Democracy is the form of government familiar to most Westerners. In a democracy, all eligible citizens participate in the development of laws and the administration of the government. They do this either directly or by electing representatives. Democracy has been largely influenced by theories from the Enlightenment -- the cultural and intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Begun in Europe and later developing in the American colonies, the Enlightenment's purpose was to challenge traditional ideas based in faith and to advance society using scientific and philosophical knowledge.
Natural rights are those that do not come from law or from any particular form of government. They are universal and unalienable rights to which every human being is entitled. Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson advocated heavily for natural rights and challenged the divine right of kings. This became an integral part of democratic thought. The democratic idea of human rights is also closely linked to natural rights. In fact, the terms are often used synonymously to mean the right to, among other things, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The Separation of Powers
The concept of the separation of government powers into a legislature, an executive and a judiciary stems back to ancient Greece and Rome. The Enlightenment ideas of French philosopher and social thinker Montesquieu in his book "The Spirit of the Laws" heavily shaped the modern understanding of democracy. Under Montesquieu's model, each branch of government is separate and has independent powers. This model has been extended in contemporary democracy so that each branch functions to keep a check on the others; theoretically no one branch has more authority than another.
The Will of the People
Popular sovereignty, or "the will of the people," is an Enlightenment idea stating that the authority of the government is created by and sustained for its citizens. Democracy adopted this idea to mean that the people are the ultimate rulers of themselves and can, therefore, represent themselves, or elect others to do so. Social contract theorists such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were instrumental in spelling out this idea. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson, quoting Benjamin Franklin, wrote that "in free governments, the rulers are the servants and the people their superiors and sovereigns."
The Greatest Good
The Enlightenment philosophy of utilitarianism also heavily influenced the development of Western democracy. Utilitarianism has its roots in Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who asked the simple question, "What is the use of it?" to describe and analyze the purpose behind any given act. Democracy adopted the idea that laws and policies ought to ideally provide "the greatest happiness to the greatest number." In real terms, politicians often say that they voted to pass a law because it did the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens.
Separation of Church and State
Religious freedom is guaranteed in democracy, thanks to the doctrine of the separation of church and state, an Enlightenment holdover. At the time of the founding of the United States, some of the drafters of the Constitution wished to establish a national religion. Were it not for the objections of Enlightenment philosophy challenging traditional faith-based ideals and relying more on rationality than on supernatural explanations, the separation of church and state might not have been guaranteed. John Locke's "Letter on Toleration" and Thomas Jefferson's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" were two of the leading texts on the subject.
- Celebrate America: Unalienable and Natural Rights
- Constitutional Rights Foundation: The Declaration of Independence and Natural Rights
- Charles-Louis De Montesquieu; The Spirit of the Laws
- Thomas Jefferson; Section 5 -- The Sovereignty of the People
- Probe: Utilitarianism -- The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
- Saylor: Popular Sovereignty
- Boisi Center Papers on Religion in the United States: Separation of Church and State
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