Note:  Do not rely on this information. It is very old.


Democracy (Greek demos, people; kratos, strength, power), a government controlled by the whole, or the great bulk, of the citizens of the state, either by their direct participation in legislation and in exercising the executive and judicial powers (primary democracies), or by electing the legislature and the chief functionaries of government (representative democracies). The democracies of ancient Greece and Italy were all primary; modern democracies are representative with such partial exceptions as are due to the existence of the referendum and Landesgemeinde in Switzerland. The principles of Greek democracy according to Aristotle are that "the people take part in decision [on the affairs of state] and [the work of] government," and "that each citizen is in turn ruler and subject." Practically the latter principle was applied so literally that (e.g. at Athens) the administrative work was mostly done by large Boards, and the members of these and most of the minor functionaries were drawn by lot, so that every citizen had his chance of office. Both civil and criminal cases, too, were tried (at any rate in the last resort) by popular courts, which in fact were committees of the assembly. Periodically the whole body of citizens met in this assembly to legislate and decide important affairs of state (e.g. as to a declaration of war). The minor business of government was managed by a sort of standing committee chosen annually by lot. With some variations, the case was the same in other Greek democracies. None, however, included the whole male population, there being many slaves and often many foreign residents; the citizens were, in fact, a kind of privileged corporation. These democracies (according to Aristotle) tended to pass under the control of the poor and the town loafers, whose attendance at the assemblies was stimulated by payment, whereas the men of property were often too busy to come. The State revenues, it must be remembered, were derived largely from State property, not from direct taxation, and it seemed fair that those who gave their time to the State's business should have a share in them. The poor (according to Aristotle, but we do not know enough about the many Greek constitutions from which he generalised to verify his assertion) used their power to oppress the rich. It is certain that the latter were constantly trying to abolish democratic government, and that there were frequent revolutions.

The only approach to primary democracy now is In some Swiss cantons (Uri, Unterwalden), where the whole citizen body meets annually to legislate, vote money, and elect magistrates; but these are not sovereign States. Modern democracy grew up out of the institutions (copied from the British Government) of the States of the American Union after the Revolutionary War. These had representative government with legislatures elected by the bulk of the citizens, but the suffrage was not universal. One party in the States, however, following Thomas Jefferson (q.v.), was much influenced by the political doctrines of contemporary France, especially of Rousseau. These doctrines, whose development from theories of Roman law has been traced partially by Sir Henry Maine, are for our present purpose reducible to this - that all men are by nature free and equal (i.e. either were so originally, or ought to be), and that a just State should recognise their equal claims. Partly from these ideas, partly from the advance of education, partly, no doubt, from the needs of one or other political party, the franchise was gradually lowered in the various States until suffrage became practically, without exception, universal in all. At the same time the elective principle has been considerably extended, in many states even to judges, while the double election to the Presidency has become a mere form. Criminal prosecutions are undertaken in the name of the people (instead of the Crown, as in England). The Constitutions of the States, when revised, are commonly subjected to a direct popular vote, and some of them explicitly assert the equal rights of all citizens.

Ancient Rome was a primary democracy, as were many other Italian towns. In the mediaeval cities of Germany and Italy there were approaches to primary democracy. In France during the Revolution, and again from 1848 to 1851, there were attempts at a representative democratic republic. At present, France and Switzerland are the European instances of this; but democracy, which Rousseau, writing in 1762, thought possible "only for the gods," is thought by most persons to be the goal of all European states. The suffrage in nearly all is now either universal or nearly so, and the popular element in all modern monarchies (save Russia) practically far outweighs the hereditary in importance. In America monarchy seems quite out of the question; in England the power of the Crown at present is little more than nominal. It need hardly be said that the growth of education, the newspaper press, the railway, the telegraph, have been leading factors in the development of popular power. As a means of administration, it must be admitted that a despotic government may be better than a democratic, since it can act with greater rapidity, and there are fewer people to convince of the need of a change. One recent writer, M. Leroy-Beaulieu, thinks that on this ground democracies may some day give place to administrative monarchies, as the Roman Republic gave place to the Empire. But the dangers of tyranny and jobbery are partly provided against by the publicity of democracies.

The common charge of fickleness against democracies strictly applies only to primary democracies, assembled all together in one meeting and easily swayed by sudden feeling. The complexity of a modern society, in which conflicting interests check one another, keeps modern democracy from this danger. Indeed, Sir Henry Maine, in his last work, urged that the natural tendency of a democracy was to apathy, and that in practice this was only counteracted by the existence of party passion and by corruption - not necessarily by direct bribery, but by the State benefiting the masses at the expense of the rich. This apathy can only be counteracted by (1) a high degree of popular education and intelligence, (2) the presentation of great issues to the electors, and (3) a high moral standard. But the consciousness of each elector that he can bear his part in shaping the policy of his State, and, if he have the ability and opportunity, in directing it in some official capacity, should counteract the indifferentism which is the root of most evil in politics.