The Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI) is pleased to announce that the annual Mary and David Nichols Conference in the Great Books will be held at Baylor University, Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 1.   This year’s conference ‘“Full of Fears and Full of Hopes’: Conversations with Tocqueville on the Problems of Democracy in America,” will be led by Dr. Jeffrey Sikkenga, Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.

Mary and David Nichols

AHI co-sponsors the conference, now in its eleventh year, with Baylor University’s Department of Political Science.  In 2018, the conference was renamed to honor Mary and David Nichols, senior members of the department as well as AHI senior fellows, who were the driving force in creating and organizing the annual conference.  Mary Nichols, now an emeritus professor, specializes in Hellenistic political thought; David Nichols is a specialist in United States constitutional law and the presidency.  Both have contributed to making Baylor’s graduate program in political science one of the finest in the country.  Panels for the two-day conference occur before an audience, which is given time during each session to ask questions of the panelists.  They include Baylor graduate students as well as faculty.

AHI Senior Fellow Timothy Burns, Professor of Political Science and Graduate Program Director, Baylor University, serves as conference organizer.  The conference is open to the public, but seating is limited. For additional information, contact Dr. Burns at

The syllabus for all five sessions is available below.

Session 1 –America’s “Point of Departure”: The Problem of Equality

Reading: Democracy in America, Volume I, Introduction and Part 1, chapters 1-5

Reading questions

  1. (pages 3-15): What is the “great democratic revolution” that “is taking place among us” (3)? What are its causes? What is Tocqueville’s intention in writing about this revolution?
  2. (19-27): How did the geography and native inhabitants of North America contribute to the possibility of democracy in America?
  3. (27-44): Why is it critical to understand a country’s “point of departure” (28)? What was the Americans’ “point of departure”?
  4. (44-45): When we see a departure from democracy in the laws or customs of America, what is the likely cause?
  5. (45-53): What is the “social state” of the Americans? How does the law of inheritance in America work to reinforce a democratic social state, even in intellectual matters? What are the political consequences of the Americans’ social state?
  6. (53-55): What is the “sovereignty of the people” (53)? What role did the American Revolution have in unleashing the “dogma” of the sovereignty of the people?

 Seminar discussion topic: According to Tocqueville, what is the “dogma” of the “sovereignty of the people”? How is it connected to equality and to America’s “point of departure”? How would Abraham Lincoln criticize Tocqueville’s understanding of American equality, America’s point of departure, and the sovereignty of the people?

Additional readings: Lincoln, “Eulogy on Henry Clay” (1st paragraph) (July 6, 1852); “Speech on Dred Scott” (excerpt) (June 26, 1857); “Reply to Stephen Douglas at Chicago” (excerpt) (July 10, 1858); “Fragment on the Constitution and Union” (1860?); “Address at Independence Hall” (February 23, 1861); “Gettysburg Address” (November 19, 1863)

 Session 2 – Democratic Political Institutions: The Problem of the Majority

Reading: Volume I, Part 2, chapters 7-8

Reading questions

  1. (235-237): What is the “moral empire of the majority” (236) and on what is it founded?
  2. (238-249): What are the effects of the omnipotence of the majority? In particular, what does Tocqueville mean when he says that “there is no freedom of mind in America” (245)?
  3. (250-264): What tempers the tyranny of majority in America? How successful have Americans been?

 Seminar discussion topic: Compare James Madison and Tocqueville on the problem of the majority and how to deal with it. According to Madison, what is the problem that the majority presents in a “popular government”? How can it be addressed? Would Tocqueville agree with Madison on the character of the problem and its solution? If so, why? If not, what would Tocqueville criticize Madison for not seeing or understanding?

Additional reading: The Federalist nos. 10, 39, 49, 51, 55 (paragraphs 1-4); James Madison, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson” (October 17, 1788)

 Session 3 – “Think for Yourself”: The Problem of the Democratic Mind

Reading: Volume II, Part 1, chapters 1-21

Reading questions

  1. (403-411): What is the “philosophic method” of the Americans (403)? What is the source of their ‘philosophic’ beliefs?
  2. (411-416): Why do Americans have “the habit of general ideas” (413) but not a great passion for such ideas in politics?
  3. (417-425): How is Christianity essential to democracy yet also modified by it?
  4. (425-428): How does democracy incline people toward the ideas of pantheism as well as “the indefinite perfectibility of man”?
  5. (428-439): How do (democratic) Americans think about and practice science and scientific endeavors?
  6. (439-469): How do (democratic) Americans think about and practice literature and the arts?
  7. (469-476): How does democracy affect the way that historians think and politicians speak?

Seminar discussion topic: Considering philosophy, religion, science, literature, and the arts, what are the main intellectual virtues and vices of democratic peoples? Would Tocqueville see any of those vices in Thomas Jefferson, whom he calls “the most powerful apostle that democracy has ever had” (249)?

 Additional readings: Jefferson, “Letter to Peter Carr” (August 10, 1787); Jefferson, “Letter to John Adams” (October 28, 1813); “Letter to John Taylor” (May 28, 1816); “Letter to Samuel Kercheval” (July 12, 1816); “Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse” (June 26, 1822); “Letter to Thomas Cooper” (Nov. 2, 1822); “Letter to James Smith” (1822); “Letter to John Adams” (April 11, 1823)

 Session 4 – “the solitude of their own heart”: The Problem of Democratic Sentiments

Reading: Volume II, Part 2, chapters 1-9

Reading questions

  1. (479-483): Why do democratic people love equality more than freedom?
  2. (483-485): According to Tocqueville, “my principal goal in writing this book has been to combat” the “penchants” among democratic people toward individualism (643). What does Tocqueville mean by individualism and how does it arise from equality?
  3. (483-485, 663): Why is individualism bad?
  4. (485-506): How do the Americans “combat” individualism?

 Seminar discussion topic: Consider the arguments of Robert Putnam on the problem of lack of engagement in American public life. According to Putnam, what are the character and causes of the problem? How would Tocqueville respond to Putnam’s description of the problem and its causes?

 Additional readings: Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (excerpt) (2001)

 Session 5 – “an immense tutelary power”: The Problem of Mild Despotism

Reading: Volume II, Part 4, chapters 1-8

Reading questions

  1. (639-661): How do the ideas and sentiments of democratic people incline them toward the concentration of power? What “particular circumstances” (646) in America have prevented a “rush” toward centralization?
  2. (661-665): What does Tocqueville mean by mild despotism, and why are democracies threatened with it?
  3. (666-673): What can be done to prevent or ameliorate it?
  4. (673-676): Taking a “general view of the subject” of democracy, why is Tocqueville “full of fears and full of hopes” (675)?

 Additional readings: Lyndon Johnson, “Great Society” (May 22, 1964); Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing” (excerpt) (October 27, 1964)

 Seminar discussion topic:  How would Tocqueville respond to LBJ’s vision of a “great society” and to Reagan’s criticism of it? Would Tocqueville see the “great society” as a culmination or repudiation of American democracy?