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Understanding Tyranny and Liberty: Lessons from Alexis de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill

October 3, 2023 at 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm UTC+0

Understanding Tyranny and Liberty: Lessons from Alexis de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill 

With Guest Lecturer Professor Jeremy Jennings  

Prior to the nineteenth century many writers were aware that autocratic states reduced individuals to silence and obedience through fear and the threat of punishment. When visiting the United States in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that in a democratic society individuals could be silenced by another means: the tyranny of the majority. Once the majority had made up its mind on a subject, Tocqueville observed, all discussion ceased. The first part of this lecture will look at the nature of this newly-discovered tyranny. John Stuart Mill, in a long review of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, immediately saw the importance of this threat and, in the form of “public opinion”, it provided the background to the argument advanced in his classic text, On Liberty. The second part of the lecture will therefore consider the arguments advanced by Mill to protect the individual from threats to the liberty of thought and discussion. Crucially, Mill did not believe that being offended by someone else’s view constituted harm. The lecture will conclude by seeking to assess the relevance of the views of Tocqueville and Mill to debates about free speech today. 

About Professor Jennings 

Having received his doctorate from the University of Oxford, Jeremy taught at the University of Swansea (1979-1995), the University of Birmingham (1995-2005), and Queen Mary University of London (2005-2013). He served as Head of Department in Birmingham and at Queen Mary, was Vincent Wright Professor at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris in 2006 and was also a visiting fellow at the University of Columbia Research Centre in Paris. Jeremy holds a visiting professorship with the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques. 

Jeremy’s research focuses upon the history of political thought in France. He recently co-edited the Cambridge History of French Thought and his latest book, Travels with Tocqueville beyond America (Harvard UP) was published in March 2023. A larger, long-term project is to write a history of the concept of liberty.

Discussant and Chair: Toby Young, General Secretary of the Free Speech Union. 

Arrival and glass of wine from 7pm 

Lecture 7.30pm, followed by Q and A and discussion until 9pm 

The book, Travels with Tocqueville beyond America will be on sale on the night.

In-person TICKETS £10 for FSU members, £16 for non-members.

Exclusive online access for FSU members via Zoom – please check Events emails and your weekly newsletter for details.

Other Recommended readings: 

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 7, Of the Omnipotence of the Majority in the United States and Its Effects. 

Introduction to On Liberty  by J.S Mill. 



October 3, 2023
7:30 pm - 9:00 pm UTC+0
Event Category:


The Free Speech Union
020 3920 7865
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The Art Workers’ Guild
6 Queen Square
London, WC1N 3AT United Kingdom
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