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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Democracy, a transliteration of the Greek δημοκρατία ,
is government by the people. The historians and phi-
losophers of the Aegean world invented the term,
situated it within a larger political vocabulary, again
of their own invention, and provided a mode of politi-
cal analysis that enjoyed authority well into modern
times. Greek political institutions did not survive;
Greek political theory did. As a consequence, attitudes
about popular rule, characteristic of a slave-owning
society, whose social organization permitted direct
citizen-participation, received attention, even when
the conditions that made Greek “democracy” possible
had completely disappeared.

As late as the eighteenth century political classifica-
tion schemes and value systems gleaned from classical
Greek texts were current in the West. The Greek
experience, transmitted through Rome, was still
thought to be applicable. It mattered little that many
who cited the Greek (or Latin) texts knew them badly;
their citation was the significant fact. The texts, how-
ever ancient, carried authority. Just as Niccolò Machi-
avelli, seeking to reestablish the ">virtù of his native
Florence, thought it entirely proper to recollect the
glories of republican Rome, so the American consti-
tution-framers showed themselves students of the clas-
sical world, anxious to discover classical texts that
might be useful to their purposes.


The Greek achievement, then, was not a capacity
for institution-building, but a genius for developing
modes of analysis that survived even when filtered
through Roman and Christian experience. There is, in
Herodotus, a fairly primitive formulation of a debate
embellished by Plato and Aristotle, that still produced
an echo in the eighteenth century. Herodotus is led
to inquire into the relative virtues (and vices) of three
forms of political authority—monarchy, oligarchy, and
democracy. The circumstances of the debate are not
without interest: a decision has to be made concerning
the establishment of a new government for Persia. The
idea that governments are not immutable, that they
are chosen, that their selection ought to depend in
considerable measure on their prospective utility, and
that reasonable men may differ about such matters,
are all characteristic Greek attitudes. A civilization of
city-states, with diverse political institutions, found the
idea of debating the relative merits of one kind of rule
rather than another entirely congenial.

The arguments in Herodotus are simple: democracy's
advocate maintains that only “popular” government
guarantees equality before the law; monarchy, by con-
trast, is said to encourage envy and pride; it is inher-
ently unstable and leads almost invariably to violence
(Book III, 80-82). Oligarchy's defender thinks such
arguments specious; disparaging the rule of the many,
he insists that the masses are feckless, ignorant, irre-
sponsible, and violent; their capacity for capriciousness
is certainly equal to that of any king. The multitude,
having never been taught to know what is right, cannot
be expected to pursue the right. Neither argument
carries the day; instead the votes go to the spokesman
for monarchy. He argues that democracy is a political
system that encourages cliques; it stimulates rivalry
among them and generally ends in tyrannical rule. The
mob, peculiarly susceptible to the wiles of the dema-
gogue is generally prepared to abdicate its authority.
Oligarchy is held to be no more stable; it shows an
equal tendency to degenerate into tyranny. The best
guarantee of freedom, then, is to be found in monarchy,
defined as the rule of an individual respectful of the

The Greek preoccupation with order is apparent
throughout; so, also, is the overwhelming and perpetual
fear of tyranny. Governments are inherently unstable;
one must search constantly for the least vulnerable
form. The decision to vest authority—in an individual,
a small group, the multitude—is recognized to be the
significant political act. Stability and justice are the
desired ends. Herodotus saw that equality before the
law was the boon promised by democracy. If, however,
that good might be obtained from monarchy, with the
added advantage of stability, there was no doubting
its superior claim.

The democratic theme figures only tangentially in
Herodotus; with his successor, Thucydides, it is abso-
lutely central to his purpose (Book II, 35-46). Pericles
funeral oration, often cited as the single most eloquent
statement celebrating the virtues of Athenian democ-
racy, is also the classic defense of democracy's claim
to being the school of civic virtue. Athens, Pericles
tell us, does not choose to copy the laws of its neigh-
bors; it provides the pattern that others follow. Athens
is well and justly administered; the many and not the
few are favored; capacity is the sole criterion for
office-holding. Personal relations are easy; lawlessness
is uncommon; valor in the service of the city-state is
habitual. Thucydides, in his dramatic rendering of the
humbling of democratic Athens by Sparta, makes Peri-
clean rule seem a “golden age” before ignominious
defeats, produced by miscalculations in foreign and
military policy, and before a deterioration in the
Athenian populace causes the society to change. The
citizens, tried by the rigors of war, are quite incapable
of rising above their private ambition and private
interest. No leader, after Pericles, is in a position to
check the insolence and vanity of the citizenry. In the
age of Pericles, Thucydides writes, “government was
by the first citizen” (Book III, 37-40). Those who
follow Pericles flatter the multitude, appeal to its baser
instincts, and create conditions that encourage dema-
goguery. Athens is made to pay heavily for the blunders
of its citizens.

In describing Cleon, a leader he abominates, Thucy-
dides dwells on the violence of Cleon's words while
never neglecting to emphasize the approval they in-
spire (Book III, 82-84). Cleon knows how to use the
masses for his own purposes; contemptuous of gifted
men, he ingratiates himself with those whom he aspires
to rule. While passages in the history suggest a concern
to assess individual blame for the final catastrophe that
overtakes the city, this was clearly not Thucydides'
chief interest. His larger purpose was to probe the
vulnerability of the Athenian democracy, as it showed
itself in time of war. In peace and prosperity, when
individuals lead easy lives, and adversity is uncommon,
tolerance comes naturally. In time of war, however,
“imperious necessity” takes over; prudence, caution,
and justice are the daily casualties of war. The war
is catastrophic precisely because violence, excess,
partisanship, greed, and a lust for power, are its inevi-
table results (Book II, 65). Civilized behavior is rare
in time of war; debate enjoys little respect and becomes
uncommon. Law itself finds itself impotent before the
incessant calls for action; superiority of every kind
becomes suspect.

The political reflections of Plato and Aristotle need
to be read in the context of the history provided by
Thucydides. Both philosophers reflect the widespread


corruption and loss of confidence characteristic of their
time. Plato, in commenting on the ignorance of de-
mocracy's political leaders, is appalled by the incom-
petence they show. He has no great admiration for
the gifted amateur. Statesmanship is a disciplined call-
ing: it depends on precise and full knowledge. All states
are riven by a rivalry between those with property
and those without; factionalism and partisanship are
the inevitable consequences of the division between
rich and poor. So long as extremes of wealth and
poverty exist, Plato says, there can be no just society
(Republic, Book VIII, 551f.). Democracy, by definition,
must always be government by and for the many; the
poor who lack property and birth will always control
a democracy. Oligarchy, just as inevitably, must oper-
ate in the interest of the few who enjoy property and
birth. Plato finds both democracy and oligarchy inher-
ently unstable.

Plato, in the Republic, excludes the possibility that
a just state can exist in which all citizens participate;
he explicitly denies the Periclean ideal. In the States-
he gives a six-fold categorization of states. Three
depend on fidelity to the law; three are essentially
lawless. The rule of an individual produces monarchy
or tyranny, depending on whether or not the individual
at the head is law-abiding; when a few rule, the results
are aristocracy or oligarchy; when the many rule,
democracy exists, but again of two kinds, depending
on whether or not the popular rule is law-abiding.
Democracy, Plato accepts as the best of the lawless
states, but the least desirable of the law-abiding. Aris-
totle's categorization of states is not very different from
Plato's. What makes Plato's definitions important,
however, is that he comes close to accepting in the
Laws, the last of his works, that in the real world there
ought in fact be a mixing of types (Book III, 691-94).
If moderation is the quality hoped for, it comes only
from combining the best in monarchy, aristocracy, and
law-abiding democracy. In his Republic, Plato de-
scribes a quite different state, but clearly one that he
does not expect to be realized in practice.

Aristotle, Plato's pupil, while interested in reflecting
on the ideal state, showed a greater propensity to study
actual conditions by analyzing the constitutions of a
large number of existing states. Aristotle is particularly
concerned to dwell on the class character of the politi-
cal societies that he surveys. Farmers in an agricultural
society with a democratic constitution may concern
themselves very little with public affairs, preferring to
leave such matters largely in the hands of wealthier
men who have the leisure to attend to public business.
This ought not to be taken to mean that citizens have
given up their authority; they simply choose not to
make use of it for as long as they think themselves
well-governed. Aristotle clearly considered this kind
of democracy better than one that saw large urban
populations involving themselves in the daily manage-
ment of their affairs; such democratic rule generally
opened the way to demagogues and almost invariably
ended in some form of tyranny. How to unite an intel-
ligent administration with the power of the citizens
was the problem that democracy had always to contend
with; and Aristotle makes no effort to minimize its

If democracy involves the whole body of citizens,
oligarchy restricts the ruling function to some fraction
of them; property qualifications, more or less stringent,
are generally imposed in oligarchical states. Oligarchy,
like democracy, easily runs to excess; when it does,
effective government falls into the hands of a small
band of wealthy men, factionalism becomes common-
place, and the results are scarcely different from what
happens under the rule of a tyrant. So long as the
property qualification is not too restrictive, there is a
chance that oligarchy will not so mistreat the masses
as to bring about disorder. When, however, it does
become too closed, oligarchy may prove even more
oppressive than democracy.

Aristotle hopes for a state that will combine the best
features of democracy and oligarchy; this, he calls a
polity, or constitutional government. Again, the signifi-
cant feature of the constitution is its class base. If there
are too many rich or too many poor, there is a danger
to the stability of the state. The instruments of govern-
ment ought to show themselves hospitable to various
kinds of qualification; while there must be repre-
sentation of wealth, birth, and ability, there must also
be a sufficient regard for numbers. If oligarchy and
democracy are inherently unstable, always tending
towards tyranny, polity gives promise of that modera-
tion which is the only sure guarantee of stability.

Aristotle thought in terms of class when so many
before and after him did not. This, however, never led
him to question slavery, an institution that dominated
Greek society. The Greek city-state seemed unimagin-
able without slavery, and Aristotle never thought to
abolish it. Only in extreme democracy, he wrote, would
slaves be given “license.” He had no doubts of how
such a government would end. Aristotle knew that
“most men find more pleasure in living without any
discipline than they find in a life of temperance,” but
society could not be constructed on such a base (Poli-
Book VI, Ch. 4). Always preoccupied with the
state's survival, Aristotle feared for the stability of the
political order that he knew. His principal concern was
to delineate the conditions of political stability, to
emphasize the relation between the constitution of the
state and the character of its citizens.


The death of Aristotle in 322 B.C. came almost
coincidentally with the demise of the Greek city-state.
Its heir, republican Rome, was animated by new values,
though its reliance on Greek thought remained consid-
erable. The extent of the change may be suggested by
the distance that separates Aristotle from Polybius.
Polybius, born a century after Aristotle died, wrote his
universal history to show “by what means, and thanks
to what sort of constitution, the Romans subdued the
world in less than fifty-three years.” When Polybius
describes constitutions, he uses the six categories em-
ployed by Plato and Aristotle, but his purpose is new;
it is to explain Rome's success in unifying the world,
which he attributes to her “mixed constitution,” with
the consuls representing the monarchical principle, the
Senate the aristocratic, and the popular assemblies the
democratic. In checking each other, these powers pre-
vent disintegration and disorder. Polybius' history is
a tribute to a constitution, but even more to a people,
and to its imperial achievement. Greek political theory
lives on in this history; Greek history, however, is
effectively set aside. The stage is suddenly larger; what
had seemed significant to Thucydides and Aristotle (the
details of city-state existence) are scarcely alluded to.
Polybius' purpose is to show why the Roman consti-
tution worked, and why, even were the people to grow
corrupted by flattery and idleness, showing a tendency
to violence and arrogance, the constitution would sur-
vive. Its self-regulating mechanism is its genius: the
three powers are interdependent; each checks and
controls the other.

Cicero, influenced by Polybius, is again content to
repeat the conventional Greek classification of states—
monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—and the con-
ventional criticisms of each. If a preference is to be
expressed, it is for monarchy, though the best state is
not monarchical, but one that combines the virtues of
all three. Cicero, following his Stoic masters, sees the
equality of men neither in their possessions nor in their
learning, but in their capacity to reason, to distinguish
between right and wrong. The state is a res publica,
an “affair of the people,” which exists to give the
people justice, and derives its authority from them.
Cicero, like Polybius, created the myth of a Roman
constitution that combined the love a king bears for
his subjects (as incorporated in monarchy), the wisdom
characteristic of aristocracy, and the freedom generally
associated with democracy. Authority, in theory, pro-
ceeded from the people, but there was no indication
of what remedies they might avail themselves of to
thwart a ruler who in fact ignored them.

Republican Rome, in its self-praise, registered its
defiance of those who thought only of the “corruption”
of states and of their inevitable decline. Though it
never represented itself as democratic, the Republic
was proud of its popular instrumentalities, and took
care to protect its fame as law-giver. Rome's capacity
to survive and expand—to elicit service and enforce
obedience—contributed to its later reputation. The
Roman Empire never enjoyed an equivalent success.
Contemporary judgments of its qualities were more
modest; the old Republican virtù seemed to have given
out. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, expresses a view
markedly different from either Polybius or Cicero. He
suggests that politics are not within the individual's
power to change; the wise man will not be overly
concerned with political activities. The citizen will,
if asked to do so, consent to serve the state, but he
will not push himself forward. This new “quietism,”
influenced also by the religious ferment of the first and
second centuries, created a political climate distinctly
different from the one that had previously existed.
There were no new political institutions to celebrate,
no new concepts of citizenship to proclaim.

With the barbarian invasions and the destruction of
Roman political authority, local rule reasserted itself.
In the feudal situation that developed, older concepts
of citizenship became increasingly irrelevant. Democ-
racy had no place in a society increasingly supportive
of a value system that emphasized stability and custom;
change was thought to be degenerative, political inno-
vation was suspect. The world was a divine creation;
man's obligation was neither to control it nor to make
it over. Even the recovery of Aristotle's writings in
the thirteenth century, important as they were for
medieval scholarship generally, did not make the po-
litical concerns of the Aegean world altogether mean-
ingful for men who were confronting problems differ-
ent from those of the Greek city-state.

The genesis of Greek democracy has not been much
studied; the genesis of modern democracy has been
investigated in the most painstaking manner. In the
nineteenth century, when the origins of modern de-
mocracy were closely inquired into, there was a tend-
ency to give the most extensive intellectual and insti-
tutional genealogy for the “love of liberty and the
capacity for self-government.” William Lecky, the
English historian, may be taken as a not unrepresenta-
tive Victorian scholar, searching for modern democ-
racy's beginnings. His History of the Rise and Influence
of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe
(1865) offers an
almost classical nineteenth-century Liberal explanation
of how democracy came into being. In a chapter enti-
tled “The Secularisation of Politics,” Lecky sees the
increase of wealth and knowledge as predominant
factors; roads, the printing press, universities, Protes-
tantism—all are declared crucially important. So, also,
Lecky insists, are changes in the art of war; in his


words, “it is curious to trace from a very distant period
the slow rise of the infantry accompanying the progress
of democracy” (II, 213). The diffusion of Rationalism,
as expressed in the “triumph of tolerance,” and the
growth of free trade are also contributing factors.

Another historian of the period might offer a slightly
different and more sympathetic listing of factors. All
such accounts would agree in emphasizing the impor-
tance of the French Revolution; some would think it
necessary to dwell also on the American Revolution;
a few would cite the English Civil War. While no one
of these events had democracy as its goal, and while
the term itself was little used in its modern form until
after the French Revolution, ideas that carried with
them the promise of a new politics circulated before
1789. Just as it would be inaccurate to say that puri-
tanism caused capitalism, so it would be folly to claim
that it caused democracy. Yet, puritanism was inti-
mately involved in historical developments that were
to have importance for the generation of a new demo-
cratic idea. So, also, were the theories of Hobbes and
Locke, of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and of a great
many others.

For a new democratic idea to develop, it was neces-
sary that medieval attitudes be set aside, that man
perceive himself in a new way and aspire to new
political roles. Such perceptions began to be common
in England and France after the Reformation; events
in both countries were to have marked influence else-
where. The anxiety that existed in Europe in the six-
teenth and seventeenth centuries has been frequently
remarked on. The disintegration of an earlier religious
unity produced a marked disquietude; so, also, did
rapid economic changes, with large social dislocations
flowing from them. The seemingly interminable na-
tional and international wars conducted with a strik-
ingly new armament—Machiavelli was one of the
earliest to gauge their significance—contributed to
feelings of insecurity and panic. In the circumstances,
the theories of someone like Hobbes were compelling.

For Hobbes, the state was a human invention, cre-
ated by man to satisfy a basic need, a release from
the fear that existed when he could depend on no
protection other than that provided by his own brute
strength. Man made the state, created the authorities
in it, and chose to obey them simply because he recog-
nized the utility of doing so. Whatever rights existed
derived from this decision to form a state and to vest
authority in a sovereign. Hobbes effectively destroyed
the medieval preference for corporate rights, hierar-
chy, and divine sanction. Man creates the state to avoid
perpetual war; it is his reason that tells him to do so.
When Hobbes, in 1628, published a translation of
Thucydides, he described him as the most political of
historians and the most hostile to democracy. In his
own Leviathan (1651), written many years later, he
shows himself no less dubious about the virtues of
democracy. In considering types of commonwealths,
he recognizes only three—monarchy, aristocracy, and
democracy. While others are named in the classical
texts—oligarchy, tyranny, anarchy—Hobbes dismisses
these as being essentially the same forms of govern-
ment, disliked by the commentator. The question for
Hobbes is simple: shall sovereignty rest with one, with
a few, or with the multitude? On purely utilitarian
grounds, he establishes the advantages of monarchy
over democracy.

Contemporary with Hobbes, others saw the matter
differently. The pamphlet literature for the years
1640-60, which compares not at all unfavorably with
the outpouring of tracts in America after 1763, regis-
ters every kind of opinion. Some express a clear pref-
erence for democratic rule. The Levellers, who enjoyed
a certain notoriety in the years 1646 to 1649, pro-
pounded no formal doctrine, but their leader, John
Lilburne, argues for the sovereignty of the common
people, who need to be made the masters of Parlia-
ment. Among the demands made by the Levellers and
their supporters are: universal manhood suffrage, equal
electoral districts, and biennial parliaments. Their
doctrine seemed radical in the seventeenth century;
when compared with other groups, the Diggers, for
example, they emerge as the first of a long line of
British radicals. Their purposes are overwhelmingly
political; by comparison, the Diggers are early social-
ists. The rights of ownership, the Diggers recognize
as God-given; they entitle every individual to share
in the bounty of the land. Hostile to private property,
they view it as the source of human suffering and vice.
Democracy, for them, is not realizable without a social

The Levellers and Diggers were little known in their
own time; they were minor sects. The same cannot
be said of the larger body of Puritan “saints” who held
no such radical economic and social views but who
were the first modern revolutionaries. They developed
and practiced a new kind of politics, scarcely demo-
cratic, but considerably more activist than any common
in Europe (except in a few Italian cities). As has be-
come increasingly obvious in the twentieth century,
the English Civil War provided an early prototype of
a new form of political revolution. As Michael Walzer
has argued in his Revolution of the Saints, the Civil
War in England had an international significance. It
involved the execution of a king and the assertion by
his adversaries of the legitimacy of their action and
the propriety of their instituting new forms of govern-
ance to protect them in their rights. It emphasized the
importance of participation: the traditional idea of
accepting one's status as the subject of a monarch was


shaken; while the modern idea of citizenship, with its
emphasis on individual rights, was not fully articulated,
there was a new “purpose” in politics, very different
from what had been characteristic of medieval Europe.
Finally, the events of the period were highly visible
not only for those who remained in England but for
those who emigrated abroad. The Puritans who came
to the New World arrived with a suspicion of mo-
narchy and a willingness to experiment with govern-

If Hobbes and those who governed England in the
1640's and 1650's lived at a time when anarchy seemed
a constant threat, giving them an incentive to search
for forms of sovereignty that would not be easily set
aside, that mood was no longer common after the
Restoration. The greatest dangers appeared to have
been traversed; it was possible to think of government
in less catastrophic terms. English political thought,
even before John Locke, showed a tendency to be more
concerned with the rights of individuals and less pre-
occupied with the rights of the sovereign. Those who
favored republican rule—Harrington, Milton, and
Sidney were prominent—were to be influential in
America years later; none was a democrat, but each
was concerned with precisely the kinds of electoral
and political safeguards that later democrats would
value. The republicanism of the seventeenth century
favored a “commonwealth” closely modeled on that
of ancient Greece or republican Rome, with an
“aristocracy of talent” governing in the name of the

John Locke emerges as the political philosopher of
the later years of the seventeenth century. Like
Hobbes, he is concerned with developing a rationale
for political authority. His state of nature is not like
that of Hobbes; it is not a time of terror and conflict;
man, endowed with reason, enjoys a certain equality.
Unhappily, however, there is no common authority to
whom all men give obedience; each interprets the laws
of nature as he wishes. The uncertainty that develops
is contrary to the interests of the individual, and in
order to escape the inconveniences of the state of
nature, each joins with the others to form a society.
It is man's reason that tells him to enter into this
contract with his fellowmen; necessity does not drive
him to it. By the social contract, the individual gives
up his personal rights to interpret the laws of nature
in return for a communal guarantee that his rights of
life, liberty, and property will be maintained.

Once the political state is established, authority has
to be fixed within it. In this, Locke follows the Aris-
totelian example in his categorization of states, but
recognizes that the disposition of the legislative power
is the all-important decision; the executive and judicial
powers will be dependent on the legislative power.
Locke does not believe, as Hobbes had, that authority,
once established, can never be broken; the community
is always free to remake its constitution. While ac-
cepting that monarchy is the original form of govern-
ment, he refuses to accept Hobbes' view that it is the
best. As for oligarchy, it tends to favor the interests
of a few, to the disadvantage of the many. Democracy
offers the only adequate solution for a just rule. Locke
argues that the legislative power ought to be one in
which the delegates are controlled by popular election.
Locke accepted the fact that monarchy would con-
tinue; his main concern was that the monarch should
not have the supreme legislative power.

These ideas were important in the eighteenth cen-
tury; they did not, however, create democratic gov-
ernment. In England they provided a defense for the
Glorious Revolution and a rationale for the legislative
supremacy that gradually developed under the Hano-
verian kings. In France they provided an additional
incentive for comparing the “free” institutions of Great
Britain with the more despotic institutions of the
Bourbon monarchy. Great Britain, for Voltaire and
Montesquieu, and for many others as well, became the
standard against which they compared their own soci-
ety. This is most apparent in Montesquieu, particularly
in his Book XI of the Spirit of the Laws (De l'esprit
des lois,
1748), where he dwells on what he assumes
to be the genius of the British Constitution—its sepa-
ration of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers,
and its balancing of these powers, one against the other.
The inadequacies of the theory, and its irrelevance to
historical facts, were not demonstrated until later in
the century when Jeremy Bentham corrected William
Blackstone, who had followed Montesquieu in this
general description. Montesquieu's work, apart from
its putative influence on the American revolutionaries,
contributed to making the philosophes more aware of
the British political achievement. Even in romanticiz-
ing that achievement, he, together with Voltaire, gave
the French a sense of the gulf that separated England
and France in the kinds of freedom that subjects en-
joyed on either side of the Channel. Church and State
in France were exposed to a kind of criticism that
neither had previously known.

Still, neither Montesquieu nor Voltaire produced
anything that could be appropriately described as a
theory of democracy. This was the major contribution
of Jean Jacques Rousseau; departing from Greek and
Latin texts, showing himself independent of Aristotle
and Polybius, but independent also of his Enlighten-
ment contemporaries, he produced an original formu-
lation of the problem of political obligation. While
there are evidences of indebtedness to Locke in Rous-
seau's psychology and to Montesquieu in his sociology,
his overall thesis is novel. With Rousseau, a new con-


cept of citizenship emerges; it is the awareness of
interests in common that creates the bond between
men. What are those interests? For Rousseau, they
derive from a single determination—to prevent in-
equality among men. Though the term “general will”
had been used before, it was Rousseau's use of the term
that gave it a general currency.

The “general will” expressed the interest that men
shared. Kings might pursue war and trade and seek
to make it appear that they were acting in response
to the will of the people; this was an elaborate fiction.
The “general will” operates best in small states, where
citizenship is felt, and where the identity of interests
is real. Large states, ruled by monarchs, inevitably
deteriorate into tyrannies. There is no “sovereignty of
the people” possible in such societies. Without equality
there can be no liberty. For Rousseau, neither kings
nor representative parliaments can bring about justice;
only the “general will” can enforce justice, since it is
based on mutual respect and the absence of the type
of subordination that is the essence of what passes for
“civilization” in the modern world. The people, Rous-
seau believes, are capable of making and being faithful
to such avowals of self-control and mutual respect; the
rich and the intellectual can never be expected to abide
by such an ethics. This, for Rousseau, is the essence
of citizenship; it is the opposite of the subordination
that “subjects” experience under a king or other form
of imposed rule. Man, through the “general will,” is
inclined to do what duty tells him he ought to do.

Many have argued about the “modernity” of Rous-
seau's theory; some insist, however, on seeing him as
the last of the ancients. Both interpretations are possi-
ble. In understanding the “passion for equality,” Rous-
seau anticipates the nineteenth century, describing a
phenomenon that will increasingly preoccupy both
Socialists and Liberals. Rousseau, in linking equality
and liberty, throws down a challenge to those who
imagine that one is possible without the other, or even
inimical to the other. In another sense, however, Rous-
seau is writing for a world still familiar with the ancient
texts, and still respectful of classical insights. Rousseau,
despite his efforts to disassociate himself from many
of his fellow intellectuals, belongs to a European intel-
lectual society for whom the events of Greece and
Rome are immediate, and the categories developed by
Plato and Aristotle are meaningful. His is a voice in
a political dialogue that had been proceeding, with
interruptions, for more than two millennia. That dia-
logue, however, even among intellectuals, was losing
its force. It was not that the educated lacked the re-
quisite Greek and Latin to consult the original texts
(many had known the ancients imperfectly even before
Rousseau), and many (in America and elsewhere)
quoted them without knowing them. What was new,
after 1776, and even more after 1789, was not that
men could not (or did not) consult the past, but that
the more recent past became a more compelling sub-
ject of concern to them. Talk of democracy increased,
but examples were no longer borrowed from Greece
in the time of Pericles; the greatness of the American
political experiment or the horrors of the Revolution
in France, depending on the point of view taken, were
the new subjects of major political discourse. The de-
bate on democracy entered an entirely new phase; it
was now linked to contemporary events and to theo-
retical reflections they had incited.

In the decade preceding the American Revolution,
the British colonists in the New World produced a large
and varied pamphlet literature to demonstrate the
injustice of Parliament's claim to certain types of juris-
diction over them; they insisted that a new kind of
social and political justice was possible in the New
World. The colonists supported their arguments with
citations from a political literature that originated in
the English Civil War and continued on into the eight-
eenth century; it contained a radical critique of the
prevailing political system. The warnings about politi-
cal corruption, common in the age of Walpole, had
dwelled on the dangers of autocracy. They were taken
seriously and served the colonists' purposes in their
own quarrel with the King and Parliament.

The Americans saw themselves as maintaining a
tradition of opposition that had already shown its
strength in the mother country. There was little explicit
democratic sentiment in their philosophy; it was not
overly concerned with either economic or social re-
form. Their hostility was to certain forms of govern-
ment, based on corruption, that threatened traditional
liberties. The power of a few—officeholders and mem-
bers of Parliament—was endangering the freedom of
the many. Despotic government, for the colonists at
least, seemed a real possibility. There was a conspiracy
abroad—its purpose was to destroy the English consti-
tution and, with it, the liberties of free-born English-
men. Parliamentary legislation after 1763 confirmed
the colonists in their belief that a ministerial conspiracy
existed to destroy their liberty, and that their mission
ought to be to preserve it, to save it for all mankind.
This was the special “duty” to which they felt them-
selves called. In the process, they developed a new idea
of representation, one that was to have the greatest
importance for democracy (though no one viewed the
matter in this light at the time).

The colonists disputed Parliament's claim to author-
ity over them. While members of Parliament might
claim that the colonists were as much represented in
Westminster as the “nine tenths of the people of


Britain” who did not vote, American pamphleteers
criticized this notion of “virtual representation.” In
England, where representation was traditionally by
“interests,” the idea of personal (or individual) repre-
sentation was unknown. The member of one seaport
city could be held to represent the interests of all
others. This, the Americans refused to admit. They saw
no one in Parliament at Westminster who represented
their “interests,” who stood to lose or gain in the way
they would through new taxation. The idea of “virtual
representation” was condemned, and support grew for
the principle that a man could be bound only by his
own assent or by that of a representative for whom
he had voted. This was a radical notion, whose demo-
cratic and republican implications were perceived, and
refuted by many. Still, the idea of “virtual repre-
sentation” was clearly on the defensive.

There were other changes also, no less subtle, with
large implications for democracy, though scarcely rec-
ognized as having that import at the time. Increasingly,
Americans came to define a constitution as a “set of
fundamental rules” that even the legislature was for-
bidden to alter. These rules, they insisted, ought to be
instituted by delegates elected by the people, and could
be altered only by procedures that involved the people.
This was a far cry from the notion that Parliament
could by simple legislative enactment make or unmake
any rule. For Blackstone, sovereignty rested in Parlia-
ment—King, Lords, and Commons. The American
response was to question the notion, so popular in the
seventeenth century, of the necessity of this undivided
sovereignty. Sovereignty might be limited; an authority
might have full power in one sphere and none in
another (where a distinctly different authority might
govern). The idea of federalism was nascent in the
Americas of the early 1770's. Also, increasingly, there
was talk of the fact that human rights existed above
the law, and that the law's purpose ought to be to
uphold these rights. The statement might have been
made by Locke; the rhetoric suggested that something
more was intended by it.

While all such criticisms of British constitutional
practices showed hostility to the status quo, the colo-
nists were reluctant to carry out the full implications
of their theoretical positions. They used the term “re-
public” increasingly, as they did the term “democ-
racy,” but they felt embarrassed by both. Thomas
Paine, in 1776, just a few months before the Revolu-
tion, published Common Sense; it was the first explicit
defense of democracy. Paine saw America's cause as
“the cause of all mankind,” and, refusing to follow
Montesquieu or Blackstone, saw the English consti-
tution not as a finely balanced artifact with each au-
thority checking the other, but a combination of two
ancient tyrannies—monarchical and aristocratic—
compounded with “new republican materials.” The
two powers, by being hereditary, were independent
of the people, and “contribute nothing towards the
freedom of the states.” Paine saw monarchy as essen-
tially oppressive, imposing a distinction between kings
and subjects for which there could be no rational de-
fense. The time had come for a “final separation”
between the colonies and the mother country. Paine
called for a “more equal” system of representation, one
that would create unicameral assemblies in each of the
colonies, and provide for a continental unicameral
legislature as well. As for a King, there ought to be
none; the law would be sovereign. The alternative to
his proposal, Paine insisted, was a perpetuation of royal

John Adams was only one of many who saw the
democratic implications of Paine's scheme and who
had reservations on that as well as on other accounts.
Power could not be vested safely in a single national
assembly elected democratically. Though one might do
away with king and peers, Adams wrote in his Thoughts
on Government
(1776), other balancing authorities
would have to be introduced. There were many who
wondered what the final consequence of such emphasis
on equality and the right of citizens to choose their
governors would be. Would it not lead in time to a
denigration of all authority and a constant defiance of
existing institutions?

The Americans saw themselves as reinventing a form
of government that had once existed but had fallen
into decline. Their “republic” would not, however, end
in the manner of Rome. The word republic, Paine
explained, “means the public good, or the good of the
whole, in contradistinction to the despotic form, which
makes the good of the sovereign, or of one man, the
only object of the government.” When Americans set
about establishing their new state governments, they
showed little inclination to choose the “simple democ-
racy” that Paine argued for. The greater number chose
to establish bicameral legislatures; and only in Penn-
sylvania, where a radical spirit dominated, did the
Constitution provide for a unicameral legislature, with
annual elections and rotation of office. The Pennsyl-
vania Constitution was subjected to immediate attack;
first, by those who argued that only in a bicameral
legislature would wealth and talent be duly repre-
sented; second, by those who insisted that the existence
of two houses simply gave an additional guarantee
against hasty and ill-considered action.

Important as this issue might be—it continued to
arouse discussion at the time that the Federal Consti-
tution was drafted and debated—another exercise of
popular power was taking place that would have im-


portance for democracy. It became increasingly com-
mon for the state constitutions to be drafted by con-
ventions called explicitly for that purpose, and having
no other responsibility. The convention that drew up
the Constitution for Massachusetts was elected by uni-
versal male suffrage; other states showed an equal
readiness to make the constitution-framing and consti-
tution-amending procedure democratic. Ratification of
the Massachusetts Constitution (1780) was by two-
thirds vote, with all male residents of the state being
eligible to vote. This did not mean, however, that all
men would also vote for members of the legislature.
In Massachusetts, as in many states, property qualifica-
tions were introduced. Still, the people had been con-
sulted, as they were to be again at the time of the
ratification of the Federal Constitution.

In the 1780's, alarms were sounded concerning the
new republican system. Americans were said to be
losing their traditional virtues—industry, frugality, and
the like—and tending towards luxury and extrava-
gance. In the absence of virtue, there would be no
commonwealth. This threat led Jeremy Belknap to
write in 1784 that “the people of this country are not
destined to be long governed in a democratic form”
(Wood, p. 425). Jefferson, however, refused to despair.
To live in a European capital, he explained, was to
be made aware of the worth of republican governance.
Benjamin Rush expressed confidence that “our republi-
can forms of government will in time beget republican
opinions and manners. All will end well” (Wood, p.

This opinion was not shared by John Adams. The
experience after independence told him that though
hereditary dignities might be abolished, the scramble
for place and property would continue unabated. He
believed that “a free people are the most addicted to
luxury of any.” The desire for luxury and distinction
created new divisions, and there was no longer a he-
reditary monarch to serve as a scapegoat. Americans,
he insisted, were no different from any other people;
republican institutions make them no better than any
other. The “rich, the well-born, and the able” were
dangerous, but so also were the poor and the ignorant.
Adams searched for an authority that would keep the
peace between these contending elements; he thought
he discovered such an authority in a strong executive.
Adams continued to yearn for something like the bal-
anced constitution that Montesquieu and Blackstone
had admired (and, in part, invented). He thought in
terms of monarchs, aristocracies, and popular repre-
sentatives. Other Americans had gone far beyond this.
They insisted that they had instituted a government
and made its officials answerable to themselves. As John
Taylor was to say in the nineteenth century, “all our
governments are limited agencies”; the people remain
sovereign. It was the popular self-interest that had to
be counted on, and not the people's virtue. This, alone,
made a republic secure.

By the late 1780's Americans were referring to their
governments as democracies, but democracies of a new
kind, “Democratic Republics,” or to put the matter
another way, “representative democracies.” Madison
saw the novelty of the American experiment in “the
delegation of the government to a small number of
citizens elected by the rest.” James Wilson said that
the Federal Constitution was “purely democratical,”
since “all authority of every kind is derived by repre-
sentation from the people and the democratic principle
is carried into every part of the government.”

The idea that authority existed outside the people
and had to be limited by the people, so that govern-
ment would not degenerate into tyranny, was felt to
be old-fashioned. There were no longer evil kings or
illegal acts of Parliament to rail against. Within gov-
ernment, in its several branches, the people were rep-
resented. The struggles would take place within gov-
ernment between authorities seeking to please
constituencies who never lost sight of their self-interest.
Madison, in defending the Constitution, said that his
object was to establish a nontyrannical republic. To
do this, it was necessary to avoid the accumulation of
powers—legislative, executive, and judicial—in the
hands of any one group; factions were always danger-
ous. Minority “factions” could be controlled by the
operation of majority vote; majority “factions” would
develop less easily if the electorate was large and
disparate in its interests.

However much Europe might interest itself in the
events of the American Revolution, honor its heroes—
Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson—and construct its
own mythology to explain what was happening across
the Atlantic, the events of a distant continent, sparsely
populated and little known, could not call forth the
enthusiasms generated by the electrifying news that
came out of Paris in the summer of 1789. The nation
that had made “reason” the emblem of its modernity
was seen to be dismantling the political institutions of
an earlier age. This was an event of the greatest import
to all who heard of it anywhere in the world. The fall
of the Bastille, followed closely by the National As-
sembly's actions in destroying traditional feudal privi-
lege, was overshadowed only by the issuance of the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen,
adopted by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789.

Comparable statements had been issued years earlier
in America, but neither the Virginia Declaration of
Rights nor the Declaration of Independence itself could
match the French statement in its appeal. That all
sovereignty rested in the nation, that the aim of all
political association was to preserve the natural rights


of man, that no group and no individual might exercise
authority that did not emanate from the nation, that
all citizens had the right to participate personally, or
through their representatives, in the making of law and
in the voting of taxes, that every man was presumed
innocent until judged guilty, that punishments had to
be established by law, that freedom of speech and press
was guaranteed, that no one could be disturbed for
his opinions, even in matters of religion, provided that
he did not trouble public order as established by
law—to assert all these things was to bring into exist-
ence a new concept in Europe—that of the citizen,
possessing rights that could not be trespassed on.

The sovereignty of the people was explicitly de-
clared, and with it the principle that there would be
one law for all, with public office open to citizens on
the basis of their abilities. These ideas, in germ, circu-
lated in Europe many years before the French Revolu-
tion, but there was a significant difference between the
Abbé Sieyès, in a provincial assembly in 1787 urging
the nobility to give up their privileges, and the Na-
tional Assembly voting, in effect, to institute a demo-
cratic constitution. It was precisely the authorship of
the declaration that gave it its dignity, its importance,
and its legality.

Democracy, a term not much used in the eighteenth
century, though a number of Swiss cantons and German-
cities thought themselves “democratic,” now came into
more general favor, though it was still not employed
with the frequency that is sometimes imagined. Other
terms—republican, Jacobin, patriot—were more com-
mon. What is important, however, is that whereas for
Rousseau, Helvétius, and others it was taken for
granted that “pure democracy” could exist only in
small states, the question now raised was whether it
was not also a viable system for large and complex
kingdoms. The excitement that the revolutionary
events generated, particularly in the intellectual
classes, was well-nigh universal.

It was not until the end of 1790, when Edmund
Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France ap-
peared, that someone of some intellectual prominence
thought to condemn the events of the French Revolu-
tion. Burke's misgivings, expressed earlier in the year
in Parliament, had not been generally noted. He had
warned England that she would not be untouched by
the “distemper” raging across the Channel. Were
England to imitate the French example, he said, the
result would be confiscation and plunder in the name
of democracy and the replacement of religion by athe-
ism. Even his threat to “abandon his best friends and
join with his worst enemies” if he found them on the
side of the revolutionaries caused no stir.

The same could not be said of the blast that he issued
later in the year. The Revolution, Burke insisted, was
a threat to all Europe and all mankind. It taught false
principles; it questioned hereditary right and threat-
ened inherited liberties; it justified the overthrow of
governments on the flimsy charge of misconduct; it
pretended that sovereignty lay with the people; it took
power from the gifted and gave it to men who had
no experience of government. Burke was unimpressed
with the fact that Revolution gave citizens the right
to elect representatives; small men were not made
great by their having been popularly chosen. Burke
fixed on a sermon preached by Richard Price and
contemptuously dismissed him along with other
“democratists” who spoke as he did.

Burke's attacks elicited a large number of responses;
none was more devastating, perhaps, than that issued
by Tom Paine, who, in The Rights of Man (1791-92),
accused Burke of pitying the plumage but forgetting
the dying bird. In A Vindication of the Rights of Man
(1790) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “I pause to recollect
myself; and smother the contempt I feel rising for your
rhetorical flourishes and infantine sensibility.” Others
were more civil. All, however, contributed to an un-
paralleled international debate on the ends of govern-
ment, the rights of the citizen, and the advantages of
representative rule.

Throughout the 1790's, in England, but on the Con-
tinent more generally, groups argued about the sover-
eignty of the people and the implications of the con-
cept. With the dethroning of Louis XVI and his
execution, new attacks on the Church, and the impris-
oning and beheading of the moderate Girondins, opin-
ion grew increasingly divided. The term “Jacobin” or
“democrat” became pejorative, at least in the mouths
and writings of those who considered themselves part
of the established order. When Europe's monarchs
went to war with the “revolution,” those who held
“democratic” opinions were seriously threatened. Even
in Britain, which so prided itself on its constitutional
liberties, the life of the “radical” became exceedingly
dangerous. The “treason trials” of 1794, following on
the suspension of habeas corpus, testified to the hazards
encountered by those suspected of holding “revolu-
tionary” opinions.

Meanwhile, in France, a Jacobin idea of “the nation”
developed. Increasingly, it was made synonomous with
“the people.” Popular sovereignty was also increas-
ingly pitted against the “old order,” with its royal,
aristocratic, inegalitarian traditions. Robespierre,
faithful to Rousseau, had great suspicion of parlia-
mentary assemblies, which might easily become “rep-
resentative despotisms.” Only through direct popular
control over assemblies—direct popular action in
them—could representatives be kept honest. The con-
stitution of 1793, with its universal suffrage, unicameral
legislature, and collectivist Bill of Rights (very different


from the American), expressed the political and social
ambitions of the Jacobins. The constitution, over-
whelmingly accepted in a national plebescite, was,
however, suspended until the end of the war. The
Terror and the rule of Robespierre only raised new
questions about popular rule, and while some imagined
that Thermidor and the execution of Robespierre sig-
nalled the end of the Revolution, many saw that it only
marked the end of an episode in the larger history.

A good argument can be made that “revolutionary
democracy” reached its zenith in Europe in the eight-
eenth century not in 1794 but in 1798; it was then
that democratic enthusiasm seemed most widespread.
This was the time when republican ideas, as inspired
by the French example, enjoyed currency with men
of all classes who held “advanced” opinions. The basic
rights to liberty, equality, security, and property were
constantly reiterated; so, also, was the notion that
sovereignty lay with the “citizenry as a whole,” and
that the right to vote ought to be extended generally
to male citizens. The Revolution created its own mys-
tique or mystery about the virtues of the people, in
which ardent democrats believed. Those who espoused
democratic ideas had a new sense of time, a new set
of values, and a new kind of self-confidence. Democ-
racy was a term scarcely used before the French Revo-
lution; by the beginning of the nineteenth century it
had its firm adherents and its equally ardent enemies.

The repression of democratic (or Jacobin) opinion
was common during the last years of the eighteenth
and the first years of the nineteenth centuries. During
the long years of Napoleonic rule, in England there
were the beginnings of a new democratic or “radical”
school. The sources of the “philosophical radical” tra-
dition are not easily given; it is generally accepted that
Bentham's conversion to democracy began with his
friendship with James Mill in 1808. Not until 1818,
however, did Bentham draw up his Resolutions on
Parliamentary Reform,
which established his support
of universal male suffrage and the secret ballot. The
“philosophical radicals” were never numerous, but
they were effective publicists and held views different
from those of the “radicals” of the 1790's. They issued
no call for violent revolution; they never suggested that
government might one day be abolished. Instead, they
propagated the idea that under a system of universal
suffrage many opinions would be registered, that these
would cancel each other out, and that what was com-
mon to the majority would in time become law.

Bentham believed that Blackstone was essentially
mistaken in his ideas about the virtues of a constitution
characterized by checks and balances; he refused to
believe that bills of rights effectively restrained gov-
ernment. The only good government was derived from
the people; the interest of the people needed to be
the same as the interest of the government. Public
opinion ought to weigh heavily; the education of the
electorate was a prime responsibility, since it gave the
greatest promise of opinion being informed. The mid-
dle class, in James Mill's opinion the wisest part of
the community, ought to be enfranchised. They would
give the lead to the lower classes, who could be ex-
pected to follow their example. Through each man
pursuing his individual interest, the greatest good of
the greatest number would result.

The philosophical radicals, believing in the middle
class, argued for a form of government that would be
responsive to educated opinion, that would, in short,
be capable of rationalizing institutions and making
them efficient. Crucial to their philosophy was the idea
that the government must encourage each individual
to pursue his own interest, and that there be no delu-
sions about what government might do for man. This
was to be a representative government, certainly, but
if a certain level of competence was to be assured,
there must be room in it for those who had special

In his earliest writing, his anonymous Fragment on
published in 1776, Bentham wrote: “The
age we live in is a busy age; in which knowledge is
rapidly advancing towards perfection. In the natural
world, in particular, everything teems with discovery
and with improvement” (ed. Harrison, p. 28). Since
nature had “placed mankind under the governance of
two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure,” it was es-
sential that it not be placed under any other, but that
it be free to determine its own destiny. Governors
should not choose for the governed; this was to demean
them. The right and proper end of government was
the greatest happiness of the greatest number, “and
this could not be legislated for.” Men had to be pre-
vented from doing harm to others, but governments
ought not to seek to direct them in doing good for
themselves. There were agencies in society other than
the state which could be depended on to look after
the social needs of men. A legislator inevitably imposed
his will on others when he passed a law; he should
do so only when he was persuaded that good would
come out of his action. Men's needs were different;
they ought to be permitted to seek their happiness in
the way they thought most reasonable. There were
some areas where governmental intervention was
clearly called for, but these were fewer than was gen-
erally thought.

Modern democracy could be trusted. “I have not
that horror of the people,” Bentham wrote; “I do not
see in them that savage monster which their detractors
dream of” (Letwin, p. 152). Still, Bentham had no


illusions about the people. He did not praise their
virtues; it was simply that if all were permitted to
pursue their interests, that would itself provide the
check that was needed. The new society had no need
of the mythological “natural rights” and “constitutional
balances” that others favored; the principle of utility
was a sufficient guarantee of good government.

Bentham's individualistic creed never lacked critics.
What made his ideas important, however, was that they
provided a rationale for a new kind of “liberalism,”
one that became the dominant political philosophy in
Britain after the 1820's, influencing democratic theory
in many countries for the rest of the century. In
Bentham, as in his collaborators, there was an explicit
preference for individual over collective action; and
with it went an absolute confidence that there would
be material progress and improvement in the condition
of men's lives if men obeyed the new principles of
political economy. Bentham and the philosophic radi-
cals accepted the industrial revolution; they took for
granted that they were living in a new age and that
this required them to search for new knowledge. For
the state to tamper with industry or trade was to say
that government understood an individual's interest
better than he himself did. This was unthinkable. The
legislator was right to concern himself with the needs
of the indigent, but he ought to take care to define
that class closely and not make the mistake of believing
that humanitarian impulses would be productive. Su-
perstition, war, indolence—all the evils of the past
were to be swept away through the pursuit by each
of the possibilities inherent in an industrial society.
Such an idea was anathema not only to men like
Coleridge, Newman, and Carlyle, but also to many who
might have been expected to be most sympathetic to
such ideas.

John Stuart Mill, reared to be the heir of the Ben-
thamite legacy, found himself increasingly alienated
from what he thought to be its narrow, limited, and
ungenerous perspectives. Influenced by the writings of
Auguste Comte, he looked for a reform of government
that would bring the “most virtuous and best-
instructed” to the top in a position to give the lead
to others. Increasingly, the theme of expert leadership
insinuated itself into Mill's writings. After the passage
of the Reform Act of 1832, Mill went out of his way
to remind his readers that popular government meant
not so much that the people govern as that they are
in a position to choose their governors. The business
of government had to be “by the few for the many.”
The science of politics was an exact one; not every
elector could aspire to master it.

Mill's attitudes during this period were substantially
influenced by the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville's
Democracy in America. That two-volume study, pub-
lished in 1835 and 1840, was the first large-scale em-
pirical investigation of a modern democracy. It was
also a prophetic work, seeking to indicate what Europe
might itself soon be experiencing. Tocqueville, per-
suaded that the passion for equality would not be
stilled, asked Europeans to reflect on whether liberty
would in fact survive the move towards equality. While
admiring certain attributes of America—its restless
energy, industry, and traditions of self-governance—
there was a good deal that Tocqueville found disquiet-
ing. If the democratic movement was indeed irre-
sistible, if it originated in America principally because
of the absence there of an hereditary aristocracy, would
it end in the creation of a state with vastly increased
authority, a new kind of tyranny, with the majority
exercising its power over every minority?

The tyranny of public opinion, Tocqueville argued,
could prove more burdensome than the tyranny of any
monarch. New values would predominate in a demo-
cratic society; the desire for riches would take the
place of the desire for glory; there would be few totally
uninstructed men but few learned ones. The prejudices,
passions, and interests of the multitude would always
have great weight, and this would generally militate
against the type of political careers possible in more
“aristocratic” societies. Government would not attract
great talent, precisely because the interest in equality
would make any kind of superiority irksome. Men of
wealth would be preoccupied with their own affairs
and not with those of the state. Democracy does not
guarantee efficient government; it does provide free-
dom for the pursuit of one's own interest, subject
always to the tyranny that comes from the majority
insisting that its values and ideas should be safeguarded.
Democratic societies have a taste for easy success and
present enjoyment; this is their strength and their

Equality, Tocqueville insisted, tends to isolate men,
to cause them to concentrate on themselves only; it
gives them an inordinate desire for material goods and
comfort. For him, the liberal French aristocrat, the
important question for the future was how to avoid
the new kind of despotism that might be based on
popular opinion, with the state's power being “abso-
lute, minute, regular, provident, and mild.” Tocqueville
saw the new state power as rather like that of the
parent, except that the parent prepared the child for
manhood; the democratic state was interested in per-
petuating childhood in man. It would provide for his
necessities, facilitate his pleasures, and direct his in-
dustry. What remains, Tocqueville asked, “but to spare
them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of
living?” Tocqueville saw in religion, an independent


judiciary, voluntary organization, and the press certain
restraining elements on state power. However, these
guarantees were not sufficient to bring him to conclude
his work with a verdict clearly favorable to democracy.

If a prevailing opinion existed in Europe in the
1850's and 1860's, it was certainly not that of Karl
Marx, but probably of those who called themselves
liberals. John Stuart Mill may be taken as a repre-
sentative liberal. In his classic work, On Liberty (1859),
he spoke out against the tyranny of public opinion;
the common opinion ought not to be permitted to
interfere with individual opinion. The individual is not
accountable to society for actions that concern himself
only; for those actions affecting others he may be
judged. Mill's concern was always for the gifted indi-
vidual whom the multitude might find objectionable.
Persuaded that political responsibility was the greatest
good that could come to a man, and that to be active
and serve the public weal ought to be the objective
of all in a position to do so, he saw that while not
everyone could participate directly in public life, all
could do so through representative institutions. This
was Mill's ultimate reason for preferring representative
government. Not all communities, however, were
ready for it. The duty of a colonizing power was to
prepare its dependencies for self-government. Britain
clearly had such an obligation in India.

Towards the end of the century, liberalism moved
increasingly in a collectivist direction and lost its ear-
lier hostility to socialist experimentation. There was
still some of the old-fashioned Benthamite individ-
ualism, but it was tempered by a willingness to support
health and unemployment insurance, a widening of the
franchise, a steady improvement in wages, and the
granting of specific legal rights to trade unions. The
working-class misery of the early industrial era seemed
to be greatly attenuated. It was almost possible to
believe that representative institutions had indeed re-
solved the political and social problems of industrial
society. Many believed they had. Some, like Eduard
Bernstein, felt compelled to “revise” Marxist doctrine,
to take account of the new economic and political facts
(not foreseen by Marx). Whether in the tradition of
the “revisionists,” or in its pure, unadulterated form,
Marxism seemed to gain a new repute.

Marx, in accepting the industrial system—in refusing
to posit an ideal society based on older agrarian
models—in insisting that social inequities could be
overcome through a rational organization of society,
laid the basis for a doctrine that gained new adherents
late in the century. On the Continent, though not in
England or the United States, Marxist parties grew in
prestige and power. France and Germany, whatever
their mutual political antipathies, resembled each other
in spawning large Marxist parties. They were hostile
to the anarchist and syndicalist spirit that remained
prominent in certain segments of the working class.
Eduard Bernstein, for all his acceptance of the benefits
secured by the worker as the consequence of the new
social legislation, had no doubt that Germany's political
system was essentially undemocratic, and that a prin-
cipal purpose of his political effort ought to be to
achieve democracy. Socialism, he believed, could only
come about through democracy; in his words, “democ-
racy is a condition of socialism to a much greater
degree than is usually assumed, i.e. it is not only the
means but also the substance.” Bernstein came very
close to expressing what certain English social reform-
ers had argued in the nineteenth century, and what
Fabianism announced explicitly: socialism was a con-
tinuation and a fulfillment of industrialism and of

This was not a view that all working-class advocates
would accept. The syndicalist spirit, going back to
Proudhon and Blanqui, had deep appeal for many.
Georges Sorel may be taken as typical of those who
spoke glowingly of the possibilities of the “general
strike” in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Rejecting the democratic bias of Marxists like Bern-
stein, and detesting democracy generally as the crea-
tion of the bourgeoisie, Sorel feared what democracy
was doing in weakening the revolutionary ardor of the
working class. The camaraderie of workers ought not
to be lost; the attack on the state had to continue; it
could only lead, he insisted, to the collapse of the state.
Sorel, a syndicalist at the time, passed through other
ideological schools in time, but in every one he per-
sisted in his diatribe against bourgeois democracy.

Others writing at the same time—Vilfredo Pareto,
Robert Michels, Gaetano Mosca—inquired into the
oligarchical tendencies of democracy. Where the nine-
teenth century prided itself on the suffrage—on the
importance of extending the vote—these men ex-
pressed misgivings about the habits and tendencies of
men selected by democratic ballot-box procedures.
Could such men be entrusted with power? Would they
not be self-serving or the servants of special interest
groups? These questions had not been much asked in
the nineteenth century.

So long as democracy was a political movement
making its way, so long as there were classes to be
enfranchised, constitutions to be written—so long, in
short, as democracy was an uncommon thing—
partisans of popular rule were disposed to be fairly
uncritical of democracy. When, however, as in the
early twentieth century, manhood suffrage was largely
achieved, female suffrage was making progress, trade
union rights were recognized, freedom of assembly,


speech, press, and religion seemed assured, a new kind
of questioning began. Perhaps elections were not as
significant as nineteenth-century liberals imagined
them to be. Perhaps political movements that insisted
on instituting complex democratic mechanisms—
“recall,” “referendum,” “proportional representation,”
and the like—dwelled on quite secondary matters.
Mosca, Michels, Pareto—and others of their persuasion
—argued that democracy was itself a fraud, a delu-
sion by which men lived. Many, they said, could not
bear to admit that self-government was impossible,
that men lived under modern (bureaucratic) oligarchies
and that there was no escape from that power. Gov-
ernment, for those who held such views, became a form
of monopoly; the politician was the new monopolist,
though he pretended to identify with the subjects over
whom he exercised his authority. The ballot box, the
glory of the nineteenth-century democrat, was made
little of; so, also, were the political parties, with their
pretensions to being checks on oligarchic power.

What the effects of such theories might have been
had World War I not intervened, it is impossible to
know. The war was important for democracy, not least
because it catapulted into international prominence
Woodrow Wilson and Nikolai Lenin, who, whatever
their other gifts, knew the value of rhetoric. Each
contributed to making new slogans for their age.
Wilson, in bringing the United States into the war in
April 1917, claimed that he was enrolling the country
in a war to make the world safe for democracy. The
fact that the Tsarist regime had been toppled some
weeks earlier made it possible for Wilson to argue that
the Entente powers were “democracies,” while Ger-
many remained victim of its authoritarian regime. He
pledged a League of Nations—of peace-loving states—
the institution of a permanent organization to which
only democratic states would be admitted.

All this was predicated on the notion that self-
government would be the prevailing political form of
the future, and that the war was being waged to guar-
antee that possibility. Wilson thought that one of his
purposes ought to be the encouraging of those elements
in Germany that displayed “democratic” tendencies.
They might prove useful in rendering assistance to the
Allies in the democratic objective of overthrowing the
Junker power. Such arguments were highly propa-
gandistic; democracy became a word of common usage
in a way that it had never been previously. An exami-
nation of the press, not only in the United States, but
in other Allied states as well, shows a tendency to use
the word democracy in ways that Wilson made re-
spectable and possible.

Meanwhile, another new voice was heard, though
not with anything like the same amplification. Lenin,
disgusted by the defection of Western Social Demo-
crats from a pacifism they had long preached, per-
suaded that these men had abandoned their interna-
tionalist class-war ideology in favor of conventional
patriotic nationalism, saw the war as advantageous only
if it could be transformed from an “imperialist war”
into an international “civil war,” to hasten the inevita-
ble revolution. Lenin's object was to bring into a com-
mon rebellion workers who were the subjects of mod-
ern capitalism and colonial peoples who were the
subjects of capitalist imperialism. After March 1917,
his only objective was to bring about revolution in
Russia; this, he accomplished in November. His instru-
ment was the Communist Party, for which he had
labored since the early years of the century. A central-
ized party, of professional revolutionaries, it accom-
plished what social democracy had never been able
to achieve in the West—absolute control, through
party instrumentalities and a highly centralized bu-
reaucracy, of the whole of a state's power. Lenin
achieved this in the name of democracy; not the bour-
geois democracy of parliaments, but the proletarian
democracy of Soviets. Lenin, like his successor, Stalin,
never doubted the legitimacy and superiority of the
people's democracy established in the Soviet Union.
Its institutions and values—so different from those of
bourgeois democracy—were flaunted in a whole suc-
cession of written constitutions.

To the Communist disparagement of bourgeois de-
mocracy, democratic theorists have generally felt some
obligation to give an answer. To the Fascist and Nazi
critics of liberal democracy, increasingly vocal in the
1930's, there was less response; it was as if criticism
from that quarter—with its simplistic racial and na-
tional myths, glorification of a “leader,” and dispar-
agement of representative institutions—scarcely mer-
ited a serious retort. In the 1930's, there was some
disposition to argue; the defeat of Nazi Germany and
Fascist Italy closed off the discussion.

The mood of the war years and of the immediate
postwar period cannot be represented by any single
work. Yet, that of Joseph Schumpeter, as expressed in
Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, merits attention.
Schumpeter argued that the classical theory of democ-
racy did not describe the political situation as we know
it; there is no possibility of pretending, as the eight-
eenth century did, that “the democratic method is that
institutional arrangement for arriving at political deci-
sions which realizes the common good by making the
people itself decide issues through the election of indi-
viduals who are to assemble in order to carry out its
will” (p. 250). Schumpeter saw such description as an
elaborate fiction; he preferred a new definition: “the
democratic method is that institutional arrangement


for arriving at political decisions in which individuals
acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive
struggle for the people's vote” (p. 269). This, Schum-
peter said, implied nothing less than that “democracy
is the rule of the politician.” Modern democracy was
the product of capitalism. If capitalism were to disap-
pear and be replaced by socialism, he said, this would
not necessarily mean that democracy's institutions
would go. Parties, elections, parliaments—all these
might prove convenient political instruments even for
a socialist society. Central to the survival of democracy,
for Schumpeter, was the agreement of the “vast major-
ity of the people in all classes... to abide by the rules
of the democratic game.” This, in turn, “implies that
they are substantially agreed on the fundamentals of
their institutional structure” (p. 301).

Another critique of the classical theory of democ-
racy, one that attracted great attention on its publica-
tion in 1956, was that of Robert Dahl. In his published
lectures, A Preface to Democratic Theory, he showed
an empirical grasp that had not been at all common
in the prewar period. Contrasting his own theory of
polyarchy, which focused primarily on the social pre-
requisites for a democratic order, with what he called
Madisonian theory, which emphasized the consti-
tutional prerequisites, Dahl insisted that a theory of
social checks and balances was very different from one
that dwelled on constitutional checks and balances.
Dahl argued that “the bent given to American thought
by the Constitutional Convention and the subsequent
apotheosis of its product... hindered realistic and
precise thinking about the requirements of democracy”
(p. 83).

For Dahl, the possibility of majority rule on any
specific policy was negligible. Where the prerequisites
of polyarchy, as he outlined them, existed, then the
election itself was “the critical technique for insuring
that government leaders will be relatively responsive
to non-leaders.” Of the eight conditions he laid down
for polyarchy, Dahl saw a small possibility of their
being met. Elections were “a crucial device for con-
trolling leaders,” but “quite ineffective as indicators
of majority preference.” Specific policies tended to be
the products of “minorities rule.” Majority rule, in the
sense that Madison had used the term, Dahl saw as
largely a myth. In most societies minorities frustrate
and tyrannize others, but this is a far cry from dic-

Dahl concluded from all this that constitutional
forms were not a principal device for protecting one
group in society against another. What, then, were they
useful for? He thought them significant mostly for
determining “what particular groups are to be given
advantages or handicaps in the political struggle.” The
reason the American Constitution had survived, in
Dahl's view, was not that Madison and his colleagues
had constructed such delicate mechanisms for guaran-
teeing a political balance, but that the Constitution
was frequently altered to fit a changing social balance
of power. It was the American penchant for bargaining
that made the whole political process work.

Debates that were once vivid about the relative
advantages of presidential and parliamentary systems,
about two-party versus multi-party constitutions, have
lost some of their urgency in recent years. Increasingly,
there is a tendency to distinguish between consti-
tutional and autocratic regimes in a way that Eric Weil
does in his Philosophie politique (1956); constitutional
regimes involve a set of judicial institutions inde-
pendent of political authority, and generally provide
for a method whereby political leadership may be
altered by the citizens' vote. In an autocratic state,
the citizen has no legal recourse against administrative
or political decision, and can neither legally challenge
the decisions of government nor alter the political
leadership. By this standard, democracy becomes the
best form of government in a healthy society, since
it has the best chance of bringing good men to major
positions. In a community in decomposition, violent,
passionate, and dominated by conflicts between rival
interest groups, the reign of the mediocre and the
wicked will generally be the rule; this will often lead
to an autocratic government. This, Weil says, is the
response of men who deem efficiency to be a para-
mount virtue, with all other values being secondary.
In a healthy community, where rational discussion is
possible, at least among those who participate in the
direction and control of public affairs, democracy will
bring the best men to power. Reasonable discussion
must lie at the base of any stable democracy. Parlia-
mentary institutions are no guarantee against tyranny;
nor can universal suffrage be held to provide any de-
fense. Even the law does not provide absolute assur-
ance. Each is necessary to discussion, and each con-
tributes to providing circumstances calculated to
encourage the assertion of talent. The basis of democ-
racy, then, is an administration capable of acting ra-
tionally, and capable of keeping the confidence of the
electors. The electors cannot themselves decide; they
cannot hope to master the complexities of fiscal or
military reform. They must be prepared to accept the
judgment of those who are qualified to know.

Today, when there is so much effort to appropriate
the democratic label to governments that would not
normally qualify as such, it becomes increasingly im-
portant to distinguish between the conditions for de-
mocracy and the criteria of democracy. Seymour
Martin Lipset, in his Political Man (1960), has tried


to do that, relating democracy to levels of economic
development, but also to the effectiveness and legiti-
macy of particular governments. For Lipset, effective-
ness has to do with actual performance, the extent to
which the government satisfies powerful groups within
the society, and is able to carry out its functions.
Legitimacy, he defines as “the capacity of the system
to engender and maintain the belief that the existing
political institutions are the most appropriate ones for
the society.”

Increasingly, one returns to the ancient Aristotelian
idea that there is a relation between a society's prop-
erty distribution and its form of government. A large
impoverished mass and a small elite will generally
produce oligarchy or tyranny. Greater equalization of
wealth favors democratic rule. As the relation between
the educational level of a people and democracy is
increasingly examined, the question of why certain
developing societies achieve democratic forms while
others do not becomes a matter of controversy. Indus-
trialization is clearly possible in both democratic and
nondemocratic societies. Material progress does not
appear to depend on popular rule. What, then, are
the incontestable advantages of democracy? The prob-
lem of Herodotus is as much the problem of the latter
part of the twentieth century as it was of the Greek
city-state where direct citizen participation was possi-
ble. There is a new sense today of the fragility of
democratic institutions. Perhaps the preoccupations of
Athens are not so foreign to the twentieth century as
they were to the more self-confident nineteenth.


Gabriel A. Almond and James S. Coleman, eds., The
Politics of the Developing Areas
(Princeton, 1960). Aristotle,
Politics, trans. and ed. Ernest Barker (Oxford, 1946). Bernard
Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
(Cambridge, Mass., 1967). Ernest Barker, Reflections on
(Oxford, 1942). Jeremy Bentham, A Fragment
on Government,
ed. W. Harrison (Oxford, 1948). Isaiah
Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London, 1969). Crane
Brinton, English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century
(Cambridge, Mass., 1949). Maurice Cranston, Freedom, A
New Analysis
(London, 1953). Robert A. Dahl, A Preface
to Democratic Theory
(Chicago, 1956). William Y. Elliott,
The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics (New York, 1928). Elie
Halévy, The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism (London,
1949). Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power; Its Nature and the
History of its Growth
(New York, 1949). Harold J. Laski,
A Grammar of Politics (New Haven, 1925). Shirley Robin
Letwin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge, 1965). A. D.
Lindsay, The Modern Democratic State (London, 1943; New
York, 1962). Seymour Martin Lipset, Political Man: The
Social Base of Politics
(New York, 1960). T. H. Marshall,
Citizenship and Social Class (Cambridge, 1950). Richard
McKeon and Stein Rokkan eds., Democracy in a World of
(Chicago, 1951). Barrington Moore, Social Origins
of Dictatorship and Democracy
(Boston, 1966). Thomas
Paine, Complete Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner, 2 vols. (New
York, 1945). Robert R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic
Vols. 1 and 2 (Princeton, 1959; 1964). Plato,
Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington
Cairns (Princeton, 1963). George H. Sabine, A History of
Political Theory,
3rd ed. (New York, 1961); contains a good
bibliography of secondary works. Giovanni Sartori, Demo-
cratic Theory
(Detroit, 1962). Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capi-
talism, Socialism, and Democracy,
3rd ed. (New York, 1950).
Judith N. Shklar, Men and Citizens: A Study of Rousseau's
Social Theory
(Cambridge, 1969). E. P. Thompson, The
Making of the English Working Class
(New York, 1963).
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips
Bradley, 2 vols. (New York, 1960). Adam Ulam, The Unfin-
ished Revolution
(New York, 1960). Michael Walzer, The
Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical
(Cambridge, Mass., 1965). Eric Weil, Philosophie
(Paris, 1956). Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of
the American Republic, 1776-1787
(Chapel Hill, 1969).


[See also Constitutionalism; Equality; General Will; Liber-
alism; Nation; Social Contract; State.]