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.

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. All major decisions, especially on issues of war, peace, and trade, were made by the citizenry as a whole gathered in assembly. For the regular daily functions of government, the Athenian Assembly elected certain categories of public servants, while many other temporary officeholders were chosen by lot from among those who volunteered. The voting body of citizens, however, 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 two representative institutions organized by class, the Senate and the Plebeian Council (People's Assembly). Senators belonged to the elite landowning class, known as patricians, and held the greater power to determine the affairs of state. The plebeians made up the rest of the citizenry, including small landowners, merchants, and farmers. Much of the power of the state, though, was exercised through a range of elective offices, determined by assemblies organized also according to class and wealth. At first, only patricians could hold public office, but the plebeians gradually sought more power within the state. In the first century BC, due partly to its class struggles, the Roman Republic succumbed to rule by a triumvirate of generals, one of whom was Julius Caesar. His heir, Octavian, later known as Augustus, became the first Roman emperor, founding a dynasty and turning the state into an autocracy.

Neither Athens nor republican Rome was democratic in today's sense. Still, 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 King John of England to recognize the rights of noblemen, the clergy, and townsmen within his realm and led to the creation of Parliament, consisting of the House of Lords and House of Commons. Future monarchs were bound to observe established laws and customs. By the 17th century, Parliament represented nearly all landowners, a large class of people. In 1640, Charles I defied Parliament, first by attempting to impose uniform religious practices on the people with the aim of  restoring relations with the Vatican, and then by raising taxes without its consent. The Parliament formed its own army, defeated the King’s 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. Although the monarchy was restored in 1660 following a tumultuous period under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Commonwealth was significant as an historical example of republican rule.

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 instead a general theory of rights that exist in “a state of nature.” 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 an existence that was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes argued that in exchange for security individuals give away their rights to an all-powerful ruler. Locke asserted differently: “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 people 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 this natural law. Since property is disputable, government is also necessary to resolve disagreements between owners. Government is legitimate, however, only through the consent of those governed, and only as long as it satisfies the fundamental needs of the community. A government that violates the trust of the people loses its legitimacy and should be overthrown.

Locke was, in part, justifying England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Parliament replaced King James II with the joint monarchy of King William and Queen Mary and shifted greater power to itself. A century later, Locke's ideas played a central part in the American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence is itself a remarkably succinct re-statement of Locke’s principle 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 descended into the so-called Reign of Terror under the radical Jacobin faction (1793–94), the leader Maximilien Robespierre used the concept of “general will” to justify imposing a dictatorship that would create a “republic of virtue” and rid France of corruption and moral decay.

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” based on reason. His views became the basis for many communitarian philosophies and also affected the development of social democracy in Europe.

Rousseau meant the idea of “the general will” to reflect a clear, higher community interest as opposed to an individual one (for a modern example, the protection of an old-growth forest against clear-cutting by a landowner). The concept, however, could be abused. When the French Revolution descended into the so-called Reign of Terror under the radical Jacobin faction (1793–94), its leader Maximilien Robespierre used the concept of “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 military officer who seized power and ultimately declared himself emperor. Nevertheless, the Revolution's original ideal of the general will —”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 only 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 communist system was installed in Eastern Europe. During the 1950s and 1960s, as countries in Asia and Africa were gaining independence from European empires, many repressive colonial regimes were simply replaced by repressive authoritarian regimes. At the same time, military dictatorships seized control in a number of Latin American countries. Beginning in 1975, however, the world saw steady progress toward democracy and citizen self-rule. Authoritarian regimes and military dictatorships fell in Portugal, Spain, and Greece in Europe in the mid-1970s and then throughout Latin America and in many parts of Africa and Asia in the 1980s and 1990s. Communism collapsed in the entire Soviet bloc in 1989–91. In a large majority of cases, these systems gave way to electoral democracy and constitutional government. The number of electoral democracies counted by Freedom House’s Survey of Freedom in the World rose from 44 in 1973, when the annual review was launched, to 122 (out of 195 countries and territories) in 2013.

Large exceptions have remained, however, including the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, the Russian Federation (and many other former Soviet republics that emerged as independent countries), Cuba, most of the Middle East, and many parts of Africa and Asia. And recent trends have been negative. While the number of countries considered electoral democracies increased from 122 in 2013 to 125 in the 2016 Freedom in the World Survey, Freedom House reported the tenth straight year of overall declines in its freedom rankings. There continue to be a large majority of countries and territories (109 of the 195 surveyed) that are considered “partly free” (59) or “not free” (50), representing 60 percent of the world’s total population of 7.3 billion people.