Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson Three. The Power of the Majority over Thought

Created October 15, 2015

Tools

The Lesson

Introduction

Alexis de Tocqueville portrait

Alexis de Tocqueville

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

The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
—Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 11

In Tocqueville’s discussion of how the majority in America constrains freedom of thought, he makes some of the most extreme criticisms against democracy. For example, he says “I do not know any country where, in general, less independence of mind and genuine freedom of discussion reign than in America”; and, “there is no freedom of mind in America.”

In this lesson we see Tocqueville drawing on his deep knowledge of European politics and culture to explain how the creative tensions between classes and groups in the hierarchical societies of Europe allows for, and even encourage, greater intellectual freedom than does the relatively egalitarian society of America. He warns Americans of the most dangerous tendency of democracy: the way the majority almost unthinkingly polices the range of thought and casually crushes independence of mind.

Through a close reading and discussion, students will consider Tocqueville’s argument and its validity. They will determine if such troubling contemporary trends as conformism, peer pressure, group think, and political correctness might have their roots in the egalitarian character of democracy.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain in what sense the majority in a democracy has more power over the individual than a European monarchy has
  • Explain how the majority sets limits to acceptable opinion, and give examples from Jacksonian America as well as present day society.

Preparation and Resources

Notes for Teacher: Why Tocqueville is So Critical of American Democracy

Lesson Three Worksheet: The Power of the Majority over Thought 

Lesson Three Worksheet: The Power of the Majority over Thought (teacher version)

Reading

The section is taken from Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 7, of Democracy in America, “Of the Power of the Majority over Thought.The recent historical critical edition published by the Liberty Fund is freely available online and has been used for this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Understanding conditions for freedom of thought

Distribute the worksheet and either read aloud the entire section or the key sections identified below. Bolded words indicate academic vocabulary, which will require most students to look up and define each term. This will help them better understand this passage.

The excerpt is divided into three sections, each of which can be assigned to a different group to work on during class. Each section is headed by a question, which is answered in the passage. These questions have been added by the editor of the lesson. There are also a series of three related questions, which should help students to answer to larger question.  

Have each group read aloud their section and consider the attached questions. Then ask them to reread the passage to find the answers in the text:

  • Why does Tocqueville believe there is more freedom in European than in American society?  
  • Why does he maintain that freedom of thought is so limited in America?
  • Why does he think that literary genius requires freedom of mind?

Assessment

Ask students to consider the role that “peer pressure” has on their own thought and behavior. If something is unpopular in their social group, how likely are they to admit to that behavior or thought? Ask them to think of a particular example where they “went along to get along” despite their reservations about this course of behavior and then write a short, well-constructed essay about that experience.

Extending The Lesson

Now that students have worked their way through this chapter, have them to turn to the next chapter, entitled “Of What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States.” Here, Tocqueville offers three remedies: administrative decentralization; jury trial; and the role of lawyers.  

Ask students to consider how either the play Twelve Angry Men, the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, or a comparable work of their own choosing might serve as a case study of majority tyranny and how it is effectively checked. They should evaluate the extent to which the remedy is still a check on majority tyranny in American society.

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
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Summarizing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Joseph Phelan, National Endowment for the Humanities (Washington, DC)
  • David Foster, Ashbrook University (Ashland, OH)