Alexis de Tocqueville on the Tyranny of the Majority

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.

Guiding Questions

What is the moral authority of the majority in a democracy based upon?

Why does tyranny of the majority arise?

 

Why might democratic tyranny be worse than other forms?