a newspaper, but the walls are so full of chinks that the outside air enters from all sides with... "You are hardly better sheltered than in a cabin of leaves. Nothing would be easier than to protect oneself from bad weather and stop the chinks, but the master of the place is incapable of taking such care. In the North you see reigning an air of cleanliness and intelligence in the humblest dwellings. Here everything seems sketchy, everything a matter of chance; one would say that the inhabitant lives from day to day in the most perfect carelessness of the future.... (Pierson, 585). This description obviously shows conflicting ideas about personal responsibility between Tocqueville and what he identifies as the lifestyle of Southern Americans.
Tocqueville described for his father an image of the typical Tennessee cabin. This depiction is assumed to be based on the cabin where Tocqueville rested while battling one of his illnesses during the trip. "It was in one of the many forested valleys of the region, he wrote, that we discovered one evening a cabin, made of wood, whose poorly joined walls allowed one to see a great fire flaming in the interior. We knock: two great roguish dogs, big as donkeys, come first to the door. Their master follows close, grips us hard by the hand, and invites us to enter.You push open a door hung on leather hinges and without a lock...Here you find a family of poor people leading the lazy life of the rich...Not even the most miserable planter of Kentucky or Tennessee but represents marvelously the country gentleman of old Europe. A fireplace as wide as half the room and with an entire tree burning in it, a bed, a few chairs, a carbine six feet long, against the walls of the apartment, a few hunter's accouterments which the wind was bowing about as it chose, and the picture is complete. Near the fire is seated the mistress of the lodge, with the tranquil and modest air that distinguishes American women, while four or five husky children rolled on the floor, as lightly clad as in the month of July. Under the mantel of the chimney two or three squatting Negroes still seemed to find that it was less warm there than in Africa. In the midst of this collection of misery, my gentleman did not do the honours of his house with the less ease and courtesy. It's not that he forced himself to move in any way; but the poor blacks, soon perceiving that a stranger had entered the house, one of them by orders of the master presented us with a glass of whisky, another, a corn cake or plate of venison; a third was sent to get wood. The first time I saw this order given I supposed that it was a question of going to the cellar or woodhouse; but the axe strokes that I heard ringing in the wood told me soon that they were cutting down the tree that we needed. It's thus they do everything. While the slaves were thus occupied, the master, seated tranquilly before a fire that would have roasted an ox to the marrow of his bones, enveloped himself majestically in a cloud of smoke, and between each puff related to his guests, to make their time seem less long, all the great exploits that his hunter's memory could furnish him" (Pierson, 586).
Here is a sense of acceptiance, rather than condemnation. Tocqueville gives an in-depth and sensitive description of a backwoods cabin in Michigan, with kinder attitudes toward the New England experience. The cabin is described in great detail and shows Tocqueville's attempts to understand the world of the man and woman that live in this household. This leaves us with a detailed description of the family's home life and some ability to discern the values they held dear. "After this field, the rough sketch, the first step of civilization in the wilderness, you suddenly perceive the cabin of the proprietor. It is generally placed in the center of a piece of land more carefully cultivated than the rest but where man still sustains an unequal struggle against nature. There the trees have been cut but not yet uprooted; their trunks still garnish and clutter up the land which formerly they shaded; about this dried debris, wheat, oak shoots, plants of all kinds, herbs of every sort, are tangled and grow together on an indocile and still half-savage soil. It's in the center of this vigorous and varied vegetation that rises the planter's house, or, as it is called in this country, the log house.
Like the surrounding field this rustic dwelling betrays recent and hasty work. Its length rarely exceeds thirty feet. It is twenty wide, fifteen high. The walls, like the roof, are formed of unsquared tree trunks, between which moss and earth have been placed to prevent the cold and rain penetrating into the interior of the house. As the traveler approaches, the scene becomes more animated. Warned by the sound of his footfall the children who were rolling in the surrounding debris get up precipitately and flee toward the paternal refuge as if frightened at the sight of a man, while two large half-savage dogs, with straight ears and long muzzles, come out of the cabin growling to cover the retreat of their young masters.
At this point the pioneer himself appears at the door of his dwelling. He throws a scrutinizing glance at the new arrival, signs to the dogs to go back inside, and hastens himself to give them the example without betraying either curiosity or uneasiness. Arrived at the doorway of the log house, the European cannot keep from throwing an astonished glance around at the spectacle it presents.
Generally this cabin has only one single window, on which is sometimes hung a muslin curtain; for in these places, where it isn't unusual to see necessaries missing, the superfluous is often found. On the hearth of trodden earth flames a resinous fire which better than daylight illuminates the interior of the building. Above this rustic hearth trophies of war or the hunt are to be seen: a long rifle, a deerskin, eagle feathers. On the right of the chimney is stretched a map of the United States which the wind, coming in through the cracks in the wall, ceaselessly lifts and agitates. Near it, on a solitary shelf of badly squared boards, are placed some ill-assorted books; there you find a Bible whose cover and edges are already worn by the piety of two generations, a book of prayers, and sometimes a song of Milton or a tragedy of Shakespeare. Along the wall are ranged some rude benches, fruit of the proprietor's industry: trunks instead of clothes cupboards, farming tools, and some samples of the harvest. In the center of the room stands a table whose uneven legs, still garnished with foliage, seem to have grown from the soil where it stands. It's there that the whole family comes together every day for meals. A teapot of English porcelain, spoons most often of wood, a few chipped cups, and some newspapers are there to be seen.
The appearance of the master of this house is no less remarkable than the place that serves him as asylum. The angular muscles and long thin arms and legs make you recognize at first glance the native of New England. This man was not born in the solitude where he dwells: his constitution alone proclaims that. His first years were passed in the bosom of an intellectual and reasoning society. It's his own desire that has thrown him into the labours of the wilderness for which he does not seem made. But if his physical forces seem beneath his enterprise, in his face, lined by the cares of life, reigns an air of practical intelligence, of cold and persevering energy, which strikes one at once. His step is slow and very regular, his word measured and his face austere. Habit, and pride even more, have imparted to his face that stoic rigidity which his actions belie. The pioneer, it is true, scorns what often most violently moves the heart of man; his goods and his life will never be staked on the throw of the dice or the destinies of a woman; but to become well-to-do he has braved exile, the loneliness and the numberless miseries of the savage life, he has slept on the bare ground, he has exposed himself to the forest fevers and the tomahawk of the Indian. He made this effort one day, he has been renewing it for years, he will continue it twenty years more perhaps without becoming discouraged or complaining. Is a man, capable of such sacrifices, a cold and insensible being? Ought not one on the contrary to recognize in him one of those mental passions, so burning, so tenacious, so implacable ?
Intent on the one goal of making his fortune, the emigrant has finally created for himself an altogether individual existence. Family sentiments have come to fuse themselves in a vast egoism, and it is doubtful if in his wife and children he sees anything else than a detached portion of himself. Deprived of habitual contacts with his fellows, he has learned to take a delight in solitude. When you present yourself on the sill of his isolated dwelling, the pioneer comes forward to meet you, he holds out his hand according to custom, but his face expresses neither benevolence nor joy. He only speaks to ask questions of you. It's an intellectual not an emotional need he is satisfying, and as soon as he has drawn from you the news he wished to learn he falls silent again. One would suppose oneself in the presence of a man who in the evening has retired to his dwelling, tired of the demands and the noise of the world. There is no cordiality in your reception. Interrogate him yourself, he will give you the information you need with intelligence; he will even see to your necessities, watch over your safety so long as you are under his roof; but there reigns in all his actions so much constraint, pride; you perceive in them such a profound indifference even for the results of your efforts, that you feel your gratitude freezing. Yet the pioneer is hospitable in his way, but his hospitality has nothing which touches you because in exercising it he seems to submit himself to a painful necessity of the wilderness; he sees in it a duty which his position imposes on him, not a pleasure. This unknown man is the representative of a race to which belongs the future of the new world: a restless, reasoning, adventurous race which does coldly what only the ardour of passion can explain; race cold and passionate, which traffics in everything, not excepting morality and religion; nation of conquerors who submit themselves to the savage life without ever allowing themselves to be seduced by it, who in civilization and enlightenment love only what is useful to well-being, and who shut themselves in the American solitudes with an axe and some newspapers.
A people which, like all great peoples, has but one thought, and which is advancing toward the acquisition of riches, sole goal of its efforts, with a perseverance and a scorn for life that one might call heroic, if that name fitted other than virtuous things.
It's this nomad people which the rivers and lakes do not stop, before which the forests fall and the prairies are covered with shade, and which, after having reached the Pacific ocean, will reverse its steps to trouble and destroy the societies which it will have formed behind it.
In speaking of the pioneer one cannot forget the companion of his miseries and dangers. Look across the hearth at the young woman, who, while seeing to the preparation of the meal, rocks her youngest son on her knees. Like the emigrant, this woman is in her prime; like him, she can recall the ease of her first years. Her clothes even yet proclaim a taste for adornment ill extinguished. But time has weighed heavily on her: in her prematurely pale face and her shrunken limbs it is easy to see that existence has been a heavy burden for her. In fact, this frail creature has already found herself exposed to unbelievable miseries. Scarce entered upon life, she had to tear herself away from the mother's tenderness and from those sweet fraternal ties that a young girl never abandons without shedding tears, even when going to share the rich dwelling of a new husband. The wife of the pioneer has torn herself in one instant and without hope of returning from that innocent cradle of her youth. It's against the solitude of the forests that she has exchanged the charms of society and the joys of the home. It's on the bare ground of the wilderness that her nuptial couch was placed. To devote herself to austere duties, submit herself to privations which were unknown to her, embrace an existence for which she was not made, such was the occupation of the finest years of her life, such have been for her the delights of marriage. Want, suffering, and loneliness have affected her constitution but not bowed her courage. 'Mid the profound sadness painted on her delicate features, you easily remark a religious resignation and profound peace and I know not what natural and tranquil firmness confronting all the miseries of life without fearing or scorning them.
Around this woman crowd half naked children, shining with health, careless of the morrow, veritable sons of the wilderness. From time to time their mother throws on them a look of melancholy and joy. To see their strength and her weakness one would say that she has exhausted herself giving them life and that she does not regret what they have cost her.
The house inhabited by these emigrants has no interior partitions or attic. In the single apartment which it contains the entire family comes in the evening to seek refuge: this dwelling forms of itself a small world. It's the ark of civilization lost in the midst of an ocean of leaves. It's a sort of oasis in the desert. A hundred feet beyond, the eternal forest stretches about it its shade and the solitude begins again" (Pierson, 242-45).
The journal entries focus on descriptions of the rural cabins and their inhabitants rather than the city homes. Naturally, the rural American lifestyle was uncommon in the young men's realm of experience and of greater interest than those of cities. As a result, there are fewer detailed descriptions of northern cities. However, Beaumont wrote of the homes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, "All the houses are brick, and without portes cocheres following the English custom, and the streets straight as a string. The regularity is tiresome but very convenient" (Pierson, 458). Obviously not as intriguing for the tourist.
There is also a description of Tocqueville's first impressions of New York as the ship was coming into port. This 1830 home might be similar to what deTocqueville described, "Picture to yourself an attractively varied shoreline, the slopes covered by lawns and trees in bloom right down to the water, and more than all that, an unbelievable multitude of country houses, big as boxes of candy, but showing careful workmanship...I have been so struck by how convenient these little houses must be, and by the attractive air they gave the countryside (Pierson, 56). Apparently the traveling companions had different connotations for the term "convenient".