What is democracy?
Democracy means the rule of the people (in Greek). That is where each individual person has a vote about what to do. Whatever the most people vote for wins. There is no king or tyrant, and anybody can propose a new law.
Who gets to vote?
One problem that immediately comes up in a democracy is who is going to be able to vote. Should people vote who are just visiting from some other city-state? What about women? Poor people? Enslaved people? People in jail? How about little kids, should they vote? Or should there be some limits? How will the democracy keep the majority from oppressing minorities – what will protect smaller groups?
History of democracy: Athens, Greece
In Athens, the government let all the free adult men who were citizens vote, rich or poor. That was great for poor men – as long as they weren’t slaves – but bad for women, who were pretty much shut out of the political power they had had in the Archaic period.
When democracy turned out to work in Athens, many other city-states chose it for their government too. But most of them allowed even fewer people to vote than Athens did: most of the other city-states only allowed free adult male citizens to vote IF they owned land or owned their own houses (that is, the richer people). They didn’t let women vote either.
The Council of 500: choosing by lottery
One big problem for democracies was that it was very inconvenient for men to always be going to the meeting-place to vote. Most men had work to do, planting their grain, making shoes, fighting wars or whatever. They couldn’t be always debating and voting.
So most democracies sooner or later ended up choosing a few men who would do most of the voting, and the rest only came when there was a really important vote. It was hard to decide how to choose these few men, and different cultures did it different ways. Athens did it by a lottery. If you got the winning ticket then you were on the Council of 500. Men served for a year (and women couldn’t serve at all).
Democracy spread around the Mediterranean Sea, but it was pretty much wiped out by the Roman Empire about 100 BC. Still, places like Athens continued to use democratic methods to make their own decisions on local matters for a long time after that.
History of democracy: Northern Italy
These democracies were all organized in slightly different ways, but none of them allowed the poor, women, or children to vote, and some had a lottery system like Athens. Further north in England, some men got the right to vote for local officials and for their representative in Parliament in the Middle Ages, but the king still held most of the power.
These Italian democracies, too, were eventually conquered by the Holy Roman Empire and ruled by German emperors.
American and African councils
Meanwhile in North America and in Africa, many people had organized themselves in towns and villages where the leader had no power to force anyone to do anything. Leaders could suggest building a wall or fighting a war, but people chose themselves whether they wanted to work or fight.
History of democracy: Britain, France, and the United States
In the 1600s, Europeans saw more of these American and African people. They didn’t have to do what the king said. Soon Europeans started to fight for democracy again. In England, Cromwell seized power for Parliament. Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about human rights.
In America, the Revolutionary War brought the Constitution in 1789, which let free adult men vote if they owned their own farm or business. A few years later, the French Revolution brought democracy to France (for a short time).
More people get power
These early modern democracies only let rich men vote – not women, or children, or enslaved people, or colonized people. But slowly more people started to fight for their right to vote and hold office. In the early 1800s, poor white men got the vote. Then slowly in the later 1800s enslaved people broke free in the United States and Brazil. In Austria-Hungary and Russia, the serfs won their freedom too. By the early 1900s, women were getting the right to vote. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act pushed the United States forward. And in 1971, 18 year olds got the right to vote in the United States.
Equal rights for some
Austria-Hungary in the 1800s
Russia under the last Czars
Civil Rights Movement
Today many countries are democracies, and in most of them poor people, people of color, and women have now won the right to vote, though children and foreigners still can’t. Some places are experimenting with letting 16 year old people vote. The amount of power available to voters, however, still varies widely from country to country, and many countries, like Saudi Arabia, are still not democratic at all.
Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of democracy? Let us know in the comments!