Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson One. The Omnipotence of the Majority

Created October 14, 2015

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Alexis de Tocqueville portrait

Alexis de Tocqueville

Credit: Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Wikimedia Commons

In this lesson, students are introduced to Tocqueville’s argument about the “omnipotent” power of the majority in America and its consequences. After an initial statement that the “very essence” of democracy is majority rule, he contrasts the means by which state constitutions artificially increase the power of the majority with the U.S. Constitution, which checks that power. After this, he turns to identify and consider the two main arguments for the “moral dominion of the majority.”

Tocqueville concludes with a surprising restatement of his main point and a warning about the dangers of this absolute power. This warning will be taken up and elaborated in the subsequent lessons on the tyranny of the majority.

Through a close reading of this section, students will see how a major thinker puts together an argument using evidence from law, custom, public opinion, and comparative government.

This lesson is one part of a three lesson unit on Democracy in America. The three lessons may be taught in sequence, or each lesson can stand on its own. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, College and Career Readiness standards and Background. Lesson 1 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.5

Learning Objectives

  • Contrast the state constitutions with the U.S. Constitution, showing how they differ and why
  • Identify the two reasons for the moral authority of the majority and their consequence

Preparation and Resources

Lesson One. Worksheet 1A and Lesson One. Worksheet 1A (teacher version)

Lesson One. Worksheet 1B and Lesson One. Worksheet 1B (teacher version)

Reading

The section is taken from Democracy in America, “Of the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States, and its Consequences;  Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 7. The passage has been edited for student readers.

The recent historical critical edition published by the Liberty Fund and translated by Eduardo Nolla is freely available online and has been used for this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. A Comparison of the State Constitutions and the Federal Constitution

Introduce students to Alexis de Tocqueville and his book Democracy in America using the information given in the Background section of this unit. Point out that the book is divided into chapters with multiple short sections and that students will be focusing on the argument of the first section of the chapter for this lesson.

Distribute Worksheet 1A and then read the section aloud. Alert students to the need to look up words they do not know in a good dictionary, if necessary, and set the definitions down on their worksheet. Explain the importance of footnote 1 in order to understand the section. If necessary, explain that footnotes are used by authors to add clarifying information, providing important details with which the reader may be unfamiliar.

Have students work individually or in pairs to answer the questions on Worksheet 1A. Discuss the answers with the full class when everyone has had time to complete the worksheets. See Worksheet 1A (teacher version)

Suggestions for Teaching Footnote 1

In his footnote, Tocqueville says the U.S. Constitution makes the federal government “more independent” within its sphere, while the state constitutions make the legislatures more dominant and also more dependent on popular will. There is a difference even a tension, Tocqueville suggests, between the responsiveness and the responsibility of the representatives. Representatives must think about the common good in their deliberations and cannot be expected to be simply passive agents of the public. 

Have students read this key passage from James Madison in Federalist No.10:

“The… great point of difference, between a Democracy and a Republic, [is] … the delegation of the Government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest…The effect of the… difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the People, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the People themselves, convened for the purpose.”

Ask students to identify some of the key features of the U.S. Constitution such as:

  • separation of powers;
  • checks and balances;
  • bicameralism; 
  • judicial review.

Ask students to consider whether and how these features help “refine and enlarge the public views” so that the “public voice” will be in consistent with the “public good”.

Next, ask them if they can make the connection with what Tocqueville says in the selection under review and Madison’s argument.

Exit Ticket

Have students explain how the inclusion of the information in the footnote helps clarify Tocqueville’s argument for the reader. Ask them to consider why Tocqueville put such important information in the footnote. Ask them what they have learned about the use of footnotes from this example.

Activity 2. The Moral Dominion of the Majority in America

Distribute Worksheet 1B.

Tell students to read the first section, beginning with: “Several particular circumstances combine to render the power of the majority in America not only preponderant, but irresistible” to the end of the section.

Read aloud from worksheet 1B or have students read silently, depending on the class. Have them work individually or in pairs to answer the questions at the end of the section.

Discuss the answers with the full class when everyone has had time to complete the worksheets.

Students should be able to identify two ideas that underpin the moral authority of the majority: (a) The majority possess more enlightenment and wisdom than a single individual; and (b) the interests of the many are to be preferred to the interests of the few.

After they have identified these ideas, ask them whether they agree with them. Ask:

  • Do we always think the majority opinion is preferable to that of a single individual? What if that individual is a valued expert in the matter at hand, such as a doctor, financial analyst, etc.? How about a second opinion? Whom would we be likely to choose?
  • Should we always prefer the interests of the majority to that of a minority? Isn’t it in the common interest to consider what objections the minority might have to a course of action?

Finally ask students what Tocqueville says about the limits of majority opinion toward the end of the passage. Direct them to the second to the last sentence in the closing paragraph. Have them read it aloud in class.

 “The majority in that country [America], therefore, exercise a prodigious actual authority, and a power of opinion which is nearly as great; no obstacles exist which can impede or even retard its progress, so as to make it heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path.”

Ask students if this is a surprising conclusion, given Tocqueville’s argument thus far. Why? What is he now saying? In stating his conclusion, Tocqueville has added a new thought: the danger and harm that unlimited majority power and authority is likely to cause.

 

Assessment

Have student compare this section with the argument of Federalist No.10 as a whole. Does Tocqueville have the same faith that institutional arrangements can solve the problem of majority faction as Madison does? Give examples from the text to support your argument.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
Authors
  • Joseph Phelan, National Endowment for the Humanities (Washington, DC)
  • David Foster, Ashbrook University (Ashland, OH)

Related Lessons

  • Lesson 2: The Federalist Defense of Diversity and "Extending the Sphere"

    Alexander Hamilton was pro-federalist, and authored a number of the papers.

    This lesson involves a detailed analysis of Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s arguments in favor of the extended republic in The Federalist Nos. 9, 10 and 51. Students consider and understand in greater depth the problem of faction in a free republic and the difficulty of establishing a government that has enough power to fulfill its responsibilities, but which will not abuse that power and infringe on liberties of citizens.