One of the defining principles of democratic society is the idea that “majority rules.” Despite the fundamental nature of this principle, it has been challenged by some of the greatest thinkers in history. Henry David Thoreau, Emmeline Pankhurst and Karl Marx are among these great thinkers who have commented on the role of the majority in different political and social situations. In works such as, “Civil Disobedience,” “Why We Are Militant,” and the “Communist Manifesto,” they point out some of the inherent flaws with the “majority rules” maxim.
In 1849, transcendentalist philosopher and writer, Henry David Thoreau, wrote a treatise originally entitled “Resistance to Civil Government.” This piece is however, now more commonly known as “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau was staunchly opposed to the two major issues that were prominent in his lifetime: slavery and the Mexican-American War. These issues shaped his political views and led him to write “Civil Disobedience” (SparkNotes Editors).
As an abolitionist, Thoreau was clearly aware of the unfair treatment of African Americans (SparkNotes Editors). African Americans, as now, were a part of the majority that is expected to follow the laws of the country. At this time, African Americans were not being represented, and therefore, the majority was not truly being represented.
However, Thoreau’s stance on majority is two-fold. The second part of Thoreau’s issue with the democratic principle of “majority rules” is more fundamental. He questions the morality of the “majority rules” setup:
But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? (Thoreau 2)
Thoreau is concerned that decisions of the majority may not always be just, but rather beneficial to the majority. He feels that it should not be the job of the majority to determine what is right and what is wrong, but the job of the conscience to make such decisions, because “there is little virtue in the action of the masses of men” (Thoreau 4).
He goes on to describe the process of change through the bureaucracy of the governement:
Men generally under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil…Why does it not cherish its wise minority...Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults… (Thoreau 5)
Thoreau argues that under the democratic government, if a small faction recognizes something as evil, they believe they must wait for the majority to believe the same. However he wonders why the government can’t appreciate the wisdom of the few who might have a better grasp of the big picture....