Saturday, November 09, 2002 3:05 PM
Britannica Student Encyclopedia Article
Britannica Student Encyclopedia
In his Gettysburg Address of November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln defined the kind of society he
wanted the United States to preserve: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” He was
defining democracy, but not as it existed anywhere in the world at that time. He was describing an ideal, which
increasingly became realized in the next century. The ideal was based upon a basic concept of the Declaration of
Independence—all human beings are created equal and are endowed with certain inalienable rights, including life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Meanings of Democracy
The word democracy is derived from two Greek words:
, meaning “the people,” and
“rule.” A democracy is a way of governing in which the whole body of citizens takes charge of its own affairs. As
citizens of towns, cities, counties, states or provinces, and nations, the people are the sovereigns, the source of
power. Democracy means that they can freely make the decisions about what is best for them: what policies to
adopt and what taxes to pay. A true democracy, as Lincoln was defining it, means a society in which all the
people are citizens with the same rights to participate in its government.
As a term for a type of government, democracy came into use during the 5th century
in Greece. Since then it
has acquired a number of different meanings, most of which have common elements. The most basic and original
sense is direct democracy—a government in which political decisions are made directly by all the citizens and
policies are decided by majority rule.
Direct democracy was the government adopted by some ancient Greek city-states. Many centuries later, during
the colonial era in North America, the New England townships chose direct democracy as their form of
government. All the townspeople gathered at one time and place to decide public policies.
Neither ancient Greece nor colonial New England had a true democracy because some segments of the
population did not have the rights of citizenship. Certain members of Greek society were considered either
noncitizens or second-class citizens. Women and slaves, for example, were denied participation in government.
In New England, only property-owning white males were active in government. Women, poor whites, and slaves
To the extent that any segment of the population is deliberately excluded from citizen participation, a government
fails to be a true democracy. It is really an oligarchy, or government by the few. In the United States, for
example, most African Americans were not given suffrage (the right to vote) until after the American Civil War.