[Greek demos,”the people”; kratein, “to rule”], political system in which the people of a country rule through any form of government they choose to establish. In modern democracies, supreme authority is exercised for the most part by representatives elected by popular suffrage. The representatives may be supplanted by the electorate according to the legal procedures of recall and referendum, and they are, at least in principle, responsible to the electorate. In many democracies, such as the United States, both the executive head of government and the legislature are elected. In typical constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom and Norway, only the legislators are elected, and from their ranks a cabinet and a prime minister are chosen.
Although often used interchangeably, the terms democracy and republic are not synonymous. Both systems delegate the power to govern to their elected representatives. In a republic, however, these officials are expected to act on their own best judgment of the needs and interests of the country. The officials in a democracy more generally and directly reflect the known or ascertained views of their constituents, sometimes subordinating their own judgment.
II DEMOCRACY IN ANCIENT GREECE AND ROME
Rule by the people played an important part in the democracies of the pre-Christian era. The democracies of the city-states of classical Greece and of Rome during the early years of the Republic were unlike the democracies of today. They were direct democracies, in which all citizens could speak and vote in assemblies that resembled New England town meetings. Representative government was unknown and unnecessary because of the small size of the city-states (almost never more than 10,000 citizens). Ancient democracy did not presuppose equality of all individuals; the majority of the populace, notably slaves and women, had no political rights. Athens, the greatest of the city democracies, limited the franchise to native-born citizens. Roman democracy resembled that of the Greeks, although Rome sometimes granted citizenship to men of non-Roman descent. The Roman Stoic philosophy, which defined the human race as part of a divine principle, and the Jewish and Christian religions, which emphasized the rights of the underprivileged and the equality of all before God, contributed to the development of modern democratic theory.
The Roman Republic ended in the despotism of the empire. The free cities of Italy, Germany, and Flanders carried on the democratic tradition and applied some principles of democracy during the Middle Ages. Slaves ceased to constitute a major portion of national populations. As feudalism ended, a rich commercial middle class arose, possessing the money and leisure necessary to participate in governmental affairs. One result was the rebirth of a spirit of freedom based on ancient Greek and Roman principles. Concepts of equal political and social rights were further defined during the Renaissance, when the development of humanism was fostered, and later during the Reformation, in the struggle for religious freedom.
III WESTERN EUROPE AND THE U.S.
Beginning with the first popular rebellion against monarchy in England (1642), which was brought to a climax by the execution of King Charles I, political and revolutionary action against autocratic European governments resulted in the establishment of democratic governments. Such action was inspired and guided largely by political philosophers, notably the French philosophers Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the American statesmen Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Before the end of the 19th century, every important Western European monarchy had adopted a constitution limiting the power of the Crown and giving a considerable share of political power to the people. In many of these countries, a representative legislature modeled on the British Parliament was instituted. British politics was then possibly the greatest single influence on the organization of world democracies, although the French Revolution also exerted a powerful influence. Later, the success of democratic institutions in the United States served as a model for many peoples.
The major features of modern democracy include individual freedom, which entitles citizens to the liberty and responsibility of shaping their own careers and conducting their own affairs; equality before the law; and universal suffrage and education. Such features have been proclaimed in great historic documents, for example, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which asserted the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which affirmed the principles of civil liberty and of equality before the law; and the Atlantic Charter, which formulated the four basic freedoms.
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