Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Who invented modern democracy?

Did modern democracy start its long career in the North Atlantic? Was it invented by the Americans, the French and the British? The French Revolution certainly helped to inject modern meaning into a term previously chiefly associated with the ancient world, with ancient Greece and republican Rome. In the 1830s the French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville concluded from his trip to the United States that it was possible for a modern state to function as a democracy (in both a political and a social sense)—even though it remained to be seen if what worked in the new world could be made to work in the old. The British establishment was late in embracing democratic rhetoric, retaining reservations well into the twentieth century, but the British model of representative government gave the people some role while holding them in check—which was reassuring for nervous elites elsewhere.

Still, these were only a few strands within a much more widely shared and variegated process of change that unfolded across Europe and the Americas during the nineteenth century. Outside the North Atlantic region, enthusiastic or doubting democrats certainly looked elsewhere for inspiration—but so did the French, Americans and Britons. And creativity was displayed everywhere. During the French revolutionary era, “democracy’ was if anything more enthusiastically celebrated in the Dutch, Swiss and Italian sister republics than in France itself. Spain’s anti-Napoleonic Cadiz constitution—which vested great power in a unicameral legislature, elected on the basis of a wide though indirect franchise—provided a model both for Spain’s American provinces (some of which then shrugged it off as insufficient for their purposes) and also for Portugal, and states in the Italian peninsula. Spain was not unusual in giving rise to a “democratic’ party in the context of the European revolutions of 1848-51, but this party was unusual in surviving those turbulent years. Meanwhile Germans and Poles, rising stars in the nascent international democratic pantheon, won wider recognition—just as later Garibaldi was widely feted. Beyond Europe and its settlements, to be sure, other peoples had their own relevant traditions and practices, though only in later decades were these recast within an explicitly “democratic’ imaginary.

Democracy has many faces and many histories.

The history of democracy is a history of challenges—in America, France and Britain no less than elsewhere. Indeed, challenge was commonly what produced it. “Democracy’ won support when it promised to solve problems to which other solutions could not be found. In southern Europe, a particular challenge was the extent to which power in international affairs was vested in “northern powers’: Britain, France, Austria and Russia. Inhabitants of southern states—in Iberia, Italy and the Balkans—found their opportunities to shape their own destinies limited by the preferences of northern power-brokers. Relative economic backwardness, one cause of this subordination, was recognised as a problem in its own right. Some inhabitants of these states concluded that their governments needed urgently to learn how to harness the patriotism of their peoples.

The Ottoman and Arab world was not untouched by these currents. The word for people or crowd, cumhur/jumhur, was employed for a variety of purposes: to describe popular turbulence but also to characterise republics. Indigenous practices of representation were formalised and reconfigured. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, variants on the imported word “democracy’ began to be used to characterise local developments, and an Ottoman Parliament very briefly met. If other courses were ultimately followed, that was not because of a lack of local ingredients for parallel experiments, but because different political choices were made.

Democracy’s history is sometimes written teleologically and triumphally—as if now we know the end goal, and the historian’s task is to chart how quickly and effectively different peoples in the world have attained it. But this kind of history teeters on the brink of self-congratulation (not least national self-congratulation). It doesn’t equip us very well to think about how democratic ideas and practices have mutated and continue to mutate, nor to expect democracy’s development to be littered with challenges, sometimes prompting its modification, at other times to its more or less general rejection. Democracy has many faces and many histories. We will not know until hindsight tells us from what springs it may be renewed.

Featured image:  The Promulgation of the Constitution of 1812. Oil painting by Salvador Viniegra. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *