Re-imagining Democracy 1750–1860

The freedom fighter Rhigas Velestinlis

The freedom fighter Rhigas Velestinlis, who advocated ‘demokratia’, coming down from the mountains in the 1790s to challenge Greek elite figures who are submitting to the rule of the Sultan. Zographos (1836/9), painted for former independence fighter Makriyannis.


The Re-imagining Democracy project addresses a simple question: how did it come about that, whereas in the middle of the eighteenth century people who talked about ‘democracy’ were normally talking about the ancient world -- about Greece or republican Rome, when a hundred years later they used the word to talk about modern circumstances and possibilities? Or, in short form ‘how did democracy become modern?’ 

This account of change can be sharpened. In the mid-eighteenth century, most people who talked about democracy thought that it was a primitive form of government, unsuited to the modern world. This was for two main reasons: first because they saw progress as stemming in important part from the division of labour. They saw ‘democracy’ as representing undivided labour in the context of government, and hence as unsuited to complex modern circumstances. They also thought that democracy was incompatible with modern notions of liberty. The moderns had, they thought, discovered the secret of liberty: it was best protected by dividing power. But democracy entailed the concentration of power, so opened the way to the tyranny of the mass. People who accepted these ideas would have been amazed and perhaps horrified had they known that two centuries later, by the 1950s, most regimes everywhere in the world would describe themselves as democratic. This would seriously have challenged their ideas about where history was going.

By the mid-nineteenth century, democracy had become modern, in the sense that people often applied the concept to modern circumstances, and (though many remained unpersuaded of its merits) some had come to champion it, or at least come to think that the future lay with democracy, so that the challenge was to make it work. This is not to say that, by the mid-nineteenth century, people had the same ideas about democracy as we have today. This was far from being the case. Democracy was, in the mid-nineteenth century, by no means universally associated with representative government on the basis of a mass franchise – and indeed experiments with that approach in the French Second Republic were widely judged disappointing (they had after all brought to power the autocratic Napoleon III). The jury was then still out on how (and indeed, whether) democracy could be given stable institutional form. Since then, there’s been a process of institutional development, social and cultural change – and we have changed what we mean by the word. (Rousseau would have called what we call ‘democracy’ ‘elective aristocracy’.) The process of change – institutional, cultural, terminological – has not stopped. In every decade over the past one hundred and fifty years, understandings of democracy have changed, and they have also varied from place to place. This will be the chief message of a book to which the convenors of the Re-imagining Democracy project are contributing: Jussi Kurunmaki et al eds. Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History (Berghahn, forthcoming, 2017). Yet a thin thread of continuity runs through all these imaginings: we are talking about a conversation, a process of experimentation that has spanned generations. Our project examines some of its early episodes.

Our project began in a small way, but with big aspirations, in 2004. A mutual friend, who had a job based in the French Embassy, charged with promoting Anglo-French academic collaboration, proposed to me (a History tutor) and to Mark Philp (then a Politics tutor, now a professor of History at Warwick) that we should collaborate with ‘some French people’ and draw on embassy support. This sounded good to us. Mark Philp proposed the powerful question on which we have laboured ever since. We agreed that the question could be asked of Europe and both Americas – all the places in which European culture was well established – between the mid eighteenth and mid nineteenth centuries. These were the places which inherited the ancient concept of ‘democracy’ and so had the capacity to ‘re-imagine’ it. There are of course also interesting questions about how the concept gained traction elsewhere in the world, but we saw that as a different story. Though we had an ambitious vision of our ultimate goal, we agreed that developing research collaborations in France was quite enough of a challenge to be getting on with, because (for all practical purposes) we didn’t know any French people. Nor did we have much sense how to address what we agreed was an interesting research question. Not surprisingly in this context, the project was slow to get off the ground. But gradually it gathered momentum, as we made progress in constructing a research network, and, through a process of reading and intense discussion, began to acquire convictions as to how an answer to our question might be framed. In 2006, we obtained £10,000 from the University's John Fell research fund, which helped us to organise further meetings with French historians and a very fruitful meeting with a hand-picked group of American historians. By this time we had decided that our first task was to produce a collection of essays on experience across the North Atlantic: in what became the United States, France, Britain and Ireland. This book Re-imagining Democracy in the age of Revolution: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 and has, they tell us, sold well across all markets.

During that first phase, we had come to the conclusion that, though broadly all the places we were looking at had re-imagined democracy as modern, they had gone through distinct processes, with very different results: the word had developed different connotations in different settings, and become associated with different institutions and practices. This helped to shape the agenda for the second phase of our project, which has focussed on further contrasting experiences across ‘the Mediterranean’ (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and the Ottoman world). Funding from the Leverhulme Trust (at £110,000) has enabled us to hold eighteen international workshops over a three-year period. Our now well-honed networking skills have made it possible for us to attract almost two hundred people to our events (about 40% of these have attended at least two of our events). Our proceedings can be followed at The process of collaborating with researchers across diverse academic cultures, and with a great range of expertise, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the project; it has generated some very warm and interesting feedback – especially from early-career researchers. Our second collection is now well underway. Next we have our eyes on Latin America and the Caribbean.


- Joanna Innes

Professor of Modern History