The Tyranny of the Majority

 Learning Objectives

  • Explain Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of American democracy

To some observers, the emergence of democracy in the United States raised troubling questions about the new power of the majority to silence minority opinion. As the will of the majority became the rule of the day, everyone outside of mainstream, White American opinion, especially Native Americans and Blacks, were vulnerable to the wrath of the majority. Some worried that the rights of those who opposed the will of the majority would never be safe. Mass democracy also shaped political campaigns as never before. The 1840 presidential election marked a significant turning point in the evolving style of American democratic politics.

Alexis de Tocqueville

Perhaps the most insightful commentator on American democracy was the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, whom the French government sent to the United States to report on American prison reforms. He undertook a nine-month, seven-thousand–mile tour of the United States east of the Mississippi. Tocqueville marveled at the spirit of democracy that pervaded American life. Given his place in French society, however, much of what he saw of American democracy caused him concern.

Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat, looked upon American democracy with a combination of awe and wariness. He was impressed by Americans’ industriousness and resourcefulness, and by their ability to improvise voluntary associations to solve problems in the absence of a powerful, centralized state authority, particularly in rural places. Attempting to understand not just the American system of government, but also what made the country culturally unique, Tocqueville concluded that democracy was about more than just the right to vote or any particular set of laws or regulations, but rather was about a certain disposition or state of mind in the people, one that valued personal initiative, social equality (at least in theory), and a commitment to the public sphere.

Democracy In America

Read the passage from de Tocqueville’s text below and look for his view on equality in America. Reflect on the following questions as you read:

  1. What does Tocqueville mean by “germs of aristocracy”?
  2. According to Tocqueville, why are there “so few ignorant and at the same time so few learned individuals”?
  3. What does it mean to “enter upon their calling”? What did this mean for “general education” in America?
  4. According to Tocqueville, what were the consequences of Americans pursuing vocational education at age 15 years?
  5. According to Tocqueville, in a nation characterized by democracy, which of two important goals, liberty or equality, takes precedence?
  6. According to Tocqueville, how can citizens who are equal to one another resist abuses by the powerful to protect their liberty?
  7. What factors enabled Anglo-Americans to “escape the dominion of absolute power” and “maintain the sovereignty of the people”?
Vocabulary Text
aristocracy (n): government by the highest class, especially a hereditary nobility I have stated in the preceding chapter that great equality existed among the immigrants who settled on the shores of New England. Even the germs of aristocracy were never planted in that part of the Union. The only influence which obtained there was that of intellect; the people became accustomed to revere certain names as representatives of knowledge and virtue. Some of their fellow citizens acquired a power over the others that might truly have been called aristocratic if it had been capable of transmission from father to son. . . .
democratic (adj): government by majority rule of the people At this period [the time of the American Revolution] society was shaken to its center. The people, in whose name the struggle had taken place, conceived the desire of exercising the authority that it had acquired; its democratic tendencies were awakened; and having thrown off the yoke of the mother country, it aspired to independence of every kind. . . .
acquirement (n): a skill of mind or body resulting from continued endeavor It is not only the fortunes of men that are equal in America; even their acquirements partake in some degree of the same uniformity. I do not believe that there is a country in the world where, in proportion to the population, there are so few ignorant and at the same time so few learned individuals. Primary instruction is within the reach of everybody; superior instruction is scarcely to be obtained by any. This is not surprising; it is, in fact, the necessary consequence of what I have advanced above. Almost all the Americans are in easy circumstances and can therefore obtain the first elements of human knowledge.
apprenticeship (n): a position in which someone learns an art, trade, or job under the supervision of a person who has mastered it In America there are but few wealthy persons; nearly all Americans have to take a profession. Now, every profession requires an apprenticeship. The Americans can devote to general education only the early years of life. At fifteen they enter upon their calling, and thus their education generally ends at the age when ours begins. If it is continued beyond that point, it aims only towards a particular specialized and profitable purpose; one studies science as one takes up a business; and one takes up only those applications whose immediate practicality is recognized.
In America most of the rich men were formerly poor; most of those who now enjoy leisure were absorbed in business during their youth; the consequence of this is that when they might have had a taste for study, they had no time for it, and when the time is at their disposal, they have no longer the inclination.
There is no class, then, in America, in which the taste for intellectual pleasures is transmitted with hereditary fortune and leisure and by which the labors of the intellect are held in honor. . . .
America, then, exhibits in her social state an extraordinary phenomenon. Men are there seen on a greater equality in point of fortune and intellect, or, in other words, more equal in their strength, than in any other country of the world, or in any age of which history has preserved the remembrance. . . .
depraved (adj): morally corrupt, wicked

idol (n): a person or thing greatly admired or revered
There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom. Not that those nations whose social condition is democratic naturally despise liberty; on the contrary, they have an instinctive love of it. But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain liberty and, if they miss their aim, resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather perish than lose it.
On the other hand, in a state where the citizens are all practically equal, it becomes difficult for them to preserve their independence against the aggressions of power. No one among them being strong enough to engage in the struggle alone with advantage, nothing but a general combination can protect their liberty. Now, such a union is not always possible. . . .
The Anglo-Americans are the first nation who, having been exposed to this formidable alternative, have been happy enough to escape the dominion of absolute power. They have been allowed by their circumstances, their origin, their intelligence, and especially by their morals to establish and maintain the sovereignty of the people.


Contrary to the divine right of kings or a generationally inherited hierarchy of political authority, what Tocqueville observed was a notion that sovereignty belonged to the totality of ordinary citizens, a novel idea in Western theories of governance. In Jacksonian America, expansive democracy also reinforced a belief in equality among citizens who saw themselves as belonging to a unified, purposeful nation.[1]

Image (a) shows the cover of the first English translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Painting (b) is a portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville.

Figure 1. Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his insightful commentary on American democracy found in De la démocratie en Amérique. The first volume of Tocqueville’s two-volume work was immediately popular throughout Europe. The first English translation, by Henry Reeve and titled Democracy in America (a), was published in New York in 1838. Théodore Chassériau painted this portrait of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1850 (b).

ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE on Democracy and Tyranny

Tocqueville’s experience led him to believe that democracy was an unstoppable force that would one day overthrow monarchy around the world. He wrote and published his findings in 1835 and 1840 in a two-part work entitled Democracy in America. In analyzing the democratic revolution in the United States, he wrote that the major benefit of democracy came in the form of equality before the law. A great deal of the social revolution of democracy, however, carried negative consequences. Indeed, Tocqueville described a new type of tyranny, the tyranny of the majority, which overpowers the will of minorities and individuals and was, in his view, unleashed by democracy in the United States.

In this excerpt from Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville warns of the dangers of democracy when the majority will can turn to tyranny:

In my opinion, the main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, as is often asserted in Europe, from their weakness, but from their irresistible strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country as at the inadequate securities which one finds there against tyranny. When an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority, and implicitly obeys its injunctions; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority, and remains a passive tool in its hands; the public troops consist of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain States even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the evil of which you complain may be, you must submit to it as well as you can.

The authority of a king is purely physical, and it controls the actions of the subject without subduing his private will; but the majority possesses a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represses not only all contest, but all controversy. I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America.

Take the Alexis de Tocqueville Tour to experience nineteenth-century America as Tocqueville did, by reading his journal entries about the states and territories he visited with fellow countryman Gustave de Beaumont. What regional differences can you draw from his descriptions?

Try It

Review Question

How did Alexis de Tocqueville react to his visit to the United States? What impressed and what worried him?


tyranny of the majority: Alexis de Tocqueville’s phrase warning of the potential dangers of American democracy

  1. Foner, Eric, Give Me Liberty: An American History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011) 374-375.