Follower of Gentile Bellini, Portrait of Mehmet II (1432–1481).
Credit: National Gallery, London. Yorck Project. Public Domain 1.0
"One must remember that the diplomat’s hope is in man’s reason and good will…. Even Machiavelli himself was not in practice Machiavellian.”
—Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy
During the Early Modern era (1450–1750), the expansion in maritime trade and the incorporation of the Americas into worldwide exchanges meant the world became increasingly interconnected. These connections led to a greater need for diplomatic relations with other states. Like many modern institutions, diplomacy as we know it today had its origins during this period.
This unit asks teams of students to play the role of diplomats in the Early Modern era. Each team is charged with a particular empire, and students compare the perceived national interests of their empires to the empires of other teams. In the process, they must consider multiple perspectives and anticipate the actions and reactions of their diplomatic peers.
Students will do the authentic work of diplomats by first gathering intelligence through selected primary and secondary sources, then by building relationships with other diplomats through a reception banquet, and finally by negotiating treaties in the interest of their empires.
This unit has been conceived as a process. To gain maximum benefit, it is suggested that the lessons be taught sequentially.
World historians do not always agree on periodization, as a review of textbook chronologies will show. Most, however, do concur that the mid-15th century was a key turning point in World History. European exploration and settlement of the Americas and the cultural and economic exchange that resulted profoundly transformed the world. The Columbian Exchange; the role of China as a both consumer and supplier in the world economy; the development of the plantation system and chattel slavery; as well as the rise of the modern corporation all emerged during this period, which most historians call Early Modern (1450–1750).
Diplomacy is a good way to teach students about the Early Modern era. Diplomacy as we know it today, has its origins during this period. Many of the well-known Early Modern primary source texts we have are in fact documents related to diplomacy. Having students think like diplomats requires them to consider other perspectives. Primary source documents and information become “intelligence” that student need to analyze from the perspective of not only one empire but of others, as well.
The Early Modern era was the first time many empires and kingdoms in Africa and Asia had to deal directly with representatives of European empires, who were persistent in their presence and demanded recognition as equals. These “hairy barbarians”—as they were called in Japan—insisted on trade on their terms, often with the threat of force behind it.
Diplomacy, however did not only take place between European and Asian or European and African monarchs. Increased interaction between Asian states, for example, occurred as well. Letters between the Ottoman Sultan and the Safavid Shah show how the religious schisms within Islam paralleled those within Christian Europe.
Our unit also is about more than European conquest. It is important for students to understand that a great deal of Early Modern history was being made by non-European empires even after Spain and European empires settled the Americas.
We should not forget that the Early Modern period is the time of the Muslim “Gun Powder Empires” (The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughals), which dominated Central Europe to India. As historian Philip Curtain notes, the European economy was still less productive than the Indian economy, which during the time of Akbar was the wealthiest empire in the world. The Ottomans were the dominant military and political power in Central Europe and the Middle East. Although they struck fear in the hearts of Western Christian monarchs, Europe was only one of many concerns for the Ottomans, who were frequently at war with their Shi’ite Muslim neighbors the Safavids to the East.
In East Asia, the Qing Empire already had a well-established maritime trade network within East Asia. No doubt, Europeans were often intentional “disrupters” of the trade systems they joined, but in the Indian Ocean, up until the mid-18th century, Asians carried more trade in the Indian Ocean than Europeans did.
[One note on this unit: While the lessons cover a range of empires and kingdoms throughout Afro-Eurasia, they do not address two key American empires (Aztec and Inca) in existence at the time of the European conquest because, as political units, those empires ceased to exist by the early 16th century.]
As a summative assessment, student will write a compare and contrast essay of two Early Modern empires by responding to the prompt:
The Early Modern era saw the rise and expansion of global empires. Compare and contrast the economic policies and religious attitudes of one land-based empire and one sea-based empire during this time period. Address how these policies and attitudes were used by the empires to maintain and expand their power.
Have students research the crops and food that was exchanged as a result of Early Modern diplomacy and create a Columbian Exchange Cookbook.
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, 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.
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.
Alexis de Tocqueville
Credit: Théodore Chassériau (1819–1856), Wikimedia Commons
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is universally regarded as one of the most influential books ever written about America. While historians have viewed Democracy as a rich source about the age of Andrew Jackson, Tocqueville was more of a political thinker than a historian. In the introduction to Democracy, he states: “In America, I saw more than America… I sought the image of democracy itself, with its inclinations, its character, its prejudices, and its passions.” His subject is nothing less than what is to be hoped for, and what to be feared from, the democratic revolution sweeping the Western world in his time.
The greatest danger Tocqueville saw was that public opinion would become an all-powerful force, and that the majority could tyrannize unpopular minorities and marginal individuals. In Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 7, “Of the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects,” he lays out his argument with a variety of well-chosen constitutional, historical, and sociological examples.
Following such an author and his argument can be a challenge to beginning students, yet the book is so important and illuminating that its exemplary status has been recognized by the Common Core State Standards. With that challenge in mind, this unit of three lessons has been developed to encourage both teachers and students to work through Tocqueville’s argument by breaking it down into its component parts.
While the chapter as a whole is worth reading, the three lessons in this unit comprise key selections from the chapter. We have provided teaching guides and academic vocabulary glossaries for each section as well.
The first lesson introduces students to Tocqueville’s thesis about the omnipotence, i.e., the all power character of majority opinion in a democracy and his way of developing an argument through well-chosen historical examples. In the second lesson students consider the argument that unchecked political power will lead to tyranny. In the third lesson, students confront and evaluate Tocqueville’s most shocking claim—that there is less freedom of discussion and independence of mind in America than in Europe with negative consequences for American character and culture. Throughout, students are challenged to draw analogies between Tocqueville’s statements and their own experience and knowledge.
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
For information about Tocqueville and the historical context of his book see the EDSITEment feature Alexis de Tocqueville’s Introduction to Democracy in America.
According to Tocqueville, the power of the majority arises from the fact that in a democracy every individual is, politically, the equal of every other individual. In this situation, the greatest power will always be the largest number of individuals who combine their strength to act together: normally, a majority. In monarchial societies, the majority has little or no power but independent centers of power such as the aristocracy, the church, and the rising merchant class can resist and even oppose each other and whoever rules.
In a monarchy, for example, the majority would be made up of peasants; their opinions are of little consequence and they cannot impose their will because the king may be wealthier than all of them put together. In an aristocracy, the nobles may consists of well-trained soldiers, whereas the peasants are unarmed: in this situation, no one group, not even a majority, can easily impose its will. Other bodies that have an independent political existence in nondemocratic societies might be the church or towns or even occupational guilds. Such groups do exist in democracies, but they do not have an independent political position. There are, for example, no seats in the United States Senate reserved for representatives of the church.
Now, according to Tocqueville, these “intermediary” institutions that exist in aristocracies serve as a “dike” against the force of the majority. Because democracy lacks such intermediary institutions, it has “no lasting obstacles” in the way of the opinions, prejudices, interests, and passions of the majority. He does not mean that the majority in a democracy always does act tyrannically, only that nothing can prevent it from so doing. He further argues that tendency to accept the rightness of majority opinion has negative long-term consequences on national character and culture. Once the majority draws the “formidable circle of thought” around a subject, individuals fear to step outside.
Students should pick from one of the following questions and provide a well-thought-out answer in the form of a short essay.
Tocqueville continues his analysis in Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 8, “What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States.” Have students read this chapter, analyzing one or more sections in detail, showing how the section is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole. Have them prepare a class presentation that explains their analysis of Tocqueville’s argument.