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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of “the People” contains both descriptive
and normative elements. Descriptively it has referred
to a racial, religious, political, and sometimes a social


group of individuals. We still speak about the white
and black people, the people of God, the electorate,
and the working people, and in each case the reference
is to a different group of men and women. Normatively
it has been used in both a eulogistic and pejorative
sense. Thus we find “popular” government, as democ-
racy, contrasted with absolute monarchy, and we mean
by the adjective a government of which we approve.
But we also speak of popular taste as inferior to culti-
vated taste; few writers would think themselves com-
plimented to be called popular writers if the epithet
meant writers who appealed only to the masses. Few
ideas have been so vague as the idea of the People.

Historically the idea that distinguishes the People
from the other members of a community arose in
Athens. A democracy was a government of the Demos,
a term that originally meant the free inhabitants of
a deme or locality. In time, however, it came to mean
the free, native, male citizens of the city of Athens.
It never included slaves, women, or resident aliens
(metoikoi). The Demos had the right to vote for certain
officers and on certain policies but was far from ever
being omnicompetent. Its liberation was a gradual
affair, starting with Solon (sixth century B.C.) and
developing until the overthrow of Athenian inde-
pendence under Philip of Macedon, after the Battle
of Cheroneia (336 B.C.) There is a tradition that the
Athenians were proud of their democracy. Some
undoubtedly were. But neither Plato nor Aristotle
thought highly of it.

The reason for their low opinion derived from a
second usual meaning of “the People.” To Plato the
People were the artisan class, hand laborers, and in
Plato's eyes such men existed simply to feed themselves
and to procreate. In his view they corresponded to the
appetites of an individual man in contrast to the
military (the irascible or spirited class) and the philoso-
phers (the rational). To his way of thinking in both
his Republic and The Laws, a democracy would be
government run by artisans, analogous to a man
dominated by gluttony and lust.

In Aristotle a similar opinion obtained. No man, he
believed, could live the life of virtue who was occupied
solely in earning his living. He even excluded men
engaged in retail trade from the class who should
govern. But Aristotle also thought of each kind of
government as constituted for the satisfaction of a set
of interests. The problem of the political philosopher
was to find that form of government that would satisfy
the interests of all the citizens. And his fear of mob
rule was based on the premiss that “the Many” would
govern in the interests of the poor. Still both Plato
and Aristotle were willing to admit that democracy,
in the sense of a government by the working class, was
the best of bad governments. States, they both felt,
should be run by reason, and to cultivate the life of
reason demanded leisure. The working class by defini-
tion has no leisure.

In Rome also, we find at least two meanings of “the
People.” The famous monogram, SPQR, standing for
The Senate and the Roman People, implied a sharp
cut between the lawmakers or the Senate, and those
who were governed—though associating both in the
results of legislation. But the Roman population had
another distinction that was of social as well as of
political importance, the distinction between the
patricians and the plebeians.

The patrician was the social superior to the plebeian
and his rank was determined by descent. The distinc-
tion became political when the plebeians seceded in
494 B.C. and there was instituted the Tribunate of the
Plebs. Thus what began as a social distinction was
preserved by law. No one is sure of the origin of either
the patricians or plebeians, but we do know that the
latter in historical times absorbed freedmen and resi-
dent aliens, whereas, at least during the Republic, the
former were a closed caste.

Some Roman writers discussed the meaning of the
word populus. Cicero, for instance, in his Republic (I,
25, 39) points out that the word does not refer to the
whole population of a state but rather to a group
associated in their agreement with the laws and who
live in the community of service. To be a member of
the populus, then, would seem to imply a conscious
will to accept the laws and live for their observance.
Livy too in speaking of the Tribunate of the Plebeians,
says in his History (II, 25) that it is not an office of
the people but only of the plebs, thus differentiating
the plebs from the populus. Along with this political
distinction ran a social distinction, as mentioned before.

The contempt that the upper-class Roman had for
the plebeian is best illustrated in the characters who
play ludicrous roles in Plautus: fishermen, pimps,
slaves, parasites, freedmen. The people in the sense of
the lower classes seemed to be inherently comic, a
tradition that continued up to the nineteenth century.
One has but to think of the plays of Shakespeare, Julius
Caesar, Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night's Dream,
see this exemplified. It was not until such a novel as
Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) was published that
any writer took members of the working class seriously,
though sympathy for their hard lot had often been
expressed. It had been well established in the Italian
Renaissance that only nobles could be tragic figures;
comic figures came from the laboring classes. We retain
this usage in adjectives such as “plebeian” and “vulgar”
(Latin, vulgus), which are historically synonymous.

There was bound up in this confusion of ideas the
notion that what is plentiful, and perhaps therefore
cheap, is worse than that which is rare. The Greeks


called the common people—and the word “common”
is suggestive—“the Many” (Hoi Polloi) and the Romans
similarly called them “the Multitude” (multitudo). We
too have carried on this tradition in using “rare” for
something precious, and “ordinary” or “common” for
something cheap and therefore undesirable. Indeed this
tradition may lie behind that contempt for the vulgar
which has never died out and which only in the middle
of the twentieth century began itself to be condemned.

Christianity, influenced perhaps by Stoicism, intro-
duced the notion that all men, regardless of social
position or nationality, are brothers. To the Stoic, the
Emperor Marcus Aurelius and the slave Epictetus,
were equals, at least before the law or “in the eyes
of God.” This notion was perpetuated in the Middle
Ages in religious matters, though not in either political
or social circles. In Pauline Christianity we are all
members of one body, and in Saint Augustine all who
belong to the City of God are equals. But neither man
thought that this idea applied to all human beings. It
applied only to true Christians. The City of God does
not exist here on earth and “Thy people Israel” (tua
plebs Israel
) are far from being everyone. They are
the elect. A populus, says Saint Augustine, following
Cicero, are men bound together in harmonious com-
munion (concordi communione) (City of God, XIX,
23-24). The existent city was founded by Cain and is
inherently evil. Hence the people, as well as their
princes, participate in hereditary guilt. This may seem
like a rather discouraging outlook, but the fact remains
that for Saint Augustine one's social position counted
for nothing when it was a question of God's grace. This
view was important and was kept alive throughout the
Middle Ages when revolts of peasants and laborers,
beginning with the Bagaudae in the fourth century and
including the Lollards in the fourteenth, broke out
frequently and were put down only by superior force.
One sees the idea appearing in the slogan of John Ball
(1381) when the couplet

When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?
became popular. Though the Middle Ages, as appears
in the feudal system of ranks (dignitates) and special
privileges, was a period in which social position
counted for everything in theory, there was also in the
background the notion that God was not a respecter
of persons.

In fact it was during the early Middle Ages (eighth
century) that the proverb, Vox populi vox Dei was first
recorded. It occurs in a letter of Alcuin to Charle-
magne. In this letter Alcuin says that the proverb is
a customary saying and that the Emperor ought to pay
no attention to it, since the populus ought to be led,
not followed. Unfortunately no one has found the origin
of the proverb, but the idea that there is something
divine in general opinion goes back at least to Hesiod
(eighth century B.C.). In I Samuel 8:7, where the people
come to Samuel and ask for a king, God says to His
high priest, “Listen to the voice of the people,” or in
the Vulgate, by which these words were transmitted
to medieval Christians, Audi vocem populi. In this case
the voice was not the voice of God at all, and God
saw in the request something which His people would
regret in time to come. But He did say to listen to
them and grant their request. Thus biblical justification
was given for the theory that in the beginning kings
were elected by the populus. Similarly bishops, how-
ever nominated, had to be approved by the people
and popular consent was expressed in all probability
by acclamation. But there is no case of either a king
or a bishop having been elected by popular vote in
the sense of universal franchise. Kings were sometimes
elected by the nobility and bishops chosen from a list
submitted by a group of other bishops, but the phrase,
“by the consent of the people,” was always retained.

The People, in the sense of the working classes, took
no part in such elections other than that of acclaiming
the new bishop or king. In literature they retained their
color of the comic or the brutal. The one exception
to this rule occurred in the case of shepherds. In
literary history two strains join here, that of the
pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Vergil and that of
the biblical account of the annunciation to the
shepherds from Luke 2. This double strain gave
shepherds as literary figures a special place of esteem,
though the service of actual shepherds was far from
delightful. This is not the place to expatiate on this
curious bit of literary history, but it may be noted that
it became traditional well into the eighteenth century
when rural life began to take on romantic coloring.
Its importance for us is that it contained in it the seeds
of an element in the history of the People which has
been neglected, if known. For sympathy with the
shepherd led in the pastorals of the Renaissance and
in the rococo period to a fantastic glorification of a
kind of life and a class of men so far from reality that
one wonders how it could ever have been treated
seriously. At the same time it is possible that out of
this glorification came a growing sympathy for rural
life in general and a certain admiration for the peasant.

In the eighteenth century the songs of the peasants
began to be collected, first as charming and delightful,
and second as specimens of the voice of the people
uncorrupted by sophistication. Bishop Thomas Percy
published his famous Reliques of Ancient English Po-
in 1765 and stimulated a vogue for ballads and
songs which has not seen its end today. Percy's ballads


were so edited and revised that none could be taken
as authentic in the form he gave it. But that fault was
remedied by other editors as time went on. Percy
himself believed that these poems were written and
sung by “bards” at the courts of nobles, but his con-
temporary in Germany, Johann Gottfried von Herder,
thought of them as literally the people's voice, Volks-
expressive of the collective soul of the folk. He
collected and translated such verses from various
countries, including some of the legendary Ossian, and
was in all probability the source of the idea that the
folk had a voice and that its voice expressed emotions
that were more “authentic” than that of trained and
sophisticated poets. It was in this vein that Wordsworth
in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798) spoke of
the speech of the rural folk as better than that of the
urban dwellers. To him poetic diction was rural diction.
Country people were supposed to be closer to nature
in one of the many senses of that word, and to praise
them was to elevate nature above art.

Meanwhile the social levels below that of the barons
were gaining power in England and by 1832 the fran-
chise was extended beyond the limits of the large
property owners. The system of rotten boroughs was
done away with or at least seriously threatened. This
meant that the People, as opposed to the nobility and
the gentry, were beginning to be represented in Par-
liament. In France the Revolution of 1789, though it
gained the sympathy of some members of the nobility
at the start—the Duc d'Orléans voting for the execu-
tion of his cousin, the king—gradually became the
instrument of the urban mob; and the political gains
made by the menu peuple were lost again under
Napoleon and the Restoration. It has been said by
Marxists that the French Revolution was a revolution
of the bourgeoisie, and as far as permanent gains are
concerned, that opinion is correct. The spread of the
franchise to the total adult population, female as well
as male, did not come about in France until after the
second World War. In Western Europe and the United
States, universal enfranchisement was gained only after
the industrial workers and miners saw the advantage
of organization, and then only very gradually. The
Chartist movement in England, so eloquently described
in Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton, was a failure, but nev-
ertheless the strength of organized labor grew until in
the twentieth century almost everyone had become a
working man. Property qualifications for the franchise,
which were universal in the early nineteenth century,
were gradually abandoned and the slogan, attributed
to John Jay, that he who owns the country should
govern it, was dropped. This was perhaps because the
public began to realize that the country was not only
land but also stocks and bonds and muscles.

In spite of the progress of culture and political
power, the People became too numerous to meet as
a unit. Even some of the larger New England towns
abandoned the old form of the town meeting and
substituted representation. In a large industrial and
hence urban country the actual political power is
bound to be in the hands of an oligarchy, a very large
one to be sure, and the People as a whole are in the
position of voting for officers who have been nominated
behind the scenes and of being represented, rather than
present even in municipal affairs. From the county
through the cities and states up to the federal congress,
the People's voice has grown weaker and weaker, and
though this may be deprecated, there seems to be no
feasible alternative. On the social scene all forms of
snobbery still obtain and an upper upper class, to use
Professor Lloyd Warner's term, is still recognized. But
as far as general culture is concerned, the United States
has seen an uninterrupted spread of educational facili-
ties, of concerts and exhibitions of fine arts open to
the public and often crowded, of recreational possi-
bilities that would have been undreamt of at the open-
ing of the twentieth century. This movement has
awakened the public to pleasures that it assumed be-
long to it by right, along with means of insuring public
health and proper housing. The welfare state has raised
the extension of the word “People” to include almost
everyone. But the expression of its voice is bound to
be more and more restricted except in extralegal ways.
The distinction between patrician and plebeian has
almost disappeared in the United States, though of
course it still exists in social discrimination and in
conversation. But the adjective “popular” would prob-
ably be replaced by “folk” as a term of praise, though
no one seems to be sure of just who the folk are.

The history of the idea of the People is thus one
in which the descriptive and normative connotations
are closely intertwined. Whereas in the past the People
were in general thought of either with pity or con-
tempt, now the pity may be retained but the contempt
is certainly abandoned. Moreover whereas the denota-
tion of the People, even in the Preamble to the Consti-
tution of the United States, applied to males and prop-
erty owners only, represented by a small group of men
from only twelve of the thirteen states, it is now ap-
plied to almost everyone. It is impossible to point to
any one cause of this, but the predominant cause would
appear to be economic. Though Mrs. Gaskell, Charles
Kingsley, at times Dickens, always Zola and sometimes
the Brothers Goncourt expressed warm sympathy with
the lot of the working class, they had no power to
change it. It was undoubtedly through the power of
organized labor that increased wages, shorter hours,
and all the fringe benefits that are now customary were


obtained. This accomplishment has raised the working
class in the United States out of the proletariat into
the bourgeoisie.

In England class consciousness is still strong, if one
may judge from novels and plays; in France the peasant
class is clearly defined, as it is in Germany. Social
democracy is still unrealized in the United States, but
economic democracy is close to being realized. Politi-
cal democracy is as close to being actualized as is
possible in an urban society. One always finds in study-
ing the history of an idea that old ideas hang on as
residues of the past, and that is as true in the United
States as in Spain, to take an example of an extremely
conservative country. It is always the emotional coeffi-
cient of ideas that retains its potency after an idea has
lost its descriptive meaning. It would be easy to make
a selection of Americans who would believe in all the
ideals of a medieval baron, both the noble ideas and
the merely snobbish. But it is doubtful that such a
selection would be a fair sample of the population as
a whole.


Alcuin, Letter 132, in Epistolae Karolini Aevi. Monumenta
Germaniae Historica,
Vol. 4 (Berlin, 1895). Aristophanes, The
trans. Benjamin Bickley Rogers (London and
Cambridge, Mass., 1924; 1960). Aristotle, Politics, trans.
Benjamin Jowett (Oxford, 1885; 1923). Augustine, The City
of God,
Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Vol.
40. George Boas, Vox Populi (Baltimore, 1969). Paul Brandt,
Schaffende Arbeit und Bildende Kunst, 2 vols. (Leipzig,
1927-28). R. W. and A. J. Carlyle, A History of Medieval
Political Theory in the West,
6 vols. (London, 1903-36; New
York, reprint n. d.), Vol. I. Francis James Child, The English
and Scottish Popular Ballads,
5 vols. (Boston, 1883-98).
G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J., 1967). Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal
(New Haven, 1911). Morris D. Forkosch, “Who
are the 'People' in the Preamble to the Constitution?” Case
Western Reserve Law Review,
19, 3 (1968). S. A. Gallacher,
“Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Philological Quarterly, 24, 1 (1945).
Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, trans.
F. W. Maitland (Cambridge, 1900). Arnold Hauser, The
Social History of Art
(New York, 1951). J. G. von Herder,
Auszug aus einem Briefwechsel über Ossian und die Lieder
alter Völker,
in Sämtliche Werke, ed. B. Suphan, 33 vols.
(Berlin, 1877-1913), Vol. 5. A. L. Lloyd, Folk Song in
(London, 1967). Jules Michelet, Le Peuple, ed.
Lucien Refort (Paris, 1946). Kirk Harold Porter, A History
of Suffrage in the United States
(Chicago, 1918). Lily Ross
Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies (Ann Arbor, 1966). Gérard
Walter, Histoire des paysans de France (Paris, 1963). W. L.
Warner and P. S. Lunt, The Social Life of a Modern Com-
(New Haven, 1941). Michael Wilks, The Problem
of Sovereignty in the Later Middle Ages
(Cambridge, 1963).
Chilton Williamson, American Suffrage, from Property to
Democracy, 1760-1860
(Princeton, 1960).


[See also Class; Democracy; Equality; State; Volksgeist.]