Modern Democracy

The History and Legacy of the World’s Democratic Institutions Since the American Revolution
Narrated by: Jim D. Johnston
Length: 2 hrs and 12 mins
Categories: History, American

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Publisher's Summary

In today’s modern world, every political regime - even the most authoritarian or repressive - describes itself as democracy or a democratic people’s republic. The concept of rule by the people and on behalf of the people has come to be accepted as the norm. Very few would overtly espouse the cause of dictatorship, absolute monarchy, or oligarchy as the most desirable political system upon which to base the government of any country.

It is also generally accepted that democracy, as a political ideology, began in Greece - specifically in Athens - in the seventh century BCE and reached its zenith in the fifth century under the leadership of Pericles. Dating an exact starting point is impossible, but at the beginning of the seventh century BCE, Solon inaugurated a series of reforms that began the movement away from rule by individuals, or tyrants, and by the end of that century, the reforms of Cleisthenes provided the basis of the Athenian democratic system that culminated in the radical institutions introduced by Ephialtes and Pericles in the fifth century. The result was the first, and possibly only, truly participative democratic state.

At the same time, the ancients would not have recognized or accepted any of today’s modern versions of democracy as being truly “democratic”. A rejection of dictatorships masquerading as democracies would be understandable, but the ancients would have been equally scathing of Western-style representative democracies that they would undoubtedly have seen as anti-democratic. The key to democracy, as far as the Greeks and Romans were concerned, was active participation by the citizen body in all political aspects of life.

While the French Revolution tried and ultimately failed to bring about an almost fully democratic system, the fledgling United States of America managed to bring about one of the most enduring forms of democratic government in the 1780s. 

The constitution of the United States was not the first written expression of the democratic ideal, but it certainly was the most perfect in the context of the times. In the entire history of the British Empire, only two territories would attempt a unilateral declaration of independence. The first was the United States, and the second, 189 years later, was the rebel territory of Southern Rhodesia in the constellation of British African territories. The sheer audacity, in 1776, of a subject territory of the British Crown declaring itself independent sent shock waves through the imperial establishment, setting into motion a reevaluation of British overseas policy and beginning the boldest experiment in democracy to date.

The seeds of the American Revolution could be found in the fundamental distrust of a distant government held by a local population of an independent character confronting a continent almost infinite in its scope. The cusp upon which this embryonic republic stood represented the first authentic opportunity to date for a European people - egalitarian in outlook and separated from the stifling social conventions of Europe - to redefine the rights of man, according to what they believed was enshrined in the spirit of the Magna Carta.

Therefore, before the mechanics of government and administration could begin to be constructed, a declaration of rights was deemed essential as the basis of any future political blueprint to guarantee each citizen, free and included, a list of protections and immunities from their own government. This became the basic template for the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the constitution of the United States of America, drafted to appease the anti-federalists suspicious of a return to imperial rule by the back door.

©2020 Charles River Editors (P)2020 Charles River Editors

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