The selectivities of clay minerals for larger organic cations over smaller ones have been attributed to favorable clay-organic interactions in clay interlayers and to hydrophobic effects resulting from (partial) dehydration of organic cations in the clay interlayers, but the magnitudes of these energy components have not been estimated. The objective of this study was to differentiate and quantify the contributions of clay-phase and aqueous-phase energy changes to the overall thermodynamics of cation exchange, and thereby to determine which forces control the general selectivity of smectites for organic cations. We compiled literature measurements and estimates for the free energies of overall cation exchange reactions and also for the free energies of organic cation hydration. Our study suggests that organic cation-exchange thermodynamics can be broken into three classes: (1) For two organic cations with identical head-groups, the difference in their cation exchange selectivities is driven almost quantitatively by the difference in their free energies of hydration. Here, the mechanism for organic cation selectivity is almost pure hydrophobic expulsion of the larger cation from water. The clay interlayer simply behaves like a subaqueous phase into which the least hydrophilic organic cations partition and the essentials of such cation exchange selectivity can be explained without any favorable clay-organic interactions. (2) For two organic cations with rather different head-groups, the difference in their cation exchange selectivities is just a small percentage of the difference in their free energies of hydration. This indicates that the clay phase interacts much more strongly with the cation having the smaller head-group, as might be expected on the basis of simple electrostatics. Here, the clay has an intrinsic strong preference for the cation with smaller head-group yet ‘selects’ for the cation with larger head-group because the aqueous-phase preference for the cation with smaller head-group is even stronger than the clay preference. (3) When the clay is already substantially loaded with organic cations, then van der Waals forces apparently can play a significant role in determining organic cation exchange selectivity differences.