The Growth of the Concept of Democracy: An Analysis

By Pravesh Aggarwal, RGNUL

Editor’s Note: The origin of the concept ‘Democracy’ can be traced back to the old Greek city states which have enjoyed complete local autonomy. They experimented with different forms of government like Aristocracy, Monarchy, Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. After views various forms of government, Aristotle gave his favour in the favour of policy or a moderate form of government. This paper attempts to track down the history associated with the concept of ‘Democracy’ and also analyze its growth and evolution in different parts of the world. The paper also presents a comparative analysis of its essential features, importance, limitations, and future prospects, for better understanding of the subject.


The word ‘Democracy’ is a term that has evolved its meaning in a gamut of versions in different parts of the country. Depending on the needs and circumstances that have prevailed in various countries over the period of time, democracy as a concept has shaped itself accordingly. This whole process makes it difficult to derive a common definition of the term ‘Democracy’. Democracy may be a state of exuberance for one and a state of tolerance for the other. In the light of these conflicting views for the same term, it becomes imperative to track down the history associated with the concept ‘Democracy’ and analyze its growth and evolution in different parts of the world so as to make a comparative analysis of its essential feature, importance, limitations, and future prospects, for better understanding of the subject.

This project would deal with various facets that have resulted in the growth of Democracy into diversified field. An analogy can be drawn wherein different ways in which democracy has evolved can be compared to the concurrent judgments made by a judge in a judgment; which involves reaching the same conclusion by discerning adoption of reasons to prove the same. The analysis of the concept of democracy and its historical evolution on the basis of different approaches and schools of thought would be dealt in Part I of the project. This demand for further description on the analysis of the concept of Democracy in different countries, and the same would be dealt extensively in Part II of the project. Further, a discrepancy arises when there evolves a difference in what the concept ‘Democracy’ was actually meant to be perceived and the way it is followed now, i.e. many features associated with democracy on papers may lack similarity with what it is in practice. The critical analysis of such discrepancy would be dealt in the Part III of the project.

Part IV of the project would reiterate the comparison of Democracy with other form of the government to elucidate the pros and cons related to democracy as compared to others. On the basis of the critical analysis of the growth of ‘Democracy’, various problems related to effective implementations and lack of good governance associated with the aforementioned term would be in the project. Part V of the project would provide a brief understanding of how the term has evolved over a period of time by providing a detailed conclusion of various aspects dealt in the project and would contain researchers’ understanding of the topic. The project has adopted MLA (7th Edition) as the research methodology.


In order to acquire a clear knowledge on the subject topic, it is pertinent to deal with the meaning of the term ‘Democracy’. This would help in conceptualizing and understanding how the same word has been perceived differently by different people and under different circumstances. In addition, it would provide a basis of looking at the aforementioned term by different perspective. (How It has been interpreted in different ways by different thinkers and as per different conditions prevailing in different nations)

Democracy as a type of state and order of society

It is important to define democracy not merely as a form of Government. It is a type of State as well as an order of the society. However, various thinkers have related the same with only a form of government. J. R. Lowell defines it by stating that Democracy is nothing more than an experiment in government, more likely to succeed in a new soil, but likely to be tried in all soils, which must stand or fall on its own merits as others have done before it.[i] Lincon defines it as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’[ii] Dicey defines it as a form of government in which, ‘the governing body is a comparatively large fraction of the entire nation.’[iii] Even Lord Bryce, in his work Modern Democracies, defines it as only a form of government.

However, a democratic government implies a democratic State, but a democratic government may not mean a democratic state. In order to explain this, there arises a necessity to distinguish between the State and the Government. State is a wider concept which includes the territory, population as well as the government, which makes government a subset of State. Government can be regarded as a tool to carry out the functions of the State. If a government is democratic, it may mean that the government has been elected by the democratic electoral process and thereby represents the people. But, it may not carry it function in accordance with the smooth functioning of the democracy which makes the State undemocratic. But, if a state is democratic, it would definitely bind its government to be democratic since the latter is the subset of the former. This calls for defining a democratic state as a community processing a sovereign authority and maintain ultimate control over the democratic affairs.

Democracy is an order of society wherein the spirit of equality and fraternity prevails. A democracy may exist in different sections of the society despite its absence when it comes to the State or government. In the traditional Indian societies, the system of Kinship prevailed wherein the essential elements of democracy like unity, fraternity, etc. may exist within the kinship group, that may represent a society, but not between different kinship groups taken as a part of the State.

Democracy as a moral principle

Democracy embodies a moral principle too. It means that each man has a value. Further, it elucidates the fact that government does not exist for its own sake, but for the enrichment of personality.[iv] Democracy shall serve its essential feature of bringing out the best in man for the government to be called as a democratic government. Democracy attempts to reconcile the apparently contradictory principle of liberty, equality and fraternity, in order to attain the highest good for all. Democracy in practice is the hypothesis that all men are equal which is used in order to discover who the best are.[v] Democracy should assure practical self-realization for attaining common benefits for all.

The concept ‘Democracy’ is not confined only to State, Government or society. It includes the realm of industry too. There are many who claim that democracy will be incomplete if industry is entirely democratized. Democracy shall not restrict itself to political or social arena only; rather it should expand its scope to industrialism through the spread of socialism, which is termed as a next step to democracy by many people. No society can call itself entirely democratic if it uses democratic methods in some field and autocratic methods in the other.


Ancient Greek

The origin of the concept ‘Democracy’ can be traced back to the old Greek city states which have enjoyed complete local autonomy. They experimented with different forms of government like Aristocracy, Monarchy, Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy. After views various forms of government, Aristotle gave his favour in the favour of policy or a moderate form of government. The type of Democracy that prevailed in these states was pure or a direct democracy wherein all the freemen met together in general assemblies and passed laws and executed them received ambassador and acted as jurymen.[vi] This type of democracy was revived in medieval times by Italian city states. The Forrest Cannons of Switzerland also had a direct democracy which has come down to modern times. Rousseau, in the eighteenth century, deprecated indirect or representative democracy on the large scale under modern conditions.[vii] But, he even advocated the fact that pure democracy presupposes many difficult things to combine. He presupposes 1) a small state, in which people may be easily assembled, and in which every citizen can easily know all the rest, 2) considerable equality in rank and fortune, 3) great simplicity on matters, and 4) little or no luxury.

Athens was the first city state to allow ordinary citizens access to government offices and courts. In theory, all Athenian citizens were eligible to speak and vote in the Assembly which set the laws of the city-state. In reality, Athens was not a true democracy as women were not included nor were foreigners, slaves or freed slaves. Also, according to the rules of citizenship both parents must have been Athenian citizens for a person to qualify to take part in the Assembly. The democracy therefore, was only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest any country had come to establishing a democratic society at this time.

(All these highlight the incidents which have influenced the whole world and served as a source of inspiration to uplift the concept of ‘Democracy’)

Democracy in the middle ages

The middle ages were a period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD.[viii] It is also known as the Dark Ages. Although there was not a democracy directly in place during the Middle Ages, Christianity was widely followed and so many democratic ideas were understood and followed by many of the people. Christianity taught that all men were created equal.

Another form of government, known as feudalism developed during this time. Feudalism stressed that all people had certain rights and developed a system of courts to defend these rights. There were feudal lords that were appointed for different counties that decided the matters and reported the same to the king. It was democratic in a way that people had the means to express their dissatisfaction and predicaments through these feudal lords, despite the fact that these feudal lords were appointed by the king and not through people directly.

Adoption of Magna Carta

In medieval England, in 1215, King John had total control and his subjects had no freedom or say whatsoever.[ix] The Magna Carta took some of the king’s power away and gave some rights and freedom to the people. The Magna Carta is a historical document that means ‘Great Charter’ (great paper) in Latin. It was written by the barons of England who were unhappy that the king was abusing his power and increasing taxes.[x] The Magna Carta contained 63 clauses promising all freemen access to the courts and a fair trial, eliminating unfair fines and punishments and giving power to the Catholic Church in England instead of the king.

The Magna Carta was an important milestone in British Law and would become the basis for many international constitutions in the future, including the Australian Constitution. It was through its adoption that the ultimate and unchallenged powers of the king were questioned and taken away for the benefit of the people, strengthening the concept of democracy which is based on rule for the people and by the people.

 American Revolution

The American Revolution is an important event in history that marks a turning point in democracy. The first step was the creation of the Declaration of Independence, written by the American President, Thomas Jefferson in 1776. In this document many ideas were taken from two famous philosophers of the time, Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, which outlined freedom and equality, which forms the essence of democracy.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, in the 1780s, some people, most notably the Tories, wanted power to remain in the hands of the aristocracy; they believed that all men meant all gentlemen. Many Tories feared that “the Revolution would lead to a democratic upheaval” and these fears were not “without foundation”[xi]. Some Americans certainly “regarded the principles of the Declaration of Independence as presaging a new social and political order”.[xii] The democratic features of the Revolution included a call for ‘no taxation without representation’ at home, denouncing certain titles such as ‘His Excellency,’ resentment against profiteers (exploiters), demands for “all institutions to be subjected to the test of reason”[xiii] and other aspects.

One of the democratic features of the new country was the almost equal pay provided to the soldiers. This egalitarianism was defended by the New Englanders and attacked by the Southerners. The best example of democracy was the violent upheaval that swept away the Quaker oligarchy in Pennsylvania. The final draft of the Constitution is a great example of democracy all in itself. It made America safe for democracy. After the Peace of Paris, Americans finally put away their arms and vigorously sought to apply the ideals for which they had fought to conditions at home. These incidents reflect the evolution and growth of democracy in America which had laid the foundations of its scope and features for every State of the world.


The need for Democracy had followed a negative slope from historical times to the present day world due to many loopholes which it contains and manifests. The years succeeding World War II have shown clearly that democracy is not an open sesame to peace, prosperity and progress. In the multitude of voices, wisdom is not necessarily found in a democratic nation. Democracy is being attacked today from various angles, both by reactionaries and by revolutionaries. It is attacked with much vehemence by the believers in aristocracy and dictatorship. Many opinions voice that majorities should be disregarded and coerced for the benefit of all, since such majority contains large chunks of uneducated class which through their unintelligible approach make wrong decisions and policies for the nations.

Many critics highlight that democracy is founded on wrong premises. Democracy, according to them, assumes that the common man understands political issue in all their complexity and that he has the capacity to govern himself. These assumptions are challenged by the elite class on the grounds that majority of people are incapable of understanding political problems and are thoroughly incompetent to govern themselves. Therefore, the government should be vested in the hands of the few who are wise and capable.


It has been argued that present day experience shows that democracy of the pure and direct type is an absolutely unattainable thing to achieve in the State. The only type which is possible for us today is the indirect or representative democracy. According to it, the actual administration of affairs is taken from the hands of the people and is vested to the delegates. The nearest approach that we find to direct democracy in some modern States is in the form of the referendum, initiative, and recall. These devices are by no means capable of universal application. Some of the other things like electorate, responsibility of the government to the majority party, frequent elections, and local self-government are more commonly adopted in a democratic society. Democracy and Parliamentary government are not necessarily identical, although for England and other countries which have adopted the English political model, democracy is absolutely connected with Parliament.

The need for classification of different forms of government into aristocracy, monarchy, tyranny and democracy is not pertinent in recent times wherein these forms of government are amalgamated with each other. This means that it is now rarely possible to find democracy in its exact form. Every form of government contains a mix of every form necessary to carry out its functions. The English Constitution may appear to be monarchic on the surface, but it is fundamentally democratic, with a strong tinge of aristocracy. The House of Lords represent the aristocratic class, whereas the Queen of England highlights the monarchy rule. But, it is the people with whom all the power vests which they use through the electoral process by choosing the members of House of Commons, which show the strength and validity the democratic rule prevails. The Queen is vested with few powers and ultimately, it is the House of Commons which hold the authoritative power over the House of Lords. Political thinkers like Bryce proclaim that a democracy should include aristocracy- not an aristocracy of birth or wealth, but an aristocracy of ability, intelligence and character.

The different phases in the historical times that have contributed to the growth of the concept of democracy highlight the changes which it has experienced in interpreting its nature and scope for universal application.

Edited by Hariharan Kumar

[i]“Internet History Sourcebooks.”, 2014. Web. 10 Apr 2014.    <>

[ii] “Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address,” Speech Text.”, 2010. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <>.

[iii] F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Chicago: Chicago University Press (1976), Print.

[iv] Kuruma. “History of Political Economy: Physiocracy.”, 2014. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <>.

[v]   Martin Pengelly, “The Gettysburg Address contains two simple truths – we must fight for them.” the Guardian, 2013. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <>.

[vi] J. Thomson, “America and West Indies – November 1682, 1-15 | Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 11 (pp. 317-332).”, 2014. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <>.

[vii] William Edward Hartpole Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1878, 1917, 8 Vols. Vol. III. <>.

[viii] “Medieval History, Castles.”, 2014. Web. 10 Apr 2014.

[ix] `Marilyn Shea, “Magna Carta — Mediaeval (medieval) hand-written calligraphy and illuminated copy — Reading Revolutions.”, 2014. Web. 10 Apr 2014. <>.

[x] `Ibid.

[xi] `Miller, John C. Origins of the American Revolution. Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1959 , pp. 500.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

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