History of Democracy


Table Summary

antiquity several direct democracies emerge (most notably Athens and the Roman Republic)
Middle Ages
ca. 500-1500
national representative assemblies emerge in various Western European kingdoms* (most notably Parliament, in England)
Early Modern age
ca. 1500-1800
Parliament permanently achieves major political power via the English Revolution (ca. 1640-60)**;
thenceforward, agitation for strong representative government becomes constant throughout Western Europe;
via the American Revolution (1775-83), the United States achieves representative government without monarchy
modern age
ca. 1800-present
in the early 19th century, the United States achieves white male suffrage, thus becoming the first modern democracy***;
thenceforward, democracy and universal suffrage are gradually achieved throughout the West and beyond
* this marks the achievement of representation
** this marks the achievement of empowerment
*** this marks the achievement of suffrage

The Road to Democracy

Democracy can be defined as "government in which sovereignty (authority to govern) lies with the people". This authority may be exercised directly (direct democracy) or via representatives (representative democracy).

Most nations throughout history have been governed by monarchy, in which sovereignty lies with a single hereditary ruler. The transition from monarchy to representative democracy was a long, gradual process (stretching from the Middle Ages up to the twentieth century) that took place in Western Europe and the United States. This transition featured three critical achievements: representation, empowerment, and suffrage.

The Three Major Steps to Democracy
period achieved location achieved
representation Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500) various kingdoms of Western Europe
empowerment Early Modern period (ca. 1500-1800) England
suffrage nineteenth century United States

The first step on the road to democracy was the development of political representation, in which representatives from each region of a country came together and formed a representative assembly. This group was generally limited to powerful men (e.g. nobles, clergy, merchants). At first, the representative assembly merely served as an advisory body to the monarch.

The second step, empowerment, was achieved when the representative assembly attained real political power. This initially occurred in England, where Parliament (England's representative assembly) gradually wrested power from the English monarch.

An empowered representative assembly is known as a representative government. A representative government is not democratic, however, unless its representatives are elected by the people. Initially, the power to vote was restricted to a wealthy elite (via property requirements); only with the expansion of suffrage (the final step) was representative government transformed into representative democracy.

The American achievement of white male suffrage (which eliminated property requirements, allowing all white men to vote) in the early nineteenth century has earned the United States the title of "world's first democracy". This was the breakthrough victory in the expansion of suffrage, and marks the first time in history that a large proportion of a national population could elect its representatives. Over the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, universal suffrage was achieved, in which voting rights were extended to the entire adult populations of democratic nations.

Branches of Government

Government can be divided into three branches: executive (executing law), legislative (making law), and judicial (interpreting law). While the executive branch decides what actions the government will take (e.g. imposing taxes, starting wars), it can only act within the bounds of the law, which are determined by the legislative branch. When conflict arises over whether the law has been broken, the matter is settled by the judicial branch.

Historically, the three branches of government were intermingled. Today, the United States features separation of powers (in which all three branches are separate), while the United Kingdom and other parliamentary governments feature fusion of powers (in which the judicial branch is separate, but the executive and legislative branches are combined).

The terms "direct democracy" and "representative democracy" refer specifically to the legislative branch of government. In a direct democracy, all voters belong to the legislature and can vote upon each decision it makes. In a representative democracy, the legislature is composed of elected representatives from each region of a nation.

In Western Europe, democratic governments emerged as power was transferred from monarchs to elected assemblies. These monarchs, though eventually stripped of all real political power, were often retained as symbolic leaders; a democracy with a symbolic monarch (e.g. Britain, Netherlands) is known as a constitutional monarchy. A democracy that lacks a symbolic monarch (e.g. United States, France) is known as a republic.

Western Law

The term law denotes a body of rules observed by a society. The earliest examples of written law date from shortly after the rise of civilization. The most influential body of law in ancient Europe was Roman law, of which written forms date to the Republic.5

Roman law falls into the category of civil law, in which judicial decisions are based on exhaustive written rules. Civil law contrasts with common law, in which judicial decisions are instead based mainly on precedent (previous decisions on similar cases). Descendants of the Roman legal system have prevailed on the European Continent, while England and many of its colonial offshoots (including the United States) feature common law systems. Common law emerged in England during the High Middle Ages.5

A democracy requires rule of law, which can be defined as "a strong legal system that applies to everyone, including political leaders". If a nation lacks rule of law, it is said to have rule of man, which denotes that the nation's leaders can simply do as they please (because their power is not limited by law). Monarchies feature rule of man.

Without rule of law, nothing could stop an ambitious leader of a democratic country from terminating elections. This is prevented by rule of law; specifically, by a constitution (a body of law that describes how a nation is to be governed). A constitution, which typically has both written parts and unwritten parts (conventions), sets out the manner in which leaders are chosen, the duration for which they can serve, and the extent of their powers. A constitution is thus the bedrock of a democracy.

Main Article


Anthropologists have observed that small tribal societies have a natural tendency toward democratic decision-making. Arguably, then, the world's first democracies were stone age tribes of hunter-gatherers. With the explosion of wealth and specialization of labour that resulted from agricultural settlement, however, these tiny democracies gave way to hierarchical societies ruled by monarchs or oligarchs.3

Civilized democracy was born in Athens and Rome, at roughly the same time (ca. 500 BC).1 Both were direct democracies.

Though various Greek cities embraced direct democratic government, the first and most influential was Athens, the most convincingly democratic state of antiquity.2 Athenian democracy spanned roughly the Classical age (ca. 500-330 BC). Yet suffrage did not extend to women, slaves, or non-native males, such that perhaps a mere tenth of the Athenian population could vote.1

The direct democracy of the Roman Republic lasted for most of the Republic (ca. 500 BC-0), though it gradually weakened throughout this period (due largely to the rising power of the senate, an appointed body that officially served an advisory role). The Roman legislature was divided into multiple assemblies, each of which represented a different class in Roman society. Although suffrage restrictions were similar to those of Athens, most Romans lived far from the forum at the heart of Rome (especially when Roman territory began to expand), effectively excluding them from democratic participation.3

Middle Ages

With the fall of Rome, Western Europe became fractured into a patchwork of small kingdoms, which grew larger and more politically organized over the ensuing centuries. In some cases, the monarch came to be assisted by an advisory body of representatives from across the kingdom. This was by no means a novel development; such representative assemblies have emerged in many states across the world throughout history.

Among medieval Western kingdoms, the first representative assembly was established in tenth-century Iceland. Throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, representative assemblies emerged in various other Western kingdoms (especially in the north), as well as some Italian city-states.3 The most historically important assembly would be Parliament, which developed in High Medieval England.

While national assemblies helped to coordinate the governance of their nations, their ability to constrain the actions of their monarchs was typically marginal; in other words, the representative assemblies played mainly an advisory role (as opposed to a governing role). The glaring exception to this rule was Parliament, whose governing authority slowly expanded as the later Middle Ages drew on.12


Throughout the later medieval and Early Modern periods, Parliament gradually obtained authority over taxation and expenditure, such that the monarch could not raise or spend public funds without Parliamentary assent. Parliament also expanded the freedoms of the English people, including freedom of speech and religion, freedom from arbitrary punishment/imprisonment, and freedom of economic activity. (The notion that government should provide freedom is known as liberalism.)A297-98,A307

During the Tudor period (ca. 1500-1600), Parliamentary authority was often challenged, as monarchs attempted to reassert absolute power. Mounting civil unrest ensued. The Tudors were succeeded by the Stuart dynasty, which began with James I and Charles I; under the latter, unrest culminated in the English Revolution (ca. 1640-60).14

The English Revolution can be divided into two phases of roughly equal duration. The first half was spanned by the English Civil War, in which Charles I and his forces were overthrown by Parliament and its supporters. The second half was spanned by the Commonwealth, a nominal republic (actually a dictatorship) ruled by Oliver Cromwell.13 In 1660, Parliament restored the English monarchy on condition that the monarch respect the authority Parliament had officially obtained up to that point, plus some new, additional power.14

While the transfer of power from the English monarch to Parliament was a gradual process (stretching from the High Middle Ages to the modern period), the English Revolution is often cited as the event that decisively and permanently ensured that Parliament held a major share of national political power. Indeed, mere decades after the English Revolution, Parliamentary authority was once again brazenly violated by the monarch. Parliament responded by replacing this monarch via the Glorious Revolution.

From the English Revolution onward, agitation for strong representative governments became constant across the West.1 Political thought also flourished, as philosophers (inspired by English progress) argued in favour of representative government and liberalism (see Enlightenment, History of Western Philosophy). Nonetheless, the decline of absolutism throughout Continental Europe did not truly begin until the French Revolution (1789-99).

Modern Democracy

Meanwhile, representative government also developed outside Europe, in the British colonies of America. Strong representative government (and liberalism) was imported to these colonies from the mother country, giving rise to colonial legislatures. When the United States became an independent nation (via the American Revolution, 1775-83), a national representative government was established. Unlike the national assemblies of Europe, this government did not have to struggle with a monarch for political authority.

In the early nineteenth century, the United States extended suffrage to all white males (by removing property requirements). Never before had voting power belonged to such a large proportion of a national population. Thus, even though this level of suffrage hardly seems democratic today, the United States is often considered the world's first true democracy.

Following this event, democracy gradually took hold across the West. The smoothest road lay in Britain, where Parliament continued to gain power at the expense of the monarch, and suffrage was finally extended. Throughout Continental Europe, democratization was a much more violent process, including many rebellions; notably, the year 1848 witnessed a wave of revolutionary struggles that gripped most Continental nations.

Throughout the twentieth century, remaining barriers to suffrage (including discrimination based on gender and ethnicity) were finally removed in Western nations, such that universal suffrage was achieved. Today, it is estimated that some third of the world's nations are truly democratic.3 The three most influential model democracies have been the United States, Britain, and France.1

1 - "Democracy", Encarta 2004.
2 - "Democracy", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.
3 - "Democracy", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2010.
4 - "Separation of powers", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2010.
5 - "Law", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.
6 - "Commune", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
7 - "Parliament", Encarta 2004.
8 - "Comitia", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
9 - "Legislature", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.
10 - "Civil rights and civil liberties", Encarta 2004.
11 - "Human rights", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
12 - "Democracy", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.
13 - "English Civil War", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed May 2010.
14 - "Parliament", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.