This book illustrates the views of a Frenchman on politics, society, and ideals of the U.S during the period of the 1830’s. Tocqueville states his observations, provides solutions to what he finds faulty and predicts America’s destiny. This book contains several themes concerning the structure of the American government and its relation to democracy as well as its influence on the behavior of people.
I’m going to focus on the tyranny of the majority and its effect on democracy. Tocqueville mentions that after the Revolution, democracy became the “law of laws” Tocqueville (56). In his opinion, equality initiated democracy and can be of great harm to it if practiced excessively. I find Tocqueville’s opinion about democracy quite ambivalent because I see him praising the moral authority of the majority in one hand and then expressing its dangers on the other hand. He thinks, “social power superior to all others must always be placed somewhere” Tocqueville(114). At the same time he feels that this power might be similar to the power of anarchy as he says “If it be admitted that a man possessing absolute power may misuse the power by wronging his adversaries, why should not a majority be liable to the same reproach?” Toqueville (114). He also predicts that this power might turn into tyranny in the future since it is unlimited. He relates this tyranny to the lack of proportionality between power and wisdom in the U.S and shows that humans in general cannot be powerful without causing danger. “God alone can be omnipotent because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power.” Tocquiville (114)
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Tocqueville dislikes the lack of the freedom of thought in America and finds it a strong indication of the tyranny of the majority. Even though under the U.S constitution a citizen has the right of freedom of speech, anyone who opposes the majority is neglected because “the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion” Tocqueville (117). Tocqueville thinks that this contradicts the principal of equality since as a result, the minority cannot utter their opinions. If we relate this to the history of the period of the 1830’s we find that according to Murrin, one of the reasons Andrew Jackson was elected president is because of the majority of votes in the South. “Southerners had grown wary of an activist government in which they were a minority” Murrin (434). Basically Jackson’s idea of democracy was a republican one and so “southerners expected Jackson to look after southern interests” Murrin (434). We can view this as a way of trying to avoid the tyranny of the majority against the minority. Another relation is apparent in Tocqueville’s view on the legislature power of state, he thinks that it is one of the key elements that lead to the tyranny of the majority because “In America, the legislature of each state is supreme; nothing can impede its authority,” Tocqueville(64), this state power which is represented by the majority is manifested in the Jacksonian period when “southerners denied that the federal government had the authority to make treaties or to recognize sovereign peoples within their states,” Murrin (434) which eventually lead to the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia as well as the removal of other Indian tribes from southern states against federal jurisdiction. This event can be viewed as tyranny of the majority with the Indians being the victims of this tyranny. Keeping in mind that Jackson accepted “state sovereignty and limited federal authority,” Murrin (435).
After stating the main dangers of the tyranny of the majority, Tocqueville gives hope that this tyranny is not widely obvious in the U.S due to various reasons such as freedom of press, judicial power, decentralization of government and mores. He explains each of these reasons thoroughly but I’m going to emphasize on the effect of judicial power. Tocqueville observes that the major characteristic of judicial power in the U.S is that the judges are appointed instead of being elected in addition to that they own political power. He thinks that this fact backs off the possibility of a tyranny, “whenever a law which the judge holds to be unconstitutional is invoked in a tribunal of the United States, he may refuse to admit it as a rule,” Tocqueville (75).
Tocqueville’s aim of this book is not basically praising the American democracy, instead his aim is to analyze it and point out its strengths and weaknesses to understand the factor that made it distinguished from other democracies. His main goal was to study how freedom is witnessed in the presence of equality and the best place to study in his opinion is the United States.
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