Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson Two. The Tyranny 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

The people rule the American political world as God rules the universe. They are the cause and the end of all things; everything arises from them and everything is absorbed by them.
—Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2, Pt. 1, Ch.4

In this lesson, students continue their examination of Tocqueville’s argument about the power of the majority and its consequences. Having suggested previously that the majority can crush a minority without even hearing its screams, he elaborates on the dangers of unchecked and unlimited power in democratic America and how to deal with it.

Tocqueville (in a footnote) gives two striking and even shocking examples of majority tyranny at work: the murder of antiwar journalists by a Baltimore mob, and the intimidation of free blacks on Election Day in Philadelphia. With the help of these examples, students will be able to better understand the case Tocqueville is making.

While reiterating the importance of the framework first established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution to check majority will, he suggests that even such good institutional arrangements will only remain strong if the people understand and agree with the reasons for checking and moderating their power.

Justice understood as the common good of the whole society should guide political deliberations. So in this section, as throughout the book, Tocqueville makes a number of rhetorical appeals designed to persuade the people of the need for moderation.

Through a close reading of this section, students will see in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, a footnote, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.

This lesson is one part of a three lesson unit on Democracy in America. The three lessons should be taught in sequence, though 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

  • Explain how the unlimited  power of the majority can be sometimes dangerous and harmful
  • Give examples of majority tyranny from Tocqueville and from their own experience of this problem

Preparation and Resources

Note: Activity one is designed for all students. It is very clear and dramatic and will accomplish the goals of the lesson. Activity two is more abstract and challenging and will offer a more refined and nuanced understanding of the text. This latter activity should be reserved for more advanced students.

Lesson Two. Worksheet

Lesson Two. Worksheet (teacher version)

Reading

The section is taken from Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 7, of Democracy in America, Of the Tyranny of the Majority.”The recent critical edition published by the Liberty Fund, translated by James Schleifer, is freely available online and has been used for this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Surprising Footnote

Begin by reading Tocqueville’s conclusion from the previous lesson:

So in the United States the majority has an immense power in fact and a power of opinion almost as great; and once the majority has formed on a question, there is, so to speak, no obstacle that can, I will not say stop, but even slow its course and leave time for the majority to hear the cries of those whom it crushes as it goes. The consequences of this state of affairs are harmful and dangerous for the future.

Ask students what they would expect the author of this passage to say next. After speculating in class, tell them the passage they will be working on is a continuation and further development of this thought. Then have them consider the title of the section, “The Tyranny of the Majority.”

Ask them to figure out what tyranny means [some possible correct answers: oppressive government, abuse of power, arbitrary or unrestrained rule].

Let students know that the author sometimes uses the word “despotism” interchangeably with “tyranny”.

Distribute the worksheet and ask students to begin by reading the footnote. (If necessary, explain that footnotes are used by authors to add clarifying information. They provide important details with which the reader may be unfamiliar.)

In his footnote, Tocqueville gives two examples of majority tyranny or despotism: the murder of antiwar journalists by a Baltimore mob during the War of 1812, and the intimidation of free blacks on Election Day in Philadelphia. Have students consider each of these examples in turn and discuss with students what Tocqueville is teaching through each one, bringing out the following points:

In the first case, the freedom of the press and the protection of the rights to life and liberty are undermined by the actions of an irate mob in a time of war.

  • The attempt by the police to protect the journalists proved futile and the journalists were murdered;
  • Even though the perpetrators were arrested, they were found not guilty by a jury of their peers;
  • In this case several of the key institutions of American democracy (the press, the police, and the courts) were either powerless to resist or were controlled by the despotic majority;
  • And, the “most sacred” rights of citizens their lives and their liberties were taken in a lawless fashion.

In the second case, which is more contemporary with Tocqueville’s visit to America, it appears that free blacks were so intimidated by the white majority that they stayed away from voting during an election in a Northern city known for its tolerance.

  • The comments by Tocqueville’s Quaker interlocutor, “the law lacks force when the majority does not support it,” is the key point;
  • No laws or even constitution will protect individuals or minorities if public opinion does not support them; and
  • The majority in this case has “the greatest prejudice against negroes.”

Let the examples for both cases and their significance sink in before turning to the text.

Exit Ticket

Have students explain to their neighbor what they learned from the footnote and also what they learned about the use of footnotes in a text.

Activity 2. “An Impious and Detestable Maxim”

Tell students that their challenge now is to identify how Tocqueville persuades his readers that it is right to limit their power. [The answer will be: (a) by explaining and reaffirming the good constitutional framework of the founders; and (b) by rhetorical appeals to justice, religion, and wisdom.]

Read the section slowly, stopping at each paragraph to see if the students are getting the gist of the argument.Have students work individually or in pairs to answer the questions on the worksheet. Discuss the answers with the full class when they have had time to complete their worksheets. See Worksheet (teacher version).The section has three parts, of which the middle part is most important. Refer to the teacher version for notes on how to teach each of these parts.

  • The Maxim
    • Key teaching: In America, the people are said to be all powerful;
  • Why The Maxim is Impious and Detestable
    • Key teaching: No human being or group can be trusted with absolute power;
  • The Qualification
    • Key teaching: Democratic tyranny is more a potential than an actual problem in America but public opinion must be made aware of this problem so that it will act as a restraint.

Exit Ticket

Have students list a few of the different arguments (moral, religious, and prudential) Tocqueville makes in this section against the unlimited power of the majority. Have them decide which is strongest and have them develop a short essay applying this argument to a case of their own choosing.

Assessment

Instruct students to give examples of majority tyranny in their own lives or through contemporary events covered in the media. How would they use Tocqueville’s argument to make fellow citizens see that the actions of the majority are despotic or tyrannical?

Extending The Lesson

Encourage students to research one of the two cases Tocqueville mentions in the footnote. Useful newspaper articles on the Baltimore case can be found here:

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • 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
  • Literary analysis
  • Summarizing
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
Authors
  • Joseph Phelan, National Endowment for the Humanities (Washington, DC)
  • David Foster, Ashbrook University (Ashland, OH)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media