Key events in the history of democracy

This is a selection of key events in the history of democracy. It highlights moments where there was a significant evolution of democratic principles. The extension of democracy includes:

  • Weakening power of absolute rulers / absolute monarchs.
  • Extending the decision making process to a wider section of society.
  • Giving every member of society a say in the decision making process.

One definition of democracy was given by Abraham Lincoln

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”

This events all helped this democratic ideal come closer.

Athenian democracy

Through the reforms of Solon, Cleisthenes and Pericles, Athenian citizens were given a direct say in the running of the legislative body. Many positions were chosen by ‘random lot’ – considered fairest way of avoiding privilege. Democracy was direct, with citizens voting on decisions directly. Although small scale and limited to male Athenian citizens, it is considered one of the earliest forms of direct participatory democracy in the ancient world.

Political writings of Aristotle (384BC – 322BC) Inspired by his tutor Plato (and his teacher Socrates), Aristotle wrote extensively on different forms of government, including democracy. Although Aristotle wasn’t 100% committed to democracy, his writings were very influential and helped to cement the idea of democracy.

Magna Carta 1215. In 1215 King John of England wielded absolute power. A group of barons were unhappy and made the King sign a charter which in theory limited the constitutional power of the King and gave powerful barons a say in legislation and taxation. The Magna Carta was far from creating a democracy, but it was very significant for ending the rule of absolute monarchs and had the seeds of parliamentarian government.

American Constitution (1787) In the aftermath of the American revolution, the Founding Fathers of America wished to create a new democratic society, based on democratic principles of ‘one man one vote’. The new women and slaves. But, it was an early statement of democratic principles and over the next centuries the vote was extended to all adults.

French revolution (1787 – 1799) The French revolution overthrew the absolute monarch of France. The ideals of the French revolution hoped to restore power and wealth to the whole of society and end the great inequality of the previous government. In the short term, the French revolution didn’t create a democracy, but it changed attitudes throughout the world. The threat of revolution was a factor in encouraging European states to devolve power and contemplate greater democracy.

1688 Great revolution ‘Glorious revolution’

The English civil war had temporarily removed the monarch in place of parliamentarian rule. When William of Orange came to take the throne. Parliament drafted a bill of rights, constitutionally limiting the power of the king.

Great Reform acts of 1832-1837

The great reform act abolished ‘rotten boroughs’ very small seats where MPs could buy their seat. It also extended the vote from a small class of propertied males to franchise most male voters over the age of 18.

1893 – New Zealand women given the vote

In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote. This significant milestone was a couple of decades before many other Western democracies like UK and US.


US Civil rights movement 1950s and 1960s

This depicts four key figures in the US civil rights movement – W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. The civil rights movement helped deal with issues of segregation and political alienation that many coloured people faced at the time.

berlin-wall Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was symbolic of the end of one-party rule in Eastern Europe. The Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had initiated reforms which led to greater openness and democracy in the Soviet Union. Unlike his Soviet predecessors, he allowed Eastern countries to follow their independent democratic fate.


Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. G+ Key events in the history of democracy“, Oxford,, 01/08/2013
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