This is a selection of people in history, who have played an important role in the creation and growth of democracy.
Democracy means society is governed by the input and sanction of all members of society. Democracy means power does not rest in the hands of a few wealthy and privileged people, but people of all rank can have a say in the decision-making process.
Throughout history, democracy has been an evolution. Early democracies were limited to men, and people of certain status in society. But, these early democracies were still an important difference to the rule of absolute monarchs, dictators or oligarchs. Arguably, there are no ‘perfect democracies’ – But, some societies are more democratic than others.
In recent centuries, democracy has also come to include ideas such as liberty and individual freedom – treating everyone in an equal manner. Also given the rise in population size, direct democracy is rarely practised; instead democracy tends to involve elected representatives.
Key figures in the history of democracy
Solon (638 BC – 558 BC ) Solon was an Athenian statesman and lawmaker. He is credited with playing a key role in the development of Athenian democracy. The Athenian constitution stated that all citizens could take part in the Athenian assembly. This reduced the power of privileged leaders and sought to provide a bulwark against the power of tyrants.
Cleisthenes ( 570 BC – 558 BC ) Cleisthenes was a noble Athenian who is credited with the creation of the first democracy in Athens in 507 BC. In order to prevent the disharmony created by powerful tyrants, Cleisthenes instigated democratic reform, such as legislative bodies chosen by lottery rather than heredity principles. Cleisthenes stated his laws sought to promote equality vis à vis the law. This equality is seen as an important democratic principle.
Aristotle (384BC – 322BC) Aristotle studied under Plato and, amongst his other achievements, became a leading political theorist. Aristotle wrote about democracy – comparing it to other forms of government. To Aristotle, the great benefit of democracy is that it would enable citizens to enjoy the freedom of taking part in government and not just being ruled like a slave.
John Locke (1632-1704) John Locke made important contributions to the theory of liberal democracy. In his “The two treatises of the government” Locke argued that a government’s right to rule must be based on the consent of its people. Locke emphasised the idea of a ‘social contract’ – power sanctioned by the people. Locke also emphasised that all men were equal – at a time when societies were very hierarchical.
William Penn (1644 – 1718) William Penn was an early champion of democracy. In the Pennsylvania Frame of Government (1682), Penn included democratic principles such as the election of representatives. A Quaker, Penn also insisted on the principle of freedom of religion within the new state. Penn was also an early advocate for uniting the different colonies of America.
Baron de Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) Montesquieu was a key figure in the Enlightenment. Montesquieu wrote on political theory, advocating a ‘separation of powers’ and other democratic principles. In his The Spirit of the Laws (1748), he distinguished democracy from other types of government.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) Rousseau was a Genevan philosopher who wrote the Social Contract – an influential political tract which argued for government through representation – ideally through direct democracy. Rousseau’s democratic ideals were influential in the French Revolution.
Thomas Paine (1737- 1809) Thomas Paine was an influential writer who powerfully argued for democratic republican government. Paine’s writings were influential in inspiring the American revolution. Paine wanted to see an end to executive tyranny and felt the extension of political power to all was the best way to achieve this.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) Thomas Jefferson was considered to be one of most ‘democratic’ founding fathers. He believed in the principle of republicanism. The idea that all citizens should partake in democratic activity and help prevent abuses of power. Jefferson drafted the US Declaration of Independence, which stated: “All men are created equal”
Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872) – Italian political activist who campaigned for a united republic of Italy. Mazzini wished to see the end of the Monarchy, foreign rule and the end of Papal power. He also envisaged a united states of Europe.
J.S. Mill (1806-1873) John Stuart Mill was a leading liberal philosopher of the Nineteenth Century. He argued for universal suffrage (extending the vote to women and all classes of people) Mill also expounded the principle of liberty – which is an important principle of liberal democracy. His pamphlet The Subjection of Women (1861) was important for raising the issue of votes for women.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) Susan B Anthony was a leading campaigner against slavery and later campaigned for female emancipation and extending the vote to women. Amongst others, she was a key figure in extending the principles of American society to all members.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) A leading British suffragette, Pankhurst campaigned for women to be given the right to vote. She was frequently being sent to prison in the 1910s, due to her violent protests. Her actions were controversial but ensured the issue remained in the public consciousness.
Millicent Fawcett (1846 – 1929) Fawcett took a different approach to Pankhurst and distanced herself from more violent methods. But, like other Suffragettes, she was committed to extending democratic rights to women. Their goal was partially achieved in 1918 and fully realised in 1928.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) Gandhi was the main leader of the Indian independence movement. He sought India to gain freedom from the British Empire and earn the right to self-government. For a long time, Britain resisted the calls for Indian independence. But, after several decades of campaigning, Indian independence was achieved in 1947. This signalled the end of the British Empire and soon Britain withdrew from many countries, returning power to the people who lived there.
Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) Martin Luther King was a prominent civil rights leader in the US. He campaigned for civil rights for black people. At the time, many coloured people lacked basic democratic rights and the policy of segregation gave them a second-class treatment. The civil rights campaign of the 1960s helped ensure improved access to the political system for all sections of society.
Mikhail Gorbachev (1931 – ) Mikhail Gorbachev made an important contribution to democracy by beginning the transition of the one-party state, the Soviet Union into a democracy. Gorbachev allowed the Eastern European satellites to leave Communist control and set up democracies, free of Communist influence.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “People who shaped democracy”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, 01/08/2013. Last updated 1 February 2018.
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People who change the world. Famous people who changed the course of history.
Revolutionaries – People who inspired or began revolutions. Including Spartacus, Joan of Arc, George Washington, Karl Marx.
People of the Enlightenment (1650s to 1780s)