History of democracy

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

The history of democracy traces back from its origins in ancient world to its re-emergence and rise from the 17th century to the present day.


Ancient Sumer

The Sumerian city states are believed to have had some form of Democratic setup initially. They became monarchies over time.

Ancient India

One of the earliest instances of democracy in a civilization was found in republics in ancient India, which were established sometime before the 6th century BC, and prior to the birth of Gautama Buddha. These republics were known as Maha Janapadas, and among these states, Vaishali (in what is now Bihar, India) was the world's first republic. The democratic Sangha, Gana and Panchayat systems were used in some of these republics; the Panchayat system is still used today in Indian villages. Later during the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the Greeks wrote about the Sabarcae and Sambastai states in what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, whose "form of government was democratic and not regal" according to Greek scholars at the time. Another example was Gopala's rise to power by democratic election in Bengal, which was documented by the Tibetan historian Taranath.

Ancient Greece

The speaker's platform in the Pnyx, the meeting ground of the assembly where all the great political struggles of Athens were fought out during the "Golden Age". Here Athenian statesmen stood to speak, such as Pericles and Aristides in the 5th century BC and Demosthenes and Aeschines in the 4th, along with countless humbler citizens as well.  In the background high on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the temple of Athena, the city's protective goddess, looking down upon their deliberations.
The speaker's platform in the Pnyx, the meeting ground of the assembly where all the great political struggles of Athens were fought out during the "Golden Age". Here Athenian statesmen stood to speak, such as Pericles and Aristides in the 5th century BC and Demosthenes and Aeschines in the 4th, along with countless humbler citizens as well. In the background high on the Acropolis is the Parthenon, the temple of Athena, the city's protective goddess, looking down upon their deliberations.

Athens is among the first recorded and one of the most important democracies in ancient times; the word "democracy" ( Greek: δημοκρατία - "rule by the people") was invented by Athenians in order to define their system of government, around 508 BC. In the next generation, Ephialtes of Athens had a law passed severely limiting the powers of the Council of the Areopagus, which deprived the Athenian nobility of their special powers.

  • Athenian democracy, was based on selection of officials by lot, and decisions in other cases by majority rule. The assembly of all male citizens in Athens voted on decisions directly (compare direct democracy). Elected officials did not determine decisions — giving decision-making power to elected officials was considered by the ancient Athenians to take away the power of the people, effectively making the state an oligarchy. Democracy had (and for some people still has) the meaning of equality in decisions and of elections in decisions, not the election of persons charged to decide (see representative democracy). Few checks on or limits to the power of the assembly existed, with the notable exception of the graphe paranomon (also voted on by the assembly), which made it illegal to pass a law that was contrary to another.

One of the reasons why this system was feasible was because of the relatively small population of Athens, by modern standards — only 300,000 people. Additionally, there were severe restrictions that dictated who had the right to participate as a citizen, which excluded over half of the total population. Citizenship rights were limited strictly to male, adult, non-slave Athenians of citizen descent. Therefore, women, children, slaves, foreigners and resident aliens — groups that together made up a majority of the city's population — had no right to participate in the assembly. On the other hand, modern democracy has its own limitations in comparison to the ancient model, as for most citizens participation is limited to voting, voting itself is usually limited to once every several years, voters merely get to choose their representatives in the legislative or executive branches (with the exception of occasional referenda), and it is those representatives, not the voters themselves, who have the power to decide in matters of state.

Pay for political service was a democratic principle, though which forms of service were covered changed over time. In contrast to the professional wages paid to politicians and public servants under modern democracies, this pay was low, about as much as a man could earn doing unskilled manual labour. That is to say, it was aligned with the earning power of the very poorest citizens and intended only to cover what they might otherwise have earned during the days or parts of days they gave over to political service.

During the golden age of classical Athens, in the 5th century BC, when it was hegemon of the Greek city-states, the Athenians encouraged democracy abroad. This led to the adoption of democratic or quasi-democratic forms of government in several of Athens' allies and dependent states. However, in the 5th century BC, the Peloponnesian War saw the Greek world divided between an alliance led by Athens and a rival coalition led by Sparta. The Spartans won and democracy was abolished in all the Greek city-states which had adopted it. The Athenians themselves restored their democracy in less than a year, but were no longer in a position to promote it abroad.

Hundreds of other Greek cities were at one time or other democratic, but information on how their systems worked is scanty. Many will have followed the Athenian lead; Chios appears to have had democratic institutions by 575 BC, earlier than their functioning existence at Athens. Aristotle in the discussions in his Politics of the different kinds of democracies speaks of systems where the people vote only on the election of officeholders, but have no direct say themselves either on legislation or executive decisions. This would seem to be a form of representative democracy. (Aristotle Politics 1318b21-2; 1274a15-18; 1281b32-4)

Roman Republic

Birth of the Republic

The traditional founding of Rome was in 753 BC. The Etruscans, early Italian settlers comprised of city-states throughout central Italy ruled Rome for over a century; the traditional dates are 616 BC for the accession of the first Etruscan King, Tarquinius Priscus, and 510 BC for the expulsion of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus. The king was expelled by a group of aristocrats led by Lucius Junius Brutus. The Tarquins were expelled from Rome, and a constitution devised, whereby power rested in the hands of the Roman senate (the assembly of leading citizens), who delegated executive power in a pair of consuls who were elected from among their number to serve for one year.

The founding of the Republic did not mark the end for Roman troubles, since the new constitution was not flawless and there remained powerful external enemies. Internally, one serious threat was internecine feuding of the leading families. Another was the struggle between the leading families(patricians) as a whole and the rest of the population, especially the plebeians. After years of conflicts the plebs forced the senate to pass a written series of laws(the Twelve Tables) which recognized certain rights and gave the plebs their own representatives, the tribunes. By the 4th Century BC, the plebs were given the right to stand for consulship and other major offices of the state.

Rome became the ruler of a great Mediterranean empire. The new provinces brought wealth to Italy, and fortunes were made through mineral concessions and enormous slave run estates. Slaves were imported to Italy and wealthy landowners soon began to buy up and displace the original peasant farmers. By the late 2nd Century this led to renewed conflict between the rich and poor and demands from the latter for reform of constitution. The background of social unease and the inability of the traditional republican constitutions to adapt to the needs of the growing empire led to the rise of a series of over-mighty generals, championing the cause of either the rich or the poor, in the last century BC.

Fall of the Republic

The beginning of the end of the Republic came when the brothers Gracchus challenged the traditional constitutional order in the 130s and 120s BC. Though members of the aristocracy themselves, they sought to parcel out public land to the dispossessed Italian peasant farmers. Other measures followed, but many senators feared the Gracchi's policy and both brothers met violent deaths. The next champion of the people was the great general Gaius Marius, He departed from established practice by recruiting his soldiers not only from landed citizens but from landless citizens, including the growing urban proletariat. These were people when the wars were over looked to their commander for a more permanent reward in the shape of land of their own. Thus the situation developed where commanders and their armies banded together in pursuit of political objectives, the commanders seeking power and the soldiers rewards.

The temporary ascendancy achieved by Marius was eclipsed by that of Sulla in the 80s BC. Sulla marched on Rome after his command of the Roman invasion force that was to invade Pontus was transferred to Sulla's rival Marius. Leaving Rome damaged and terrorized, Sulla retook command of the Eastern army and after placing loyal puppets to the consul he marched for the conquest of Pontus. When Sulla returned to Rome, there was opposition to his rule by those loyal to Marius and his followers. Sulla, with the aid of a young Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) and Marcus Licinius Crassus, quelled the political opposition and had himself made dictator of Rome. Sulla was a staunch proponent of aristocratic privilege, and his short-lived monarchy saw the repeal of pro-popular legislation and condemnation, usually without trial, of thousands of his enemies to violent deaths and exile.

After Sulla's death, democracy was more or less restored under Pompey the Great. Despite his popularity he was faced with two astute political opponents: the immensely wealthy Crassus and Julius Caesar. Rather than coming to blows, the three men reached a political accommodation now known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar was awarded governor of two Gallic provinces (what is now modern day France). He embarked on a campaign of conquest, the Gallic War, which resulted in a huge accession of new territory and vast wealth not to mention an extremely battle hardened army after 8 years of fighting the Gauls. In 50 BC Caesar was recalled to Rome to disband his legions and was put on trial for his illegal war crimes. Caesar, not able to accept this insult after his fantastic conquest, crossed the Rubicon with his loyal Roman legions in 49 BC. Caesar was considered an enemy and traitor of Rome, and he was now matched against the Senate, led by Pompey the Great. This led to a violent Civil War between Caesar and the Republic. The senators and Pompey were no match for Caesar and his veteran legions and this culminated in the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar, although outnumbered, destroyed Pompey's legions. Pompey, who had fled to Egypt, was murdered and beheaded.

Finally, Caesar took supreme power and was appointed Dictator for life over the Roman Republic. Caesar's career was cut short by his assassination at Rome in 44 BC by Marcus Junius Brutus, the descendant of the Brutus who expelled the Etruscan King four and half centuries before. In 27 BC Octavian, Caesar's adoptive son, was granted the title Augustus by the Senate, making him the first official emperor of Rome. The Roman Republic of the senate and the people came to an end and thus began the age of the Emperors. The Roman Empire expanded and lasted until its fall in 476 AD.

Local popular institutions

Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker is teaching the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung that the power resides with the people, 1018, Uppsala, by C. Krogh
Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker is teaching the Swedish king Olof Skötkonung that the power resides with the people, 1018, Uppsala, by C. Krogh

Most of the procedures used by modern democracies are very old. Almost all cultures have at some time had their new leaders approved, or at least accepted, by the people; and have changed the laws only after consultation with the assembly of the people or their leaders. Such institutions existed since before the Iliad or the Odyssey, and modern democracies are often derived or inspired by them, or what remained of them. Nevertheless, the direct result of these institutions was not always a democracy. It was often a narrow oligarchy, as in Venice, or even an absolute monarchy, as in Florence.

These early institutions include:

  • The panchayats in India
  • The German tribal system described by Tacitus in his Germania.
  • The Frankish custom of the Marzfeld or "March field".
  • The Althing, the "parliament" of the Icelandic Commonwealth, was founded in 930. It consisted of the 39, later 55, goðar; each owner of a goðarð; and membership, which could in principle be lent or sold, was kept tight hold of by each hereditary goði. Thus, for example, when Burnt Njal's stepson wanted to enter it, Njal had to persuade the Althing to enlarge itself so a seat would be available. The Althing was preceded by less elaborate " things" (assemblies) all over Northern Europe.
  • The Thing of all Swedes, which was held annually at Uppsala in the end of February or early March. Like in Iceland, the assemblies were presided by the lawspeaker, but the Swedish king functioned as a judge. A famous incident took place circa 1018, when King Olof Skötkonung wanted to pursue the war against Norway against the will of the people. Þorgnýr the Lawspeaker reminded the king in a long speech that the power resided with the Swedish people and not with the king. When the king heard the din of swords beating the shields in support of Þorgnýr's speech, he gave in. Adam of Bremen wrote that the people used to obey the king only when they thought he made sense.
  • The tuatha system in early medieval Ireland. Landowners and the masters of a profession or craft were members of a local assembly, known as a tuath. The members of a tuath were of common descent, although outsiders could be adopted. Each tuath met in annual assembly which approved all common policies, declared war or peace on other tuatha, and accepted the election of a new "king"; normally during the old king's lifetime, as a tanist. The new king had to be descended within four generations from a previous king, so this usually became, in practice, a hereditary kingship; although some kingships alternated between lines of cousins. About 80 to 100 tuatha coexisted at any time throughout Ireland. Each tuath controlled a more or less compact area of land which it could pretty much defend from cattle-raids, and this was divided among its members.
  • The city-states of medieval Italy, of which Venice and Florence were the most successful, and similar city-states in Switzerland, Flanders and the Hanseatic league. These were often closer to an oligarchy than a democracy in practice, and were, in any case, not nearly as democratic as the Athenian-influenced city-states of Ancient Greece (discussed in the above section), but they served as focal points for early modern democracy.
  • Veche, Wiec - popular assemblies in Slavic countries. In Poland wiece have developed in 1182 into Sejm - Polish parliament. The veche was the highest legislature and judicial authority in the republics of Novgorod until 1478 and Pskov until 1510.
  • Rise of parliamentary bodies in other European countries.

Rise of democracy in modern national governments

Pre-Eighteenth century milestones

Renaissance humanism was a cultural movement in Europe beginning in central Italy (particularly Florence) in the last decades of the 14th century. It revived and refined the study of language (First Latin, and then the Greek language by mid-century), science, philosophy, art and poetry of classical antiquity. The "revival" was based on interpretations of Roman and Greek texts. Their emphasis on art and the senses marked a great change from the medieval values of humility, introspection, and passivity.

The humanist philosophers looked for secular principles on which society could be organized, as opposed to the concentration of political power in the hands of the Church. Prior to the Renaissance, religion had been the dominant force in politics for a thousand years.

Humanists looked at ancient Greece and found the concept of democracy. In some cases they began to implement it (to a limited extent) in practice:

The free election of Augustus II at Wola, outside Warsaw, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1697. Painted by Bernardo Bellotto
The free election of Augustus II at Wola, outside Warsaw, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in 1697. Painted by Bernardo Bellotto
  • Introduction of the idea that powerholders are responsible to an electorate — Simon de Montfort (1265) (although only landowners were allowed to vote in the 1265 English election)
  • Rise of Golden Liberty (Nobles' Democracy, Rzeczpospolita Szlachecka) in the Kingdom of Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: Nihil novi of 1505, Pacta conventa and King Henry's Articles (1573). See also: Szlachta history and political privileges, Sejm of the Kingdom of Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Organisation and politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
  • Rise of democratic parliaments in England and Scotland: Magna Carta (1215) limiting the authority of powerholders, First elected parliament (1265), English Civil War (1642-1651), Habeas Corpus Act (1679), English Bill of Rights and Scottish Claim of Right (1689). See also: other documents listed at the Constitution of the United Kingdom, History of the parliament of the United Kingdom.
  • William Penn wrote his Frame of Government of Pennsylvania in 1682. The document gave the colony a representative legislature and granted liberal freedoms to the colony's citizens.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century milestones

  • 1755: The Corsican republic led by Pasquale Paoli with the Corsican Constitution
  • 1760s-1790s Americans develop and apply concept of Republicanism; basis of American Revolution
  • 1780s: development of social movements identifying themselves with the term 'democracy': Political clashes between 'aristocrats' and 'democrats' in Benelux countries changed the semi-negative meaning of the word 'democracy' in Europe, which was until then regarded as synonymous with anarchy, into a much more positive opposite of 'aristocracy'.
  • From late 1770s: new Constitutions and Bills explicitly describing and limiting the authority of powerholders, many based on the British Bill of Rights (1689). Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 is widely recognized as the third oldest constitution in the world.
  • 1791: The Haitian Revolution, the first, and only, successful slave revolution, established a free republic.
  • 1789-1799: the French Revolution
  • 1790s First Party System in U.S. involves invention of locally-rooted political parties in the United States; networks of party newspapers; new canvassing techniques; use of caucus to select candidates; fixed party names; party loyalty; party platform (Jefferson 1799); peaceful transition between parties (1800)
    • Early 19th century: in Europe rise of political parties competing for votes.
  • Extension of political rights to various social classes: elimination of wealth, property, sex, race and similar requirements for voting (See also universal suffrage).
  • 1850s: introduction of the secret ballot in Australia; 1890 in USA

The secret ballot

The notion of a secret ballot, where one is entitled to the privacy of their votes, is taken for granted by most today by virtue of the fact that it is simply considered the norm. However, this practice was highly controversial in the 19th century; it was widely argued that no man would want to keep his vote secret unless he was ashamed of it.

The two earliest systems used were the Victorian method and the South Australian method. Both were introduced in 1856 to voters in Victoria and South Australia. The Victorian method involved voters crossing out all the candidates whom he did not approve of. The South Australian method, which is more similar to what most democracies use today, had voters put a mark in the preferred candidate's corresponding box. The Victorian voting system also was not completely secret, as it was traceable by a special number.

20th century waves of democracy

The end of the First World War was a temporary victory for democracy in Europe, as it was preserved in France and temporarily extended to Germany. Already in 1906 full modern democratic rights, universal suffrage for all citizens was implemented constitutionally in Finland as well as an proportional representation, open list system. Likewise, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 inaugurated a few months of liberal democracy under Alexander Kerensky until Lenin took over in October. The terrific economic impact of the Great Depression hurt democratic forces in many countries. The 1930s became a decade of dictators in Europe and Latin America.

World War II was ultimately a victory for democracy in Western Europe, where representative governments were established that reflected the general will of their citizens. However, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe became undemocratic Soviet satellite states. In Southern Europe, a number of right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (most notably in Spain and Portugal) continued to exist.

Japan had moved towards democracy during the Taishō period during the 1920s, but it was under effective military rule in the years before and during World War II. The country adopted a new constitution during the postwar Allied occupation, with initial elections in 1946.

India became a democratic republic in 1950 on achieving independence from Great Britain. A process of decolonization created much political upheaval in Africa, with some countries experiencing often rapid changes to and from democratic and other forms of government. In Southeast Asia, political divisions in both Korea and Vietnam would escalate into wars with heavy involvement from the West, China and the Soviet Union.

Countries highlighted in blue are designated "Electoral Democracies" in Freedom House's 2006 survey Freedom in the World.
Countries highlighted in blue are designated " Electoral Democracies" in Freedom House's 2006 survey Freedom in the World.

New waves of democracy swept across Europe in the 1970s and late 1980s, when representative governments were instituted in the nations of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe respectively.

Much of Latin America and Southeast Asia, Taiwan and South Korea and some Arab and African states—notably Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority—moved towards greater liberal democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

An analysis by Freedom House argues that there was not a single liberal democracy with universal suffrage in the world in 1900, but that in 2000 120 of the world's 192 nations, or 62% were such democracies. They count 25 nations, or 19% of the world's nations with "restricted democratic practices" in 1900 and 16, or 8% of the world's nations today. They counted 19 constitutional monarchies in 1900, forming 14% of the world's nations, where a constitution limited the powers of the monarch, and with some power devolved to elected legislatures, and none in the present. Other nations had, and have, various forms of non-democratic rule. While the specifics may be open to debate (for example, New Zealand actually enacted universal suffrage in 1893, but is discounted due to a lack of complete sovereignty and certain restrictions on the Māori vote), the numbers are indicitive of the expansion of democracy during the twentieth century.

Contemporary trends

  • E-democracy

Retrieved from " http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_democracy"