Literature Study GuidesDemocracy In AmericaVol 1 Part 2 Chapters 7 8 Summary

Democracy in America | Study Guide

Alexis de Tocqueville

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Democracy in America | Vol. 1, Part 2, Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7: On the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects

Despite his admiration for American equality of political and social conditions and his general approval of democratic government, Tocqueville harbors serious concerns about the danger of what he calls "the tyranny of the majority."

In America, a majority vote carries supreme power. Therefore, according to Tocqueville, a very real possibility exists that the majority may turn into a brutal, authoritarian taskmaster. In this chapter and the next, Tocqueville analyzes how and why this may happen, and he tries to discern what countervailing forces may restrain majority tyranny.

The legislative branch is the most obedient governmental body to the majority. The relatively brief terms of legislators increase the instability inherent in democratic government. One consequence is that laws change frequently in America. Tocqueville points out that almost all the state constitutions have been amended over the past 30 years. Tocqueville reproaches the irresistible force to be found in the will of the majority, saying that omnipotence is "an evil and dangerous thing in itself." Furthermore, the will of the majority tends to suppress independent thought. Tocqueville bluntly criticizes America for its lack of independent thinking and free discussion. It is even possible, according to Tocqueville, that democratic republics may rehabilitate despotism. Americans, in fact, are so subservient to the mastery of majority rule that they may be said to resemble the courtiers of European monarchies.

Tocqueville predicts that if America were to lose its freedom, it would be because of this tyranny "that will have brought minorities to despair and have forced them to make an appeal to material force." In support of his observations about the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville quotes at length from James Madison's Federalist 51. He also cites Thomas Jefferson on the danger of a tyrannical legislature, praising Jefferson as "the most powerful apostle that democracy has ever had."

Chapter 8: On What Tempers the Tyranny of the Majority in the United States

In this chapter, Tocqueville turns to the safeguards and restraints that can prevent the majority in a democracy from exercising tyranny. He singles out lawyers and juries as especially important countervailing forces. Lawyers, says Tocqueville, form an elite, uniquely educated class in America. They have an inherently conservative, antidemocratic outlook. In fact, Tocqueville goes as far as to claim that "the American aristocracy is at the attorneys' bar and the judges' bench." In America, lawyers are especially prevalent in public offices.

Juries are also an important political institution in America. Because juries are drawn from the public and entrusted with enforcing the law, in a democracy, juries serve the vital function of educating the people on how to exercise its power.

Analysis

Tocqueville's misgivings about democracy in this section may be compared with and contrasted to the analyses of other political philosophers: for example, Plato in the Republic and James Madison in The Federalist. In Book 8 of the Republic, Socrates discusses democracy as a flawed form of government that tends to morph into tyranny. In The Federalist, Madison is acutely sensitive to the danger that a majority may become tyrannical.

Madison saw multiple checks and balances as the most important safeguard. In light of Tocqueville's detailed familiarity with the Constitution and with The Federalist, it is curious that he does not make more references in this section to such specific measures of the framers as Article 5, where the procedure for amending the Constitution is laid down. The framers deliberately made this procedure difficult and time-consuming. Amendments must be approved by a two-thirds vote (not a simple majority) in both houses of Congress, and then endorsed by three-fourths (as opposed to a simple majority) of the state legislatures. Thus it is not surprising that, in the more than two centuries since the Constitution was ratified, only 27 amendments have been enacted. The first 10 of these (the Bill of Rights) are essentially incorporated within the Constitution itself, while the remaining 17 are spread over a period of about 150 years.

Tocqueville's focus on lawyers and juries may seem puzzling today, but it has had a logical and factual basis over time. In 1961-62, for example, over 42 percent of members of the House of Representatives were lawyers. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 25 were lawyers. An even higher percentage of the Constitution's signers (32 out of 55) were lawyers.

Tocqueville's characterization of lawyers and judges as analogous to an American aristocracy must be understood in context. He regards these professionals as the elite of American society, which lacks a formal system of aristocracy.

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