Printer Frendly Version

The Consent of the Governed: History

Athenian Democracy and the Roman Republic

The first significant historical examples of rule by consent of the governed were the city-state of Athens in the fifth century BC and the Roman Republic from the fifth to first centuries BC. Each was the most successful economic and military power of its time and region.

Athens is sometimes considered the first example of direct democracy. All citizens would assemble regularly or as needed to decide various questions facing the polis, or city-state. The Athenian Assembly elected certain categories of public servants, and many other temporary officeholders were chosen by lot from among those who volunteered, but all major decisions were made by the citizenry as a whole. The voting body of citizens, it must be noted, included only adult males of Athenian descent, leaving out resident aliens (metics), women, and slaves.

Unlike Athens, Rome was governed through layers of representative institutions and officials. There were a number of assemblies organized by class and wealth, the most important of which were the Senate and the Council of the Plebs. Senators belonged to the elite landowning class, known as patricians, while the plebeians made up the rest of the citizenry, including landowners, merchants, and farmers. At first, only patricians could hold public office, but the plebeians gradually sought more power within the state, choosing officials known as tribunes to protect their rights. In the first century BC, driven in part by its class struggles, the Roman Republic succumbed to rule by a series of generals, one of whom was Julius Caesar. His heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus, became the first of the Roman emperors, founding a dynasty and turning the state into an autocracy.

Athens and republican Rome, while not democratic in today's sense and largely dependent on slavery for labor, remain models for direct and representative democracy. Their influence on our political thinking is evident in our language. As Professor Bernard Crick of Oxford University notes, "Almost the whole vocabulary of politics, ancient and modern, is Greek and Roman: autocracy, tyranny, despotism, politics and polity, republic, senate, city, citizen, representative."

The British Experience

Another important precedent for consensual government is found in the English civil wars (1642–60). Centuries earlier, the Magna Carta had forced the king of England to recognize the rights of noblemen, the clergy, and townsmen. This led to the eventual creation of Parliament, consisting of the House of Lords and House of Commons, and bound future monarchs to observe established laws and customs. By the 17th century, Parliament represented nearly all landowners, a large class of people. When Charles I defied Parliament by attempting to impose uniform (Anglican) religious practices and raise taxes without consent, it formed its own army, defeated his forces, and eventually executed him. In 1649, the House of Commons declared England "a Commonwealth and Free State" and sought to govern without a king. The monarchy was restored in 1660, but the Commonwealth was significant as a historical example of republican rule, as an influence on the subsequent adoption of the English Bill of Rights in 1689, and as part of the religious strife that drove many English dissenters to immigrate to America.

John Locke and the Origins of the American Revolution

The consent of the governed was championed in modern political thought by the British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), whose ideas heavily influenced the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In his Two Treatises of Government and other works, Locke used the philosophy of empiricism—the view that knowledge is based on sensory experience—to thoroughly denounce the arbitrary and divinely justified rule of the monarch, and to establish a general theory of rights that exist in "a state of nature"—a hypothetical condition in which people live without government. Locke's arguments were in direct contradiction to those of another natural law philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who in his book Leviathan theorized that a state of nature meant a "nasty, brutish, and short" existence. Hobbes argued that in exchange for security, individuals give away their rights to an all-powerful ruler. Locke asserted that the state of nature was fundamentally different: "The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges everyone... No one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."

In the Second Treatise of Government, Locke explained the logic of a government based on the consent of the governed. While most recognize the moral obligation not to do harm, he said, government is needed to protect the people's peace and prosperity against the inevitable few who would violate the natural law. Since property is disputable, government is also necessary to resolve disagreements between owners. Government is legitimate only through the consent of the governed, and only as long as it satisfies these fundamental needs of the community. A government that violates the trust of the people loses its legitimacy and should be overthrown.

When the French Revolution descended into the so-called Reign of Terror under the radical Jacobin faction (1793–94), the leader Maximilien Robespierre used the "general will" to justify imposing a dictatorship that would create a "republic of virtue" and rid France of corruption and moral

Locke was, in part, justifying England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, which replaced King James II and shifted greater power to Parliament. A century later, Locke's ideas played a central part in the American Revolution. (Thomas Jefferson called him one of history's greatest men.) The Declaration of Independence is itself a remarkably succinct restatement of the people's right to rebel against an unjust ruler and establish popular government. As such, it has become the world's touchstone of democracy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the French Revolution

The French Revolution in 1789 drew on philosophical influences similar to those behind the successful American Revolution. In many ways, though, France's Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, adopted by the National Assembly, was more sweeping and radical in its assertion of human rights, equality, and the definition of a just society. In this regard, it reflected the greater influence on the French Revolution of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his view, a good government should serve not just the interests of a collection of individuals (Locke) or the state's interests (Hobbes), but the interests of the people as a whole. It should represent the common or "general will," which was based on reason. His views became the basis for many communitarian philosophies and also affected the development of social democracy in Europe.

The idea of the "general will," however, was often abused. Rousseau meant the idea to reflect a clear, higher community interest as opposed to an individual one (for a modern example, the protection of a forest against clear-cutting by a landowner). But his writings are open to interpretation. When the French Revolution descended into the so-called Reign of Terror under the radical Jacobin faction (1793–94), the leader Maximilien Robespierre used the "general will" to justify imposing a dictatorship that would create a "republic of virtue" and rid France of corruption and moral decay. Robespierre was overthrown and executed for his extremism, and republican rule eventually gave way to Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who declared himself emperor. But the Revolution's original ideal of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" has continued to inspire a tradition of republicanism and freedom, both in France and around the world.

Consent of the Governed: The 20th Century and Today

Consent of the governed existed in a minority of states until the mid–20th century. At the end of World War II, democracy was restored or introduced in Western Europe and Japan, but the repressive Soviet system was installed in Eastern Europe. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, as countries in Asia and Africa were gaining independence from European empires, many colonial regimes were simply replaced with authoritarian rule. At the same time, military dictatorships seized control in a number of Latin American countries. Since 1975, however, there has been a steady progress toward democracy and rule by citizens. Authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships fell, and communism collapsed throughout the Soviet bloc. In most cases, these systems gave way to electoral democracy and constitutional government. Major exceptions remain, but today electoral democracy is practiced in 123 out of 193 countries, according to the Freedom in the World 2007 survey.