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.
Long before the first shot was fired, the American Revolution began as a series of written complaints to colonial governors and representatives in England over the rights of the colonists.