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4. Civil Liberties: Safeguarding the Individual, Readings
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Readings Unit 4

The Readings for Democracy in America unit 4 are available here for download as a PDF file. You'll need a copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to read the files. Acrobat Reader is available free for download from adobe.com.

Download Unit 4 Readings, Civil Liberties: Safeguarding the Individual

  • Introduction—Civil Liberties: Safeguarding the Individual

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “Effects of the Tyranny of the Majority Upon the National Character of the Americans—The Courtier Spirit in the United States”

  • Locke, “An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government”

  • Mill, “On Liberty”

  • Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”


  1. In what ways, according to Tocqueville, do democracies exercise despotism over the minds of men?

  2. What did Locke make of the argument that Adam had a natural dominance over his children?

  3. According to Mill, how far should the liberty of the individual be limited?

  4. How did Thoreau believe that most men serve the state?

Introduction—Civil Liberties: Safeguarding the Individual

Unimaginably old but surprisingly new, civil liberties have become central to American perceptions of what it is to be an individual as well as an American. The ability to be left alone with your beliefs, opinions, and actions may be as old as Achilles but has certainly reached new importance in the twentieth century. It has also contributed to, as Tocqueville predicted, new difficulties. In a democratic society people necessarily become more skeptical of the beliefs of their neighbors but more reliant on the beliefs of the “public.”

In the United States, the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own. Everybody there adopts great numbers of theories, on philosophy, morals, and politics, without inquiry, upon public trust; and if we examine it very closely, it will be perceived that religion itself holds sway there much less as a doctrine of revelation than as a commonly received opinion.

Democracy, Tocqueville supposed, presented new challenges for individualism, particularly through the threat of mass culture overwhelming individual tastes, opinions, and ideas, even as it presented important possibilities.

The readings collected here offer significant background information on the growth and development of notions of individualism. John Locke’s and John Stuart Mill’s are standard texts on liberty and individual freedom. They attempt to explain why people should be left alone in their own personal choices and to explicate the powerful, sometime supreme role of the individual in political society.

These selections are made more complex with the addition of a reading not normally taken to be about abstract liberty—that of Henry David Thoreau. This piece provides substance and context for the writings of Locke and Mill. That is, it explores the backgrounds, costs, and responsibilities of liberties in very specific contexts. While Thoreau’s piece is not one of his more naturalist writings, it does suggest some meanings of the natural world for Thoreau that bear an interesting relationship to the role of the land in the writings of Jefferson (The Declaration of Independence) and Locke.

All of these selections explore the background and foreground of Tocqueville’s claim that liberty, especially of opinion, experienced numerous challenges in the United States. The readings chosen from earlier sources expound a more natural source of individual interests and ideas. The later readings often deal more explicitly with the challenges presented to individualism—individualism is a struggle and a goal, not a given.


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