Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
364 of 1105



DEMOCRACY, Representative. Democracy means, literally, the rule of the demos, i.e., of the free citizens.


—I. History. The idea and the word (democracy) are of Hellenic origin. In their relations with foreigners or the barbarians, the Greeks looked upon themselves as aristocrats. In their relations with one another at home, in their petty states, they were democrats, and felt as such. In earlier ages, it is true, supreme power was confided by them to numerous kings: but even then the kings were limited by the voice of the people and the council of their equals. Power next passed from the kings to the aristocratic class, and from it to the people, the demos. The man, as Aristotle (Pol. iii., 1, 6) says, was held to be more of a citizen than others, who was at the same time fitted to rule. The Athenian democracy was, in spite of its faults, and although the time of its bloom was short-lived, the crowning glory of the political instinct of the Hellenes.


—Until modern times democracy nowhere appeared with such brilliancy as among the Greeks. The republic was the ideal of the Romans, but not democracy. The period of the middle ages was not favorable to the democratic form of government. In the cities alone did ordinary citizens here and there have any power. But even in the cities the aristocratic element soon regained the upper hand. This is true even of the Swiss towns and provinces which, in their struggles with princes and nobles, asserted their independence and maintained popular freedom. In the cities either a patriarchate was established over the citizens, or the citizens of municipalities formed an aristocracy, to whom the rural population was subject. In the provinces the old rural population took precedence of new comers; and in many families the public offices were almost hereditary.


—A great change was first operated in North America. In the new world a new form of the state appeared, representative democracy, a form of democracy very different from the radical democracy of ancient Greece. The Persian Otanes (Herodotus, iii., 82) enumerates five characteristic marks of the ancient democracy: 1, an equality of rights for all; 2, the rejection of arbitrary power as ordinarily exercised by eastern princes; 3, appointment to offices by lot; 4, responsibility in office; 5, deliberation in common, and the framing of laws in popular assemblies. The two very specific marks of ancient democracy election, by lot and the popular assemblies, are rejected by the new democratic republic, which fills offices by election, and, instead of the rude popular assemblies, has introduced representation by election. In both regards the democratic principle has been corrected and complemented by the aristocratic preference for the fitter and more intelligent. Ancient democracy was what may be called pure democracy; the modern is representative. Representative democracy is democracy moderated and ennobled by the elevation of the best. The remaining peculiarities enumerated above of ancient democracy have become the common property of all civilized states. They are incorporated in their constitutions, especially in those of constitutional monarchies.


—Representative democracy is, in America, not the final independent form of the state, as it was in the Hellenic cities, but the first, the one with which American freedom began. It grew up not in a struggle with a native aristocracy, but naturally, in virgin soil, from the laying of the foundations of the Union. The same Anglo-Saxon stock, ennobled by Norman elements, which during the middle ages laid in England the foundation for the most powerful aristocracy and was first to develop representative monarchy, has in modern times produced in America the most powerful democracy in the form of a representative republic. The spirit of freedom, self-reliance, the common law, and an understanding of representation, were brought by the settlers from their home. The Puritans of New England were all men of the English middle class, who had withdrawn from the aristocratic Anglican church and esteemed each other as brothers. They were filled with the democratic ideas of freedom, equality, self-government and citizenship, as is shown by that famous statute of the Plymouth pilgrims (Nov. 11, 1620). Although there were more aristocratic elements in the southern colonies, yet even in them no aristocratic constitution could be maintained. The planters did not need the protection of the aristocracy. They helped themselves.


—But this equality of freemen was at first recognized in the Anglo-Saxon race and was extended only to European immigrants who became more or less assimilated to that race and thus Americanized. The aborigines had as little part in it as the African negroes who were introduced into America for economic reasons. It is only in our own time that the Union has risked the dangerous experiment of treating the emancipated negroes as a component part of the American demos. It took this step, evidently, because it had the firm confidence that in spite of it, the Anglo-Saxon stock would continue to be the controlling element.


—A masculine national character is clearly the fundamental condition of a democracy. But few nations have the mental qualities and the temper necessary to govern themselves. The Anglo-Saxons possess these in a high degree. If they can transform by political education the people of other nationalities who are pouring into the Union, representative democracy will be maintained there. The great number of Germans who have gone to the United States are most easily transformed in this respect. The Irish are less easily so; and should the latter be able to change the fundamental character of the American people, they will also change the fundamental character of the American form of the state. The religious education of the American colonists contributed as much to their freedom as did their Saxon blood. Protestant freedom extended its hand to political freedom. Religious liberty became a principle of law in America for the first time, "There is no religious teaching in the United States hostile to democratic institutions. Even Catholic priests distinguish two intellectual systems. In the one, revealed religious truths, to which they submit unconditionally, prevail. The other, that of political truth, they look on as a province which God has left to free investigation, and to man." (Tocqueville Amérique, i., 350)


—The republican spirit of self-government grew up under the influence of a number of free institutions, even while the colonies were yet under the English rule. The most important of these institutions were: 1. Inherited traditional protection of personal freedom by the law against arbitrary commands, against arbitrary imprisonment; the right of assembly and the right of petition, as they were developed in the English common law. 2. The right of trial by jury in civil and criminal cases. 3. The assembling of free men within the town and county, and at first also within the colony, to discuss and take measures concerning matters of general interest. 4. When the colonies increased in population, the election of representative assemblies, to co-operate in statutory legislation, in the imposition of taxes, and in exercising a control over the administration. 5. The participation of prominent citizens in administrative councils, which, together with the governor, looked after public affairs. 6. The early creation of common schools and the making of education general. 7. The militia system, in opposition to standing armies. In certain colonies the representatives even elected the governors who stood at the head of the colonial government. 8. Self-taxation, and the refusal to recognize taxes imposed by authority alone.


—When the colonies rose up against the mother country and separated from it, the foundation on which the structure of representative democracy so quickly rose, was already laid. Twice previous to the present decade did the French nation try to imitate the American form of government, in 1793 and in 1848, but without permanent success. All French history shows a tendency toward centralization; and the entire French administration is carried on from the central power of the nation at Paris, through the agency of dependent officials. This system naturally culminates in a powerful monarchy. Hence from the ruins of the revolution, after the downfall of France's kings, the two Napoleons, Cæsarian autocrats, arose and were supported by the masses, who felt the need of authority and peace in the state. The result was a new monarchy on a democratic basis.


—On the contrary, American representative democracy found a favorable field for imitation in the Swiss confederation, because the population had received previously a republican education and were trained in self-government. Switzerland, it is true, was first organized on the French model, and consequently with too great unity as a representative democracy, under the name of the Helvetic republic, in 1798. But when this constitution was destroyed, in consequence of the revival of cantonal independence, the cantonal constitutions themselves, in 1830, passed over into the representative form; and in 1848 the Swiss confederation was organized in the same way. In this way the Swiss constitution came to have a great resemblance to the American. Since 1868, however, a tendency has appeared in the cantons to abandon representative democracy and to approach to pure democracy, that is, to go from the nobler to the ruder form. How long this tendency will last, and whether it is the beginning of a decline, or only the transition to a better form of the state, can not be determined with certainty at present.


—II. The Principle and the Institutions of Representative Democracy. Democracy always means self-government of the people; and by the people it means the people as an aggregation, i.e., the majority of free and equal citizens as having part in the state. "The majority stands for the whole." (Herodotus, iv., 80.) This pure and direct democracy, however, is possible only in the case of a small nation which is not obliged to worry over the wants of the day, and has leisure to meet frequently for political deliberation. But as modern states almost always cover a wide extent of territory, and since the great masses, even the working classes, have acquired personal freedom and civil rights, but have neither the leisure nor the culture to govern the state, this form is not possible; and the nobler form of representative democracy has taken its place as the modern form of democracy.


—The principle of representative democracy is this. The people govern themselves, but they do so by intrusting the entire administration of the state to their representatives whom they choose for that purpose, because the best and most qualified. All citizens have a part in the consciousness of political power; all may reach the highest position of authority which belongs of right only to the totality of the nation; but in fact only those can arrive at the exercise of power in the state who are distinguished by the possession of the confidence of their fellow-citizens.


—The direct action of citizens is, therefore, limited chiefly to the following things: 1. Elections to representative places. American law, which requires that not only legislators but the president shall be elected by the people, is in this respect more consistent than the Swiss, which allows the executive to be chosen by election of the federal assembly. 2. In voting on the fundamental and constitutional law. 3. In a more general participation of the citizens in self-government (municipal administration, justices of the peace, jurors). 4. In the universal eligibility to public offices; in contrast to the privileged class. 5. In the exercise of individual and political liberty (freedom of the press, of religion, of trade, of association, assemblages, etc., etc.).


—The direct exercise of popular sovereignty through representatives manifests itself in all the organs of the body politic. 1. In the legislative assembly, which is pre-eminently a body representative of the people. 2. In the government, in so far as it is intrusted to officials elected by the people. 3. In the administration of justice, which is also carried on by elected judges. Most offices are filled for a short term of years, so that frequent changes of officials take place; this is especially the case with the representatives of the people in the legislative bodies, and the chief governmental offices.


—III. Advantages and Defects of a Representative Democracy. 1. The constitution develops the common feeling of honor and the sentiment of legal right among the citizens, and, at the same time, rouses superior persons to competition. The patriotism of all stimulates talent of various kinds and leads them into the service of the country. While the constitution depends altogether on the will of the majority, it takes education into consideration, and is framed chiefly in the interests of the middle classes. It is not favorable to a towering aristocracy, but looks on it with mistrust and aversion. At times it is also dangerous to the classes which are below the level of the free and educated citizens, as the treatment of the negroes in the United States shows clearly enough, even now, after they have received freedom and civil rights.


—2. Institutions which serve the great masses are generally very well managed. Representative democracies have everywhere good common schools, excellent roads, numerous institutions for the infirm, orphans, and other benevolent objects. It is more difficult for them to attend to the higher interests of art and science. Refined luxury does not flourish in the soil of representative democracy.


—3. A peculiarity of this form of the state is the separation of the right of the state-power from the exercise of that power. This right is ascribed to the totality (the majority), the electors; the exercise of it to the minority, the elected. The governing are in principle dependent on the confidence of the governed, and the governed are in practice forced to obey the governing. This separation secures the governed masses from tyranny, but it weakens the government and causes it to approximate to a simple association. It can only prosper among a people having a high respect for law, whose patriotism is greater than their selfishness, and who know how to control their own passions.


—4. The feeling of dependence on the masses is manifested least in the legislative body. The great assembly of popular representatives is inclined to identify itself with the people. Their feeling of power misleads them sometimes into taking rash resolves. Rarely have they the courage to oppose the wishes and views of the masses, for they fear the elections. Rather would they please the majority by oppressing the minority. It is therefore a necessity of this form of constitution that it set limits even to the omnipotence of popular representation. In America it has been sought to attain this partly by the division of the legislative body into two houses, and partly by the veto of the president.


—5. Danger from weakness in representative democracies is seen more clearly in their government, which in smaller states, as in Switzerland, or the separate states of America, sinks to a mere administrative body. In a state like the American Union the importance of great affairs puts much power in the hands of the president. But the frequent changes through election render a permanent policy very difficult. The present comes to be everything, and the future nothing. The constitution can not endure a powerful permanent military force; hence no standing armies, but only militia. Other powers, therefore, are superior to representative democracy in the concentration of the forces of the state, but in return the forces of the people are more carefully husbanded by the latter under the rule of peace.


—IV. Significance of Democracy for the European Situation. The expression democracy, like the word aristocracy, has a double meaning. We designate by it either a form of the state, or we understand by it only a part of the population, the great free classes of the people and a determinate direction of political institutions. The one is a legislative, the other a political idea. An impartial analysis of the conditions of modern Europe leads to this result: that the strength of the democratic element in the people and their political participation in the state has sensibly increased and is still on the increase.


—1. The entire mental development of the time has a democratic character. The action of common schools has never been greater. Popular literature was never more disseminated than at present. The consciousness of self of the great classes of society has been everywhere awakened and has asserted itself by acts. The ideas of freedom, equality and fraternity exert an influence over all minds. The pantheistic tendency in philosophy is also favorable to the democratic way of thinking, since it looks on the world as a unit and all men as developments of the common material, or of the one soul of the universe; and this philosophy is very widely spread in Europe and America. Even the tendency of the time to individualism, though this principle favors difference rather than equality, acts in a democratic direction, since it rouses and increases self respect in all individuals, even in the lower classes.


—2. Contemporary culture, economic conditions, and the individual rights of the present day, operate in a democratic direction. The ideas of the Roman civil law expressive of equality have found general acceptance, and dissolved the class differences of the middle ages. In addition to this, we have the free development of industry. In spite of all drawbacks the rights and well-being of the middle and lower classes are greater than during the whole period of the middle ages, and far greater than ever before in the history of mankind.


—3. The increasing strength and growing consciousness of the great classes of the people appear the more important since the aristocratic elements have become weaker. It is all the more difficult for them to accomplish their natural task; to complete and balance the democratic elements, since between the two factors there is still at work much aversion, mistrust and hatred.


—Nevertheless the inference is inadmissible, that the progress democracy has made in a social and political sense will extend to state legislation also, and that in the near future European states will obtain a democratic constitution. There are important reasons against such a transformation of European constitutions.


—1. All the civilized nations of Europe have possessed from the beginning of their history various political elements. The Germanic races especially have always had democratic, aristocratic and monarchic elements and institutions, and only their position changes in the course of time. Toward the end of the middle ages, which was favorable to aristocracy, the princely power and that of free cities arose. In ancient Rome the empire rested on the democratic masses, and similarly in France the short rule of the demos led to a democratic empire.


—2. As American history has shown an inclination toward a democratic constitution from the beginning, European history for the last 2,000 years shows an indisputable tendency toward monarchy. Only the monarchy of the middle ages was limited by the aristocratic classes, and in modern times it is limited by democratic representation. Wherever the attempt was made in great European states to introduce representative democracy it failed and was abandoned after a short experience.


—3. In old Europe inequality of social relations is so great that a constitution founded on equality would be a lie. The fourth estate clings to monarchy unless when rejected by it. The crown and the fourth estate are natural allies. (F. Rohmer.) Even the third estate, which has the greatest chance in representative democracies to take possession of the government, feels safer when the monarchy firmly maintains public order and moderates the ambition of party chiefs.


—4. A republican character in the people is indispensable to the maintenance of a republic. But this character is lacking in all the great European nations. Even if a few individuals of republican character are to be found among the German and Latin nations, the enormous majority would not hold out in time of crisis and trial.


—Let us draw the following conclusions: 1. A blind enmity of the governing power for the democratic element in the people is adverse to the interests of the monarchy. Every attempt to crush the same must fail, for it is opposed to the entire mental and material development of the time. 2. While monarchy recognizes and protects democratic elements and tendencies in their natural rights, it finds in them its surest support, and thereby receives the power successfully to guard against any excesses they might commit.


364 of 1105

Return to top