Explain the meaning of this statement: “a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it”

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Henry David Thoreau's 1849 essay Civil Disobedience argues that individuals have a duty to their principals and general concepts of ethics and should not allow themselves to be subject to unreasonable or unjust mandates from government. Thoreau arrived at his thesis after he was jailed for refusing to a pay a poll tax, the revenue from which was to be used to fund the Mexican-American War which he viewed as both unjustified and unethical.

In the quote, which is taken from Civil Disobedience, Thoreau makes the argument that the inalienable rights of the individual, as well as his or her obligations to a greater morality, cannot simply be legislated out of existence by a government, whether or not it is of a democratic character. This would be similarly expressed by Lord Acton in his 1907 work The History of Freedom when he observed that "the one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority."

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This quote refers to a concept known as tyranny of the majority, which can occur in a direct democracy when the majority votes to serve its own interests at the expense of other citizens or of the nation as whole. In a direct democracy, any group or faction comprised of over half of the voting electorate could potentially oppress minority groups, thus some form of limiting this potential abuse of power is prudent. The name for this concept was coined by Alexis de Tocqueville, and the quote you posted is taken from a notable Henry David Thoreau essay; the founding fathers of the United States of America were also wary of this potential weakness in a system of majority rule and addressed it through limitations in the Constitution.

One notable example of a system designed to restrict the aforementioned dangers can be observed in the U.S. Electoral College. The framers of the Constitution designed this system, in which a small group of electors from each state and the District of Columbia cast votes for a particular party's candidate based on the votes collected in each state or district. This form of indirect election, in which the President is not elected by popular vote but by the Electoral College, theoretically ensures that those electing the president are highly qualified and, theoretically, prevents an ill-intentioned majority vote from tyrannizing others. One might be intrigued to know that in five U.S. presidential elections to date, most recently in 2016, the candidate winning the popular vote was in fact not elected to office based on votes of the Electoral College.

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What this statement refers to is something that Alexis de Tocqueville called the "tyranny of the majority."  Although the idea was not new with him (it is a major idea in Federalist 10) we use his name for it.  The basic idea here is that, if you give the majority unlimited powers, they can at times use those powers to oppress minorities.  This is why we have a system with checks and balances and a limited government with written limits on its power (the Bill of Rights, for example).

You can think of examples from our history where majority rule has abused the rights of minorities.  There was the segregation era when the majority was allowed to deny blacks their rights.  There was the time of McCarthyism when the majority denied the rights of speech and association to those who held the wrong beliefs.  There are other examples in our history.

So, the basic idea of this quote is that the majority can use its power to abuse minorities if there are no checks on what it can do.  In order to combat this tendency, our system has constitutional guarantees of rights and a judicial system that has the power to override majority opinion when the majority is violating those guarantees.  (Of course, as mentioned above, even this doesn't always work to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.)

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