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History of Democracy

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

History of Democracy.


 Democracy is a form of government in which all the citizens of a nation together determine the laws and the actions of their state. The term comes from the Greek word dÄ“mos which means rule of the people. In modern terminology democracies are defined as those in which in which every non-incarcerated adult has the ability to vote for a representative which hold executive power within the government and they that they are equal before the law.

 However another interpretation of  democracy is by considering it as not a yes/no question, but as a range of values. With a politically equal society on one side and a dictatorship on the other, as some democracies share out power more equally than others (with Switzerland being a very politically equal country).


Ancient world


Some of the ancient Indian states seem to have been run what many would recognise to be very similar to modern parliaments, with a single leader being appointed by an assembly’s of  the people within the state. With decisions made by the leader or Raja being permitted due to the consent of the assembly. However records from the time are poor and it is unclear just how open participation in the assembly was, especially considering the Indian caste system.  


 Athens is traditionally thought of as the birthplace of democracy and it was in a sense but it wasn't  the same as a democracy that we would recognise today. The city-state of Athens began as a Autocracy with the wealthiest in society having the most say in governance. Solon in 593 BC attempted to ensure all sections of society had a say in how they were governed. All citizens were entitled to attend the Assembly and vote. However a class system was still in place with those with the most wealth being given the most important positions.

 Pericles developed a more equal system whereby the Athenians used lots for selecting officials. The rationale of using lots was to ensure all citizens were equally likely to gain a position. Moreover, in most positions chosen by lot. Also rotation in office meant that no-one could build up a power base through staying in a particular position. Though this system doesn’t meet the modern definition of a democracy(ie there was no voting). Using the second definition this system is arguably more democratic than many modern democracies as voters are influenced by wealth and social standing whereas chance is not. That said women were forbidden from holding positions of power.

 Roman republic

 The Roman Republic had two executive consuls balanced by the aristocratic senate which had most of the real power and assemblies for which anyone could vote.  Although the assemblies had huge power in principle they could be limited in practice by the power of officials that were part of the senate. The Roman constitution was primarily a system of rule by a rich few families whilst giving a limited amount of power to the lower orders in order to ensure that did feel like they had no power and therefore cause trouble for the aristocracy.

 It could be argued that modern democracies that rely strongly on wealth as a campaign tool are close to being psuedo-democracies like the Roman republic. As the richest families are likely be able to use their wealth and there contacts with other wealthy people to ensure there election over poorer candidates.


Towards Modern Liberal Democracies.

 European societies  in the dark ages and middle ages were primarily were generally undemocratic with typically only landed nobles having a role in politics, with a king at the most powerful noble.

 However in England after the signing of the Magna carta in 1215 this began to change. Magna carta began to limit the Kings power before the law. In 1295 the elected parliaments became the norm in England though only landed nobles could vote. In 1688 (after the glorious revolution) the English bill of rights created freedom of speech within Parliament, the requirement to regular elections and the right to petition the monarch without fear of retribution.

After these three events an elected parliament became the most important governing force within England although it still took hundreds of years to permit universal suffrage. Major steps elsewhere towards the modern liberal democracy included:

1791: The Bill of Rights in the United states of America which provided rights to Americans without mention of class unlike in England.

 1848: Universal male suffrage was definitely established in France.

 1893: New Zealand introduces universal suffrage by awarding the vote to women.


Switzerland and Direct Democracy

 In 1865 Switzerland added rules which provided for a direct democracy on a federal level. This form of democracy permitted the people the right to suggest their own laws and to veto the laws that politicians had suggested. Switzerland is arguably the most democratic country in the world today. 












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