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  • The History of the Word “Democracy” in France
  • Pierre Rosanvallon (bio)

Nobody now disputes that democracy is the most desirable type of political regime. This has not always been the case. On the right, distrust of popular sovereignty long reigned supreme. On the left, it was the term “socialism” that designated the true ideal. For many old-line republicans, moreover, the republic embodied political progress even more than universal suffrage did. The victorious path of the democratic ideal has thus long been strewn with formidable obstacles and subjected to severe competition from what were considered to be higher or truer understandings of the good.

But it is another fact, of a semantic variety, that commands our attention here—namely, the relatively late arrival on the scene of the term “democracy” to designate the type of regime in which the people are sovereign. Indeed, it was not until 1848 that the word “democracy” really became current in political discourse in France—long after the principle of popular sovereignty was formulated and recognized. How can we explain this lag between the acceptance of the view that a society must create its own rules and institutions (which since the seventeenth century had sustained the various theories of the social contract) and the passing into widespread usage of the word “democracy,” when today we regard these as synonymous? The history of the word “democracy” conceals a mystery that we shall attempt to explore.

The first thing to note is that for a long time the word “democracy” was used only to designate an obsolete type of political system. In the eighteenth century, it was employed exclusively in reference to the [End Page 140] ancient world. The Dictionnaire universel of Antoine Furetière (1690) defines the term as a “form of government in which the people have complete authority,” noting that “democracy flourished only in the republics of Rome and Athens.” The entries in the Dictionnaire de Trévoux (new edition, 1771) and the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (fourth edition, 1762) are in the same vein. These political definitions of democracy are especially succinct, emphasizing that the word has an archaic dimension (Athens and Rome), or else an exotic one (the French Academy’s dictionary notes that “some Swiss cantons are authentic democracies”). If the Trévoux dictionary seems to distinguish authority from sovereignty by specifying that, in a democ-racy, the people must exercise the former and retain the latter, only Pierre Richelet’s old Dictionnaire français (1680) was more detailed, specifying that democracy is “that form of government in which offices are distributed by lot.” One must turn to Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws and Rousseau’s Social Contract to go beyond these kinds of generalities.

A Government for Gods

Montesquieu and Rousseau scarcely differ in their assessment of ancient democracy. The concept of popular sovereignty is central for them, but they do not content themselves, the way the Scholastics do, with defining it broadly as “ultimate power of legitimation.” In his Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theater, Rousseau stresses that in a democracy, “the subjects and the sovereign are only the same men considered in different relations.” 1 For the two authors, the notion of democracy implies that the people itself is both legislator and magistrate, wielding executive power and legislative power simultaneously. Democracy is thus founded upon the twin principles of self-government and direct legislation by the people. Montesquieu notes that it is “a fundamental law in democracies, that the people should have the sole power to enact laws,” an observation that Rousseau would not deny. 2 This commitment to direct legislation by the people led both of them to reject the principle of representation, even if they were not very precise about how laws were to be initiated. They were also in agreement in considering democracy to mean that the people itself is the magistrate.

In his Emile, Rousseau even goes so far as to write: “The sovereign can entrust the government to the whole people or to the greater part of the people, so that there are more citizens who are magistrates than citizens who are simple individuals. The name democracy...

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pp. 140-154
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