The French Revolutionary mantra was "liberté, égalité, fraternité". There was no mention of "democracy". The word does not appear in Edmund Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774). The US Declaration of Independence does not contain the word, and nor does the word appear in Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published 1776. The leading thought in late eighteenth-century political argument was the notion of "representative government".

So when in modern times did the ancient and Greek idea of "democracy" come about, and why has it taken centre-stage today?

Edit 25/2/18 The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) history of the word democracy shows that prior to circa the mid 1820s the word democracy carried very negative connotations. From the mid 1830s it is used far more positively. The US "Democratic Party" under Andrew Jackson was founded in 1828.

1703 J. Browne Surgeons Assistant i. iv. 38 We shall many times see the well governed State of Monarchy overcharged and surfeited with the poyson of Aristocracy, or Democracy.

1792 H. L. Piozzi Diary 20

Aug. in Thraliana (1942) II. 45 I am much of the same mind, if the Bulk of France really delights in Anarchical Democracy. 1796 Eng. Rev. Aug. 146 When men smart under despotic rule, they praise the justice and equality that are at least held forth as the principles of democracy.

1821 Byron Jrnl. 1 May in Lett. & Jrnls. (1978) VIII. 107

It is still more difficult to say which form of Government is the worst—all are so bad.—As for democracy it is the worst of the whole—for what is (in fact) democracy? an Aristocracy of Blackguards.

1836 T. P. Thompson Let. 22 Oct. in Lett. to Constituents 130
Democracy means the community's governing through its representatives for its own benefit.

So what brought about the change in the understanding of the word "democracy"?

  • Anecdotical, but the original French Revolutionary mantra actually was Liberté, égalité, droit de propriété if memory serves. As to democracy, there were plenty of republics in Italy and Free Cities in the Holy Roman Empire, so it's not like the concept of government by the (read: some) people was novel even then. What was novel in the French Revolution was the replacement of a monarchy with a republic. (And a slew of other things, like the introduction of total war or, eventually, the civil code, but that's a separate matter.) Feb 24, 2018 at 18:22
  • Are you suggesting that "republic" is synonymous with "democracy"? In The Republic Plato discusses five forms of government - Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. - And democracy was not regarded as the highest form. "Aristocracy" held favour with Plato. Hence the fact that "republics" existed in the Holy Roman Empire, I would suggest, says nothing about "democracy".
    – WS2
    Feb 24, 2018 at 21:53
  • I would think that égalité, when applied in the political sense, implies democracy. Although I am not sure if at the time they would ge to the same idea.
    – SJuan76
    Feb 24, 2018 at 23:35
  • 1
    Might be just my own anecdotal experience, but the only people I've ever met who made any serious difference between the two - as in republic being through representatives and democracy being direct if I got it right - are North Americans. In the score of other countries I've lived in, the two terms are used interchangeably insofar as I could tell, and the chatter focuses more on the degree of representativity - aka who has the right to vote and how well the elected body actually represent the voters - and the amount of checks and balance in place. Feb 25, 2018 at 4:12
  • @DenisdeBernardy It is actually the word "democracy" which interests me. When, in modern western society since the time of the French Revolution, did we start using it? Note my edit to the question.
    – WS2
    Feb 25, 2018 at 11:25

2 Answers 2


There is an article by Frederick Manchester called Republic and Democracy: A Study in Meanings which approaches this subject. I'm not knowledgeable enough on the discipline of etymology to state that his conclusions are, or not, correct.

Nevertheless at some point in the article Dr. Manchester points out the Woodrow Wilson war (WWI) speech (January, 1917; source) as a turning point for the word democracy (emphasis is mine):

"Our object...is to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power....We are glad...to fight...for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples, the German peoples included: for the right of nations great and small and the privilege of men everywhere to choose their way of life and of obedience. The world must be made safe for democracy....We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make." by Woodrow Wilson

And thus Frederick Manchester concludes (emphasis mine):

Woodrow Wilson said that the world must be made safe, not for republicanism, but for democ­racy—and fought to save it. "At last the United States was some­what officially and generally pro­claimed to be in fact a democracy, engaged in a conflict to save de­mocracy from the force of authori­tarian States…. The word once so hated and feared, so long repro­bated, so reluctantly accepted in the United States, became for the hour the sign and symbol of Amer­ican unity and government… Could George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison have witnessed the scene and heard the chorus they certainly would have been sur­prised to find their representative republic universally and vocifer­ously hailed as a democracy."

Nevertheless, I would like to point out two issues relevant to this point.

1) Using Google Ngram Viewer to analyze the use of the word Democracy and Republic in the English corpus one can conclude that the word Democracy already had an upward trend years before the Woodrow Wilson. In fact I would give an approximate date of 1910 to what seems to be a more accurate turning point. A few historical events could be pointed out but I feel it would be perhaps a bit too speculative. Nevertheless the use of the word Democracy in the English Corpus has peaked at each of the world wars. It seems fairly certain to me that its meaning become something of the opposite of autocracy:

Word usage (English corpus): Democracy and Republic

2) These conclusions might not translate to other languages. In fact the word Democracy (fr: Démocratie) seems to be far more famous in the French corpus than in the English one.

Word usage (French Corpus): Democracy and Republic

For the German corpus however Democracy (Demokratie) is less used than Republic (Republik):

Word usage (German Corpus): Democracy and Republic

None of this proves anything but it certainly points out to important differences in language (and I would even bet geography).

  • 1
    It would be nice to adjust the graphs to make years be straight between them.
    – user9389
    Feb 28, 2018 at 20:53
  • 2
    @notstoreboughtdirt Agreed and done. All plots are contained within <x = 1880; 2000> . Notice however that the y-axis is not normalized and the percentages differ significantly (I don't think its possible doing it with the basic web UI; perhaps with its API if one exists). I was basing my analysis in slope (trend), namely the earliest I could find. It seems that the 1910 decade was important for all 3 (perhaps other) corpus analyzed (WW1, Russian Revolution(s), Mexican Revolution, Chinese Revolution, Influenza, Ford T, Madama Buterfly;), who knows?! - maybe all of those events mattered).
    – armatita
    Mar 1, 2018 at 9:14

So this can get kind of nebulous as political terms can mean different things to different peoples. As a rule, historical use (and even some modern use) a Republic is a Representative Government where as Democracy was Pure/Direct Democracy (Again, hazy as Switzerland is a Direct Democracy but they also have Representative Democracy too. Generally, historical use of the word meant the people were the sole legal decision makers through popular legislation. The Founding Fathers understood Democracy as equivalent of Mob Rule and feared it as much as they feared Tyranny).

The earliest stages of classical Greek Democracy and Roman Government were revived by the works of philosophers that contributed to the Enlightenment Age (generally from 1715-1789). John Locke was probably the most influencial thinker on the American people, as the Bill of Rights largely reflects Locke's ideas of Natural Rights (i.e. there are some human rights that no law can legislate against such as the right to your own opinions). These would form the basis of most of his influential work as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire (these three were quite influential in the formation of the United States). The major Tenants were Representation, Consent of the Governed, Liberty, and Reason.

This isn't to say that it was entirely pro-Representative Democracy. Voltaire absolutely hated Democracy as a whole, and believed that Enlightened Monarchs were perfectly capable of instituting reforms and a few actually tried (Catherine the Great in Russia, Frederick the Great in Prussia, and Joseph II of Austria (who was apparently, not Great)) to varying degrees of success.

Over in the then colonies of England, the Americans were insatiable for these ideas and got into a bit of a squabble with England over having to pay taxes on Tea when they didn't have a leader in parliament (and didn't want one, cause then they would have taxes on Tea). So they threw the Tea into Boston Harbor to which England decided to punish them with restrictions on rights, which they protested, which was then restricted, so they rioted, so England sent in the troops, which was disliked and then the troops decided to take the muskets of some rural frontier towns in Western Massachusetts so they Colonists said, "Of course you know, this means war." They then proceeded to fight a war against a major world power, kicked the British out of America (accept for Canada), created a new government, wrote a bunch of laws that were declared the supreme laws and basically amounted to "No Government will ever do what the British did to us" and would procede to put a Starbucks on every corner to remind those Tea Drinking Brits how much we now hate the stuff. Also the French Revolution happened and the Enlightenment ended.

Next up was the Romantic era, which rejected the previous emphasis on Reason and favored Emotions. This is where the Democratic Party was born and dominated much of American Politics (Every President between Jackson and Lincoln was a Democrat). As the name implied the Democrats wanted more Direct Democracy in the United States and it's biggest success was suffrage to White Men who did not own land. It was more popular in the South, which like all good Romantic era people, were put off by the industrial Revolution in the North and favored more traditional power structures such as landowners controlling the people who labored under them and I think you know where this is going... Lincoln would actually give a speech about how evil Democracy was in the United States.

Since then there were other reforms including letting Black People vote and not be property, and then letting Women Vote... and Direct Election of Senators. Again, given America's govenrment structure, these changes didn't fundamentally change it from a Represetative Democracy ("America is a Republic, not a Democracy" -Every Majority opposed to popular Minority Legislation Ever."). But fundamentally, Modern Democracy still is largely Representative and still attributable to the Enlightenment with Democratic reforms attributed to Romanticism... along with a whole lot of crazy German Ideas, but let's talk about those elsewhere.

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