Democracy and Tyranny in the United States


The discussion of tyranny as a phenomenon existing in the United States by Alexis De Tocqueville highlights its complex nature and supports the idea of introducing changes in this respect. From the author’s perspective, the mentioned concept seems alarming for the grounds of American democracy while being frequently neglected by the government (De Tocqueville Ch. 15). In this situation, an optimal solution is greater involvement of the authorities in managing global issues related to this challenge and mitigating evils of despotism through effectively exercising their power.

Reservations and Fears Regarding American Democracy

The reservations and fears expressed by De Tocqueville in Chapter 15 are connected to the detrimental effects of tyranny on the wellbeing of all citizens due to the impossibility of addressing conflicting needs:

A majority taken collectively may be regarded as a being whose opinions, and most frequently whose interests, are opposed to those of another being, which is styled a minority. If it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength. (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II)

In this part, De Tocqueville refers to the origin of the threat in human nature that cannot be changed under the influence of external circumstances. As follows from the scholar’s opinion, they are subject to using any available means for pursuing personal interests (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II). This practice is inevitably accompanied by the neglect of others’ needs leading to political violence. In other words, the more power one population group has, the greater the struggles of other people are. This stance is presented as the principal constraint of citizens’ inner worlds in which no modification seems possible, and it evokes the concerns of authorities who are to manage the problems stemming from this provision.

In the continuation of the chapter, the described standpoint is confirmed by the lack of equality in governmental bodies preventing the affected persons from establishing justice:

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. (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II)

This evidence serves as the main reason, explaining why American democracy is not attributed to all citizens but solely to the majority, whose unlimited authority disrupts the very basis of the system. Hence, the prevalence of these people in all of the branches of power is another reservation restricting the capability of some population groups to attain wealth and prosperity in the long run. More interestingly, the case of unequal distribution of benefits is supported not only by individuals’ character but also by their inevitable division within society. It means that even if the minorities gain more chances to improve their situation, their methods of doing so will not be different from those exercised by the majority.

The Definition of Tyranny

After expressing the concerns regarding the current state of American democracy, De Tocqueville determines the concept of tyranny in the following way:

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny, and I journey onward to a land of more hopeful institutions. (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II)

As follows from this definition, tyranny is the practice of instilling values favorable for the authorities while emphasizing the need to obey them. By saying so, the author confirms that this phenomenon is attributed to all systems of government regardless of how their representatives are elected (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II). Indeed, there is no such morality in people that would be powerful enough to compensate for the challenges that emerged under the influence of granting unlimited authority to the majority. Since the competence of this kind cannot be developed, one can conclude on the impossibility of entirely eliminating tyranny in the world.

Government’s Role in Mitigating Against Tyranny and Despotism

One of the major questions in De Tocqueville’s dialogue is the role of the government in mitigating against tyranny and despotism, which is primarily connected to the legal aspect of this task:

If, on the other hand, a legislative power could be so constituted as to represent the majority without necessarily being the slave of its passions; an executive, so as to retain a certain degree of uncontrolled authority; and a judiciary, so as to remain independent of the two other powers; a government would be formed which would still be democratic without incurring any risk of tyrannical abuse. (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II)

This explanation of the possible solution to the problem on the governmental level heavily relies on the need for excluding human passions in this area. According to the scholars’ beliefs, this aspect is the only obstacle on the way to justice since, otherwise, it would have been established in a natural manner (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II). What is more important, the risks of uncontrolled authority in all branches of power could be mitigated when adopting this approach. Nevertheless, the lack of evidence means that the effectiveness of this measure when introduced by authorities and its possibility remain dubious.

Moreover, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the government’s strength is not applied in an appropriate way:

The truth is, that when once hostilities are begun between parties, the government loses its control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or without resources: say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force and the misemployment of its resources that a democratic government fails. (De Tocqueville ch. 15 part II)

Thus, the claim of the neglected possibility for the authorities to redistribute resources and readjust their efforts when facing the risks of tyranny contribute to its adverse outcomes. This requirement is conditional upon the involvement of groups rather than individuals, and the more people they include, the harder the fight is. From this point of view, a complex approach combining the rearrangement of means for eliminating threats with the promotion of global initiatives is an optimal method for addressing the concerns of the majority and minorities for everyone’s wellbeing.


To summarize, the main reservations and fears of De Tocqueville regarding American democracy include the inevitable existence of conflicting needs and the flaws of human nature. They lead to the emergence of tyranny which is defined as a practice of supporting specific values for the benefit of the government while making them obligatory for all citizens to follow. The risks concerning the prosperity of people accompanying these processes can be mitigated by the government; however, there is a lack of evidence in this respect. The suggested role of authorities in addressing individuals’ passions and addressing communities seems advantageous for the task, but its efficiency has not been supported in reality.

Work Cited

De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. The Project Gutenberg, 1997. Web.

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DemoEssays. (2022, December 25). Democracy and Tyranny in the United States.

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1. DemoEssays. "Democracy and Tyranny in the United States." December 25, 2022.


DemoEssays. "Democracy and Tyranny in the United States." December 25, 2022.