Joanna Innes, a historian of government, society and ideas and former Tutorial Fellow at Somerville, explores the revival of interest in democracy across southern Europe after the French Revolution.
An intelligent observer living in the middle of the eighteenth century would have been surprised to hear that, 250 years later, democracy would be thought to be the natural form of government in the modern world.
At that time, democracy (broadly understood to mean ‘popular government’) was taken to be a primitive form, characteristic of the earliest societies, of ancient Greece and republican Rome, unsuited to the complexities of modern times. The French Revolution encouraged talk of democracy – then connoting especially social equality – but also helped to give it a bad name. In the early nineteenth century, one Spanish priest said that he thought the term had been so thoroughly discredited that it would be expunged from dictionaries.
Nonetheless, within a couple of decades, interest in ‘democracy’ revived. Legal privilege was being eroded everywhere, reducing formal social difference. Members of the governing classes increasingly thought that they needed the support of the people in order to rule effectively; some religious leaders concluded that churches would flourish only if they appealed more directly to the people. ‘Democracy’ became the slogan for these diverse assessments and aspirations.
For the last fifteen years, Mark Philp and I have been leading an international collaborative project which looks at how these processes of change played out in different parts of Europe and the Americas. In 2013, the first volume to emerge from this project was published: Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850. In November 2018, a second volume is appearing: Re-imagining Democracy in the Mediterranean, 1780-1860. The volume grew out of three years of workshops across southern Europe, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and is the work of an international team of contributors, recruited in the context of these discussions.
Much of southern Europe and the former Ottoman empire succumbed to dictatorship at some point in the twentieth century. This marked a change from the pattern of their development in the previous century, however, when representative governments were installed across southern Europe – sometimes on the basis of very broad franchises. Spain was, for example, among the first countries in Europe to produce a ‘democratic’ party. Even the Ottomans briefly experimented with a parliament (shortly after the period explored in the book, 1876-8).
The book explores the context in which democracy became a talking point and focus for political creativity in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century southern Europe – and explores parallels and divergences in Ottoman and Arab experiences. It seeks to broaden understandings of the depth and complexity of the democratic heritage – topics that have become more urgent and pressing since we began work early this century.
‘Re-Imagining Democracy in the Mediterranean 1780-1860’, edited by Joanna Innes and Mark Philp, is published by Oxford University Press.