The history of democracy is often written as the history of the diffusion of an idea, from epicentres in America, France and Britain. And it’s true that things that happened in these three countries shaped thought and practice elsewhere. The French revolution gave ‘democracy’ modern resonance – when previously it had been seen as a form of government fit only for primitive societies, such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. Yet French democracy fell, reinforcing the old notion that democracies were by nature unstable, because they unleashed destructive energies. During the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville invoked the idea that ‘equalization of condition’ was an unstoppable democratising force in modern society and offered America as a case study as to how it might be governed in a way that sustained liberty. British statesmen and opinion-formers were not immediately convinced; they retained reservations about democracy well into the twentieth century. Yet the British model of representative government helped to persuade nervous governing elites elsewhere that it was possible to give the people some voice and yet hold them in check.
These three countries all provided important reference points in a much wider debate about how governments could more effectively relate to peoples. The French revolutionary and Napoleonic era set the scene for that debate by demolishing or at least destabilising old regimes, and stimulating various forms of popular mobilisation. Indeed, in the short term, ‘democracy’ was if anything more enthusiastically celebrated in the Dutch, Swiss and Italian sister republics than in France itself. In the early nineteenth century, Spain came to the fore. The constitution that Spaniards resisting Napoleon agreed at Cadiz inspired fresh interest in the project of vesting sovereignty in ‘the nation’, and extending the vote to vast numbers of men. Celebrated by them as ‘liberal’ this constitution would just ten years later be constructed as democratic and and provided a model both for Spain’s American provinces (some of which later shrugged it off as insufficient for their purposes) and for revolutionaries in 1820-1 who challenged the political order in Portugal, Naples and Turin. In the 1830 exiles fleeing Poland’s failed revolution also became fierce champions of democracy. Along with German and Italian exiles, they popularised the cause through international radical networks. In the revolutions of 1848 ‘democracy’ became firmly yoked to the demand for ‘universal [male] suffrage’ and briefly became a talking point throughout Europe.
The cause of democracy did not depend only on radical enthusiasts. It attracted broader interest, and much (at least initially) hesitant or grudging support because it (whatever exactly ‘it’ might entail in terms of institutions, society or culture) was increasingly seen as – in some form – an inevitable element in modern life, How that element was understood varied widely.
Relatively little attention has been paid to the way these changing ideas and practices worked out across southern Europe, no doubt partly because ‘democratization’ in this region now tends to be associated with the dismantling of twentieth-century autocracies. But in the nineteenth century, states across southern Europe all established representative governments in which power was normally held by self-proclaimed liberals. Ideas and argument about ‘democracy’ flourished in the broader environment in which these regimes operated. A challenge experienced across southern Europe was that their opportunities to shape their own destinies were limited by the preferences of northern power-brokers: Britain, France, Austria and Russia. Relative economic backwardness, one cause of this subordination, was recognised as a problem in its own right. But the challenges they faced suggested to some that much might be gained by harnessing and shaping popular energies.
The Ottoman and Arab world was not untouched by these currents. Ottoman and Arabic names for people or crowd, cumhur/jumhur, were employed in political discourse for a variety of purposes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: to describe popular turbulence but also to characterise republics. During the same period, indigenous practices of representation were formalised and reconfigured, sometimes with an eye to European audiences, but also to attempt to find locally appropriate solutions to problems similar to those being wrestled with elsewhere. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, variants on the imported word ‘democracy’ began to be used to characterise domestic developments, and an Ottoman Parliament very briefly met. In the end, the sultan turned his back on this experiment, deciding instead to develop a new version of autocracy. But this was not because there were no local resources from which other solutions could have been crafted.
Expanding the parameters of the history of democracy has the merit of opening up to us new vistas on the past. It also provides salutary context for thinking about the present. If we think of democracy as something that was invented by a small clutch of northern Atlantic states, then we are likely to over-value our versions and to underrate the scale and diversity of effort associated with this project in the past, the variety of problems it has been asked to solve, the creativity that has been displayed in the face of these challenges, the many times and places and contexts in which such projects have succeeded, or failed, and been abandoned or rethought. Democracy is not the brainchild of a few peoples only, nor is it an achieved thing, but rather a site of continuing experimentation, on which many have laboured, and labour still. Only hindsight will tell us from what sources it may yet be renewed.
Joanna Innes is a professor of modern history in the University of Oxford and a senior research fellow of Somerville College. For the past fourteen years, she has co-organised with Mark Philp an international collaborative project on the process of re-imagining democracy as a modern political form. A first book arising from the project, Re-imagining democracy in the age of revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 was published in 2013.