The Democratic Revolution

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

This century has witnessed, is still witnessing, and I hope will continue to witness, the two greatest revolutions that have taken place since the emergence of civilization itself. Using Arnold Toynbee as my guide, I would date the beginning of civilization six thousand years ago. The only revolutions in the past which are as important as the two in our century, are the one which saw the rise of cities, and the one when cities first became republics. Since the one that started six thousand years ago and the one that occurred about twenty-five hundred years ago, the revolutions that I want to talk about in this lecture and the next are the only great revolutions that have taken place in human affairs.

Let me mention one other thing that Arnold Toynbee says in the light of his study of the twenty-five or twenty-six civilizations which once existed, most of which have now disappeared. He tells us that two evils destroyed most of them. These are the twin evils of class and war.

The revolutions that I want to talk about tonight and in the next lecture are the democratic revolution and the capitalist revolution. These revolutions may remove from human life one of these evils — the evil of class. We will then still have the evil of war to deal with. It may take a third, and greatest revolution of them all, to cure that evil.

Revolution as a Term of Praise

I have used the word “revolution” as a term of praise. Many people use the word “revolution” for something to be feared, and use the word “revolutionist” as a term of derogation. The word has many meanings. It means a radical change, with violence or without violence; and a change which can be progressive or retrogressive. All of these possibilities fall within the meaning of the term. But I would not be using it as a term of praise except to connote a progressive change that is accomplished, for the most part, without violence.

The two revolutions that I am talking about are non-violent revolutions and progressive.

It is important to recognize this because it helps us to understand that the United States is, in the best sense, the most revolutionary of countries. I share this opinion, by the way, with the editors of Fortune. The editors of Fortune, some years ago, devoted an entire issue to one article, which they later published as a book, entitled U.S.A. — A Permanent Revolution. What they tried to express in that title was simply that the traditions of our country are revolutionary throughout.

The History and Theory of These Revolutions

Since we are concerned with the democratic and capitalist revolutions as progressive changes, we have to be concerned with the theory of the matter as well as the history of it. History, by itself, will not support a judgment of progress. You can report, historically, that such changes have taken place. You can also narrate what changes are taking place. But in order to say that the changes are in the line of progress, it is necessary to say that the change is from worse to better. In order to say that things are getting better, you must have some principles or standards of measurement. Hence I must begin with the basic theory of democracy and tell you, as quickly and simply as I can, what democracy is and why it is the political ideal. When I say “the political ideal,” I mean the only just, or the most perfectly and completely just, form of government, or political organization.

If you ask most Americans what democracy is, they are not able to give you a clear or precise definition of it. If you ask them why they are for democracy, they are not able to give you the reasons which demonstrate its goodness. They are for it without knowing very much about what it is, or why it is good. This seems to be a very bad state of affairs. If we are dedicated to democracy, we had better understand what it is and why it is good.

After I have stated the theory of democracy, I would like to have you look at the sweep of the last three thousand years on a large canvas, because I want you to see what stages of progress have brought us to the point at which the democratic revolution starts. Many changes have prepared the way for it. But the revolution itself began only toward the end of the last century. It is as recent as that and is by no means completed.

The fact that the democratic revolution began only yesterday is very important for everyone to understand. I was taught in school — and I am sure most children are still taught in school — that this country was founded as a democracy. That is completely false. No one in the eighteenth century understood democracy very clearly, and what they understood they did not like. No eighteenth century government was a democracy.

Finally, I want to ask how far we have progressed in the democratic revolution and what remains to be done, what obstacles must be overcome. I shall leave to you the question of our prospects of overcoming these obstacles.

Let me start with an analysis of the forms of government. This will enable you to see what democracy is, and why it is the only just, or the only completely just, form of government. Let me ask you to think of the following relationships.

Three Possible Relations Between Men as Rulers and Ruled

Government is a relation that involves ruler and ruled. It happens in the family: parents rule children. It happens in the factory when men manage machines. All these words — “manage,” “control,” “direct,” “rule” — connote government.

Man as ruler is related to three different types of objects — that which he rules. The object he rules is either a thing or a person.

And when persons are ruled, they are either mature or immature. They are either children or adults.

Let us look at these three for a moment. How should a man rule things: for their own good, or for man’s good? The answer is, for the human good. We manage machines, we direct and control animals, for our good. We do not do it for the good of the machine, or for the good of the animal. This is quite proper, because of the radical inequality that exists between men and things, or persons and things. How should parents rule children? For the parent’s good or for the child’s good? You know the answer to that. A proper parent, understanding his duties and his vocation, rules the child for the child’s good, so long as the child remains a child.

When you are ruling a thing, you do not consult the thing. You do not consult the machine about how it wants to be governed; you do not seek its consent to government, nor grant it participation in government. When a child is very young, you rule it in the same way. You do not ask the child’s consent to being ruled. You do not ask the child’s opinion in reaching decisions on family matters. The child is ruled absolutely in the sense of without participation, yet for the child’s good.

Finally, we come to the case in which man rules man, both being adult. As in the case of the child, the rule should be for the good of the ruled. But now, because of the equality among all mature persons, the rule should not be absolute, but with consent on the part of the ruled and with his participation in government.

From these three relationships, you can see at once two ways in which men can be misruled. When men are ruled as if they were things, i.e., ruled or governed for the good of the ruler, with no voice in their own government, ruler and ruled are related as tyrant and slave. Men ruled as slaves are men being used as instruments and so being misused, because they are persons being treated as if they were things. And when one man rules another paternalistically as if that other were a child, the rule is despotic. In fact, the Greek word “despotic” actually means the rule of paterfamilias, the rule of the householder over the immature persons in the family. When such rule is over children, it is not a bad rule; but when this kind of rule is exercised over mature persons, they are subjected to despotism, even if they are benevolently ruled.

The only just or proper rule of one mature person over another is one in which they are related as equals, and both have a voice in their common affairs, though they may have different functions. Let me illustrate this.

The first distinction among the forms of government is the distinction between tyranny and all the other forms. Tyranny, we can say, is absolutely unjust. What we mean by tyranny is that kind of government in which men are treated as things and so are enslaved.

The second basic distinction is more important, but a little harder to understand. It is the distinction between absolute and limited government; or, if you will, between a government of men and a government of laws. Limited government, republican government, constitutional government, government of laws, are all ways of saying the same thing. On the other hand, there is absolute government, despotic government, government of men.

The most interesting way of expressing the distinction is in terms of government of laws and government of men. You may think it is absurd to contrast government of laws and government of men. Every government involves laws or regulations, and men are always also involved. Of course, but that is not the meaning of the distinction. What then is meant when we say: “Ours is a government of laws, not men.” We mean that the rulers do not rule by any power or authority vested in their own persons. We mean that the rulers rule only as office-holders, by virtue of such power or authority as is vested in the office they hold; and this office is limited by the fundamental law of the land — the constitution. That is why we say it is limited government. The power office-holders can exercise is limited by the office they hold. They wield it only as long as they hold the office. Moreover, they can be thrown out of office for misuse of it. Above all, in this form of government, the most important office is that of citizenship.


If you were to ask “What is the basic office that anyone can hold in a republican or constitutional form of government?” I would not say “the presidency” or “the chief magistracy.” I would say “citizenship.” For that is the only permanent office and the one that is prerequisite to holding any other.

This is of the utmost importance to understand. If you understand that a constitutional government is rule by office-holders’ and that they rule citizens who are their equals, citizens who have a voice in electing them and a voice in the government which they administer, you see that constitutional government is government of, by, and for citizens. Such government is a government of free men and equals who rule and are ruled in turn. It is quite different from despotic government, in which those who are ruled have no voice in their own affairs. They are not ruled as equals, but by a “superior” man who rules them as “inferiors” even if he rules them benevolently and takes care of them.

Once you set up constitutional government, and with it the office of citizenship, the question arises: Who shall be citizens? Some men, or all? If some, which? This is the great question that any constitutional government must face as soon as it exists.

Grounds for Exclusion from Citizenship

There are only three just grounds for excluding anyone from citizenship. They are: infancy, mental deficiency (any of the insanities or feeble-minded conditions) and criminal turpitude. No other attribute of man justly disqualifies him from citizenship. If I am right about this, then a just constitution is built upon the principle of universal suffrage; and an unjust constitution is a constitution that has restricted franchise.

“Suffrage” and “Franchise”

Within the large genus of republics, or constitutional governments, there is now a third and final distinction among the forms of government. Any republic or constitutional government with a restricted franchise, with restrictions — other than the three disqualifications I have just mentioned, is an oligarchy. A constitution in which you have universal suffrage, with no more than the three disqualifications mentioned, is a democracy.

The democratic principle of suffrage is universal and equal manhood suffrage — one man, one vote. This defines democracy. Democracy is republican or constitutional government, in the constitution of which is embodied the principle of universal, equal manhood suffrage. It is, therefore, a politically classless society with equal rights and liberties for all. There are no unjustly disfranchised persons. Or, in the language of John Stuart Mill, there are no “political pariahs.” No one is disqualified except by his own default.

Equality and Liberty

I would like to call your attention to this last point. The two words “equality” and “liberty” are great words to conjure up all kinds of fundamental notions; and we are often torn between what they imply. The institution of republican government is, in the first instance, a great step forward toward liberty. Until you have republican government, no one is free. Under tyrannies or despotisms, the ruled are always subjected or enslaved. The transition from absolute, despotic, and tyrannical governments to republics is the transition from no freedom to some freedom. The other transition’, from oligarchical republics to democratic republics, is not a transition from no freedom to some freedom. It is a transition from freedom for some men to freedom for all men. In other words, the democratic revolution, the democratic change, is governed by the principle of equality, as the republican change is governed by the principle of liberty.

The great thing that came into the world with the establishment of republics is freedom. The great thing that came into the world with the establishment of democracy is equality. That is why I do not refer to democracy as the free society. That it is free goes without saying. But freedom is only part of the picture. Freedom exists in republics that are not democratic. The essence of democracy is equal freedom, for all. And that is why a democracy is most accurately described as a politically classless society.

Three Principles of Democracy

Having defined democracy, let me now try to demonstrate that it is the ideal, the most just or the only perfectly just form of government. This truth rests on three principles. If these three principles are true, the conclusion about democracy is sound. The three principles are as follows.

(1) Man is by nature a political animal. All men are by nature constitutional animals. Let me explain. We are gregarious; we need to associate with our fellowmen. Many other animals are gregarious also: the social insects (wasps, ants, termites) and the herding mammals (elephants, wolves, and bison). But we differ from all the other herding or gregarious animals by the fact that they associate by instinct. The forms of their association are fixed by their very nature. We do not associate by instinct. We associate by need; and when we associate, we do so by reason and free will. That is why, if you look at human associations — the family or tribe, the city or state — you see the wide variety of forms that human association takes. We constitute them ourselves. That is what I mean by saying “man is by nature a political or constitutional animal.”

(2) My second proposition is one that I take from the Declaration of independence: — All men are by nature equal. I do not mean that they are all equally strong, equally bright, equally charming, equally anything else except one thing. They are all equally persons, and the most important thing I can say about a person is that all persons are of equal worth. One person is not worth more than another. The intrinsic dignity and worth of all persons is the same.

(3) The third principle of this demonstration is the principle of justice, which is, simply, that we should treat equals equally and unequals unequally. Since all men are equal as persons, you can see the absolute injustice of tyranny, in which men are treated as things; the slight justice of benevolent despotism, in which men are treated as persons, but treated as unequals, as children rather than as men; the relatively greater justice of oligarchical government, in which some men, at least, are treated as full equals; and finally, the absolute and perfect justice of democracy, in which all men are treated as they should be treated, namely, as persons, as political animals, and as full equals.

I said that justice requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally. You may ask, therefore: What about human inequalities? In view of the fact that men are both equal and unequal, should not the inequality of men be recognized politically?

Egalitarian Democracy and Aristocracy

The answer is “Yes.” We must avoid two false extremes. One is egalitarian democracy, which considers only the equality of men and pays no attention to their inequality. In some of the Greek city-states, for example, the magistrates were chosen by lot from the citizenry on the ground that all were equally capable of holding any public office. They made no effort to select superior men for superior offices in the state. This is wrong. A democracy should recognize that there is a hierarchy of functions to be performed and a hierarchy of men to perform them. Such recognition of a hierarchy of functions and of capacities acknowledges human inequality in a way that is not inconsistent with the fundamental principle of democratic equality.

On the other hand, an aristocracy of fixed or hereditary classes, which is usually a masked oligarchy, gives some men special privileges and powers without regard to merit on their part. We must observe here the distinction made by Thomas Jefferson in his correspondence with John Adams about aristocracy. Jefferson distinguished between the artificial aristocracies of specially privileged classes and the natural aristocracy — the aristocracy of talent or virtue. Jefferson thought that a natural aristocracy was the most important ingredient in any society.

Applying Jefferson’s insight, we can now define democracy as a politically classless society with a rotating aristocracy. Each generation has its own aristocracy, and no aristocracy that reaches the top in that generation perpetuates itself into the next. Each generation produces its own best men to perform the most important functions of government.

HISTORY OF THE MOTION TOWARD DEMOCRACYNow let us look at the history of the progress toward democracy. Let me divide the history into two stages. The first stage runs from the sixth century B.C. to the nineteenth century; the second stage, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day.


The first stage is the story of the first great political revolution — the revolution which sets up constitutional government.


The first cities were under royal rule, under despotic rule. Why? Because they actually grew out of families and tribes. Cities like Athens and Rome were nothing but amalgamations of small groups or tribes that came to live together. Since, in the family or tribe, the rule of the elders prevailed, paternal or royal rule was simply a perpetuation of the rule of the old men of the tribe. But, says Aristotle, the man who first founded the state was the greatest of benefactors. A more accurate translation of the Greek would be “the man who first constituted the state was the greatest of benefactors.” Aristotle thus celebrates the genius who first saw that it was possible for men to live in cities without paternal or royal rule, and under a constitution. The invention of constitutional government took place around the fifth century B.C. It was an invention more far-reaching and important than any of the mechanical inventions of our industrial life.

The first republics — Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth — were puny as compared with the great empires of Persia and Egypt. As tyrants and despots so often feel, the Persian king could not stand having these small groups of free men living in his vicinity. This finally led to the Persian attack on Greece. The Greeks, a handful of them, in the mountain passes at Thermopoli, on the plains, and on the sea, beat the Persians back. We always look upon this as a great victory of free men over slaves. It was a magnificent victory. Constitutional government defended itself and triumphed. How long did that triumph last? How long did these Greek cities endure? Less than one hundred years. Why did they collapse? Two reasons:

1. They were internally torn by class divisions. What Karl Marx calls the class war is described by Plato and Aristotle as “the conflict between the city of the rich and the city of the poor.” Quite apart from the slave revolts in Sparta, the fight between the rich and the poor in all the Greek cities was one of the causes of their downfall.

2. The other cause was external war. The imperialism of Athens and Sparta brought on the Peloponnesian war, and so weakened these cities that Philip of Macedon could sweep down from the north and conquer them. In less than one hundred years there was not a trace of republican or constitutional government left on the face of the earth. Less than a hundred years!

The Middle Ages

After the fall of Rome, Europe was splintered by the feudal system. There were thousands of small principalities, duchies, counties — small earls and petty lords, each with his own little domain. Slowly, out of this anarchy the medieval kingdom developed. It was quite different from the kingdoms of antiquity.

The medieval king, under the feudal system, had a contractual relation with the nobles of his realm. I want to read to you the language in which the nobles of Aragon expressed their pledge of fealty to the king, at the same time that he swore his coronation oath before them. “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than we, to accept you as our King, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.”

Thus we see that the king was not an absolute ruler, but was bound by constitutional limitations. When King John was made to sign Magna Carta by the nobles, the constitution was being enforced. How long did such government last? Not much beyond the fifteenth century. After that you have the emergence of the Hapsburgs in Austria, Spain and the Low Countries; the Tudors and the Stuarts in England; and finally, the Bourbons in France. These kings dissolved the royal and political regime by throwing its constitutional aspect out, and making the government purely royal. By the time you get to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there is no vestige of constitutional government in Europe. Kingdoms were again as despotic as they had been in antiquity.

Modern Times

What happens next? The republican revolution takes place once again in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: the great revolution in England in 1688, which threw the Stuarts out and brought in the Prince of Orange; the American revolution of 1776; the French revolution of 1789. This continues through the nine-teenth century: in Middle Europe, in 1848; in South America, where republics emerge in the middle of the nineteenth century; right down to 1905, when Russia had its first revolution and the people obtained a parliament from the Czar.

From 1688 to 1905, a revolution was going on in the western world. What kind of revolution? A democratic revolution? Not at all! The republican revolution, the same one that the Greeks started. It has taken place again and again. And that revolution is still far from established. In our own lifetime, it has been lost in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Argentina. Do not think, therefore, that the republican revolution is an assured success. It is still something we have to preserve, because without republican institutions, democracies cannot come into being. But republican institutions are not democracies; they are the precursors of them.


I turn now to the second stage, which has taken place within the last 150 years. Let me divide my story into two parts: first, what happened in the world of action; and second, what happened in the world of thought.

If I were forced to put my finger on a point in history, a time and place of which I could say “Here in the world of action, the stirrings toward democracy first showed themselves,” I would put my finger on the dateline of 1647. At that time, on a field in Putney, England, in the midst of Cromwell’s army, a group of men called the Levellers, led by Major Rainborough and Sir John Wildman told Cromwell and Colonel Ireton (his son-in-law) what they wanted when the war against King Charles was won. They said, “We would like to know, after we have won this war against the King, who are going to be the people of England?”

That is quite a question, isn’t it? “Who are going to be the people of England?” Rainborough and Wildman took the position that “every he who breathes the air of England has as much interest in this land, and as much right to have a voice in his own government as the richest he among us.” Ireton and Cromwell said No to this demand; for they felt that if every man had an equal voice in the affairs of England, then those with a fixed and permanent interest in landed estates and commercial ventures patented by the King would soon be voted out of their property. To protect the rights of property, they believed it was necessary to restrict suffrage to the men of property. This seemed a reasonable position at the time. If you gave every man an equal voice, the poor would dominate Parliament and it would not be long before they would find a way to change the property relationships.

In 1789, our forefathers met in Philadelphia for two years to debate the framework of our Constitution. The question of suffrage was raised, but no one spoke out for universal suffrage. They could not agree about the precise extent to which suffrage should be restricted. They left this matter to the separate states.

In New York State, in 1821, there was a convention to reform the Constitution of New York. It was called for the purpose of broadening the suffrage. Before 1821, only farmers in upstate New York with a freehold of five hundred pounds a year elected the Senators of the Upper House. The people with less property than that could vote only for the Assembly. The proposed reform was to enable everyone to vote for Senators as well as for Assemblymen.

Chancellor Kent, one of the great legal figures in New York State, speaking against this in 1821, said exactly what Ireton and Cromwell had said: “This mania for universal suffrage jeopardizes the principles of property and the principles of liberty.” That it jeopardizes the principles of property is perfectly clear; that it jeopardizes the principles of liberty is not so clear. The only liberty that is threatened is the greater freedom of the rich as against the poor. Equal suffrage would make their freedom equal.

In England, the three great reform bills of the 1830s, 1860s, and 1880s — and finally the House of Lords Act in 1911 — were required to bring about the constitutional changes by which the English form of government approached democracy. Even then, the Women’s Suffrage Act, which enfranchised one-half of the population, did not take effect until 1918 in England.

In this country, there were no suffrage reforms in the Jacksonian period. We talk about Jacksonian democracy; but during the period of Jackson and for ten or fifteen years afterward there were men in this country who carried ball-and-chain and were indentured servants. There was a vast, disfranchised horde of those who may have had some protection from the state, but certainly had no privileges in the state — no voice in their own government. The Civil War amendments began to change the picture, but you have to wait until 1920 in this country before the female half of the population is enfranchised. This indicates how very recent democracy is in the two most advanced countries in the world.

Let us look now at the realm of political thought. When did political philosophers first come to regard democracy as ideal? No thinker prior to 1800 had ever spoken a good word for democracy. In the vast literature of political theory, there are no proponents of democracy prior to 1800. With the possible exception of Robert Owen, the first voice that speaks for democracy is raised in 1835. It is the voice of a Frenchman, Alexis De Tocqueville, who came to this country and wrote a book — not for Americans, but for Europeans to read — called Democracy in America. I cannot recommend any book more highly. It is not only an amazing journal of observation, but an amazing book of prophecy. De Tocqueville, in effect, said: “For the first time in the history of mankind, a people is beginning to experience equality of conditions. America is setting up a society in which, eventually, equality of conditions will prevail.” This is what he meant by democracy, and quite rightly. And he said to his European brethren: “This revolution, once started, will never stop. It may be misguided, it may have abuses, it may fall short of its own great destiny, but it will never be stopped. It will sweep the world.”

De Tocqueville’s work was not, however, a great work in political theory. The first great book of political theory which holds democracy up as the ideal is dated 1863. It is John Stuart Mill’s Representative Government. Even so, John Stuart Mill, like many of us today, was a reluctant democrat. He wanted universal suffrage, but he also wanted it unequal. He wanted to give the brighter people, the technically more advanced people, more votes than the rest. He could not bring himself to trust the laboring classes in 1863. Yet he spoke out for women’s suffrage. All in all, Mill represents the first advocate of universal suffrage among the great political philosophers.

Let me first ask why it took so long to get started? Why, if democracy is the ideal, did it take so long for men to recognize it? The answer, I think, is not that men are obtuse or blind to the truth; it is not that men are intrinsically unjust or hard-hearted. None of these things is the answer. The answer is that no one could see the truth prior to industrialization. That is why we are absolutely wrong if we think we can carry democracy to India or China today, to the Middle East or Middle Europe. In no place where industrialization is not yet advanced can democracy either exist or be understood.

Industrialization brings about an indispensable emancipation of men, which makes democracy possible in fact and thinkable to the mind. This explains why most of the world, which is still at a low level of industrialization, is still not ready to think or act democratically.

Now the question we must face is, does democracy fully exist anywhere, even on paper? I know it does not exist in England and the United States. It may exist in Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. In England, even though the House of Lords is just a vestige of its former self, even though the Lords are almost shorn of power, nevertheless, the existence of the House of Lords, constitutionally, is undemocratic. And in our country, the poll tax, which operates against universal suffrage, must be abolished from every state by an amendment to the federal constitution.

But even if these changes took place — even if we had the poll tax amendment ratified and in operation — would America be a democracy, a working democracy, a democracy in social fact and actual practice? Anyone who reads the daily newspapers knows the answer.


Democracy has three major obstacles to overcome. The first is that conditions of equality must be more than conditions of political equality; they must be conditions of economic equality, too. Economic democracy is needed for political democracy.

Secondly, conditions of equality require equal educational opportunity for all. That does not mean an equal number of years in school for all. It means that the best education, the education once given to the few, must now be given to all.

Until these problems are solved, the democratic revolution will not be completed. It may take us at least one hundred years to solve them.

The third obstacle to the prosperity and completion of the democratic revolution is the one that Arnold Toynbee mentioned — the evil of war.

The Evil of War

Even if we remove the evil of class, we still have to face the evil of war.

War consumes too much of our wealth. Democratic education and economic democracy require us to make a better use of wealth. But this is only part of the reason why war threatens democracy. The other is the one that Alexander Hamilton stated so succinctly in The Federalist Papers. Let me read you what he said: “The violent destruction of life and property, incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”

We know this to be true in our own day. The threat of war is inimicable to the best interests of democracy. Liberty, justice, rights, cannot be preserved in a state of war — the cold war which we have suffered so long. Democracy and capitalism — these two great revolutions — need world peace in which to develop and prosper.


[Great Books of the Western World GBotWW=”1″]