Posted on January 1, 2011


Winston Churchill probably summarized the essence of “democracy” better than any modern man in a speech he made in 1947.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

If a “republic” is rule by more than one, then “democracy” is rule by the many. Democracy is a word roughly meaning rule of the people.

Democracy was said to have been born in Athens, but we would hardly recognize it today. The franchise, or the vote, was restricted to a relatively small class of the elite, all males of course, but it was a beginning.

While democracy had many “fathers,” uncles, cousins and others who helped move it along as a political system across the world and across time, let’s stick to how it evolved in the United States.

Right at the beginning, political thinkers like James Madison were faced with a serious challenge: How to incorporate the best of democracy into the Constitution, but yet defend the inherent right to liberty for all people, not just those ruling in the majority.

If democracy, instituted as a republic, was crucial to the Founding Fathers, then so were the rights of all people, as later expressed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Democracy provides for the rule of the majority, and Madison, and others before and since him, knew or experienced that the majority can quickly dissolve into a tyranny over the minority. In a fashion, we have been struggling with this issue ever since. Madison feared that “factions,” especially driven by the “uneven distribution of property,” could destroy the government and ruin this noble experiment.

Stated differently, how to establish and maintain a democratic republic that allows the majority to govern but preserves and protects the rights of the minorities?

The basic principle underlying democracy was perhaps best expressed by Woodrow Wilson in his address to Congress in January, 1918 when, in announcing his Fourteen Points for achieving peace in the world, he called for the natural right of self-determination by all peoples. That’s democracy. Authority, and, by extension, legitimacy lies in the hands of the people.

Democracy is no longer the radical and threatening notion that upended monarchies in the two centuries since the American Revolution. Democracy has become synonymous with America, as has the concept and practice of a republic, all wrapped up in a place where the liberty of the people is not negotiable, although certainly debated in a constantly changing world.

Again, turning to Wilson, “America was established not to create wealth but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal – to discover and maintain liberty among men”

Wilson, like Churchill, was a close student of words, and while both are sometimes remembered for short quotes, imbedded in them are some profound truths. When Wilson wrote “create wealth,” he was referring to capitalism.

Wilson and others before and since then have probed the relationship between democracy and capitalism, the underlying principles of political and economic life in our country. Both invariably lead to excesses that need to be restrained and bridled from the natural exuberance that leads to the accumulation of vast power and authority in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

Hence, to keep democracy in check, or to keep the majority from tyrannizing the minorities, and to keep a republic from moving in that same direction, a “balance” of powers was created so no one faction could ever rise to crush all other legitimate expressions of the will of the people.

While the world has become increasingly complex for reasons that require books, not short examinations such as this one, democracy, within a republic framework that accommodates for expansion, works well given the complicated and often contradictory nature of man.

When democracy is not working well, Wilson and other Progressives from his era had a simple solution: more democracy. And during the Progressive era, or roughly from the end of the nineteenth century until the 1920s, many features were put into place. None were more direct than the initiative, referendum, and recall first instituted in Oregon in the early twentieth century, giving people the right of directly changing legislation or recalling public officials.

Jefferson, on the other hand, thought the guarantor of democracy’s success was not necessarily the political system, but the people themselves.

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves,” he wrote. And to make wise and informed decisions, the people need to be educated.

Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1820 that “if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” So, for democracy to work, you need to be educated, Jefferson.

Part of that is to know how we became a republic and democracy. This short article is but a snippet of an immense and important subject, especially as we approach a major national election, itself one of the central ingredients in making a democracy work.

Whether you are of the party of Jefferson or of Abraham Lincoln, get out and vote and claim your heritage, and, at the same time, help us make our future. We are indeed a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Published as The Evolution of Democracy in The Tuscaloosa News, Oct. 31, 2010

Posted in: History