As the virtues and advantages of democracy were rediscovered at the end of the eighteenth century, so were its defects and drawbacks. Most authors, including Tocqueville, were faced with an empirical and theoretical vacuum in describing this new regime which began to rise in America and in France after the revolutions of 1776 and 1789. Indeed, neither the Old Regime's monarchies nor Antiquity's precedent of self-government accurately compared with the unforeseen situation which emerged from those democratic uprisings on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was part of the task of the American Constitution's framers to analyze the possible consequences of the people's rule on the future of society and civilization, and so they predicted and planned for numerous political trends which revealed themselves to be true as the years and centuries went by. One particularly important calculation was that of the possibly deleterious effects of democracy on its own rulers. Although it brightly compared with despotism, self-government was no panacea.
James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, was one of the first to warn the American people of the fact that it is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.1 In fact, this simple but brilliant phrase probably best encompasses all the different conceptions of the tyranny of the majority which appeared in the early nineteenth century.
Indeed, numerous views of the tyranny of the majority existed at the time, and many others have since developed. Some authors refer to the opposition of one numerical mass to another, others talk about the conflicting relations between federal and local governments, while still others are more concerned with freedom of thought. But all truly deal with one and only question: how to create a fair coexistence between those who rule and those who don't in a regime based on the rule of all?
A prominent politician, John C. Calhoun, considered himself a servant of both the General Government as he called it and his state, South Carolina. As such, he was involved in the country's politics through several vice-presidential mandates. But his true allegiance was to the local government, which he valued more than the Union itself, for he considered it to represent the American people's fundamental right to liberty. This was evidenced by his decision to retire from his position as vice-president in 1832 and join the Senate where, he believed, his actions would have greater effect.
It is no mystery, therefore, why Calhoun dedicated his time to the expression of his views on the dangers of what he perceived as being the tyranny of the General Government over the American states. Both in his Disquisition on Government and in his Fort Hill Address, the author and politician described his fears for the future of the South, a region which he could see was losing influence in the face of the growing and industrious Northern states.
[...] Calhoun, Disquisition on Government (1851) Ibid John C. Calhoun, Disquisition on Government (1851) John C. Calhoun, Fort Hill Address” (1831) Ibid Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835) Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1942) Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835) Both bills are available on Thomas (the Library of Congress) Morton J. Horwitz, “Tocqueville and the Tyranny of the Majority,” The Review of Politics, Vol.28, No.3 (July 1966), pp. 293-307 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835) Ibid Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in [...]
[...] When they become excessively oppressive and unjust, institutions are to be discarded; so originates Henry David Thoreau's justification of civil disobedience's fundamental principles. Conclusion Although Calhoun, Tocqueville, and Lincoln's respective descriptions of the tyranny of the majority are all compelling, these authors seem to fail at defining the true remedies against such an abuse of power. Lincoln proposes a political religion to strengthen the country's institutions, Calhoun advocates the states' right to nullification on the basis of constitutional liberty, and Tocqueville defends the remnants of an elitist system of castes through the rise of an influential body of lawyers. [...]
[...] And so we see how Calhoun, Lincoln, and Tocqueville all discuss one and only problem: that of justice in American democracy. As previously stated, Lincoln's answer to this problem is the establishment of a “political religion.” With regards to bad laws, he says: them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.” But who is to decide when a law becomes intolerable?” As Tocqueville notes, there are two criteria for defining justice: the “sovereignty of the people” through laws and the “sovereignty of mankind” arguably, through one's heart. [...]
[...] It is no mystery, therefore, why Calhoun dedicated his time to the expression of his views on the dangers of what he perceived as being the tyranny of the General Government over the American states. Both in his Disquisition on Government and in his Fort Hill Address, the author and politician described his fears for the future of the South, a region which he could see was losing influence in the face of the growing and industrious Northern states. Nevertheless, Calhoun was cautious enough to give a theoretical justification to his human anxiety. [...]
[...] This shift comes from the fact that the French philosopher actually points out a danger graver than the institutional one for American democracy: that of America's social homogeneity and its inhibiting consequences on thought and public opinion. Tocqueville simply expresses this idea from the beginning of his description of the tyranny of the majority, when he states that “custom has done even more than in producing an overwhelmingly powerful majority. He talks of moral authority of the majority,” which is “partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual;” an idea difficult for an aristocrat like Tocqueville to embrace fully. [...]
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