The Invention of Representative Democracy

This post is a part of our “Challenging Democratic Revolutions” series, which explores the ways in which democratic ideologies challenged Old Regimes and how revolutionaries challenged notions of democratic liberty.

By Katlyn Marie Carter

“I know well that in a democracy, it would be the people who would judge the tyrant, because in a purely democratic state, the people do everything themselves; but what we are here [in], France is not a democracy.” [1] Jacobin Deputy Pierre-François-Joseph Robert made this claim in early 1793, amidst debate over whether the National Convention should hold a popular referendum on the judgment of King Louis XVI. Indeed, France was not a democracy by eighteenth century standards, it was something different: a representative regime. Democracy, at that point, mainly connoted a form of government exercised in ancient republics wherein the entire citizenry participated in governance. It was generally considered inapplicable in modern societies because, for one, they were too large—both in terms of population and geographic size.

Representative government was something distinct and Robert, for one, considered making it synonymous with democracy all but impossible. “There is no democracy with national representation,” he opined, “and those who wish to adapt all the principles of democratic government to a representative government are either imbeciles who disrupt without knowing it, or rogues who knowingly disrupt in the hope of not losing the fruits of anarchy.” [2]

Despite what this emphatic assertion of difference might suggest, others were beginning to think differently. The term “representative democracy” came into being in the 1790s. [3] Just a year after Robert’s statement, Maximilien Robespierre himself declared that the Revolution should aim to establish “a democratic or republican government; these two words are synonyms.” Democracy, he contended, was not “a state wherein the people continually assembled, manage all public affairs by themselves,” or even met in groups to decide the direction of society. “Democracy is a state wherein the sovereign people, guided by laws of their own making, does all that it can properly do on its own, and does by delegates all that it cannot do itself.” [4] In making such a declaration, Robespierre was redefining democracy to encompass the previously distinct form of representative government.

This eliding of terms—which intriguingly took place in both the French and English languages around the same time—has since become so naturalized that today we often fail to recognize “representative democracy” as an invention that can be traced to a particular historical moment. But blunt statements like those issued by Robert should remind us of the improbability of the emergence of this unitary concept and prompt us to interrogate anew R.R. Palmer’s characterization of the Age of Revolutions as democratic. [5] As Robespierre’s declaration highlights, what it meant for a government to be democratic was changing in this period—something many historians are recently investigating. [6] In the process, what had previously been considered crucial distinctions between representative government and democracy were deliberately papered over, generating tensions we continue to live with today. Recovering the salient differences between these concepts stands to break us out of tired debates over whether the Age of Revolutions was democratic and usefully direct our attention to investigating how and with what consequences representative government came to be considered a form of democracy.

Disaggregating the terms is a first step to identifying the tensions inherent in “representative democracy,” many of which are due to the fact that they were previously considered unique, even incompatible terms. As Paul Friedland pointed out in the French context: “Representative democracy … was from its very inception a contradiction in terms, for the basic reason that a true democracy precluded representation.” [7] Indeed, for some, political representation could not be considered a form of democracy because the latter required an active participation of the citizenry in political decision-making. On the other hand, many who advocated for the application of political representation saw it as something more than just a solution to the impossibility of applying democracy in large countries. To many, it offered particular benefits and corrected for what they considered defects of democracy. Chief among these was the need to rely on the masses and their ability to reason and determine their own best interests—an ability of which many were skeptical.

In France, political circumstances could lead to these strands of thinking appearing in unlikely places. In the midst of the king’s trial, left-leaning deputy Jean-Louis Seconds argued against consulting the people on the judgment by laying out the benefits of a representative government over democracy. “Among men equal in reason or in enlightenment, the right of every one in the direction of the government and the public good, is equal for all and as a consequence all should govern if it were possible,” he declared. However, this would only work if “an entire people could assemble and deliberate simultaneously,” and also if the government were not founded partly on “this weakness of the reason of a large number of men, on this impossibility, and on the contradiction in the government of all.” It was thus necessary to select “an elite, and a deliberative, even a guiding minority, who govern the majority” with the aim of determining “truly and really the will and reason of all.” [8] In other words, the deputies had to consider the possibility that one purpose for allowing representatives to exercise popular sovereignty was simply to guarantee better decisions made by individuals endowed with superior reason. This argument may well have been made in service of political exigency. Nonetheless, the characterization of representative government as an improvement upon democracy for this specific reason is significant and telling of an attitude that was certainly present at the time.

Across the Atlantic, James Madison saw the large size of the United States as an impetus to improve upon the concept of democracy through the introduction of representative politics. Some five years before Louis XVI went on trial, in the Federalist No.10, Madison argued that a republic—which he described as “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”—could avoid the pitfalls of democracy by refining public views through representative institutions. “Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose,” he wrote. [9] He further argued that a large republic could increase the likelihood of this outcome by expanding the political sphere to elicit the election of “fit characters” who would have enough distance from popular pressure and factional interests to make sound decisions on behalf of the nation. In defending the utility of the Senate, Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 63 that such a body was necessary to guard against the people’s “temporary errors and delusions.” Having a body of “temperate and respectable” citizens to “check” the people until “reason, justice and truth can regain their authority over the public mind,” he suggested, was a necessary precaution. [10] Madison distinguished democracy from the government outlined in the Constitution and political representation was crucial to what made them distinct, an observation Seth Cotlar has also made. [11]

In the 1790s, as the discourse of “representative democracy” began to take hold, the salient differences between the two terms were muddled. Many of the debates we still have about representative government and how it should work bear the marks of this imperfect intellectual welding. We would do well to pay more attention to precisely how these concepts differed and were then combined if for no other reason than it might afford opportunities to re-imagine our politics today.

Katlyn Marie Carter is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. She is currently working on a book about state secrecy and the birth of representative democracy in the Age of Revolutions. Her work has appeared in French History and The Washington Post.

Title imageLe Ci-devant roi à la barre de la Convention nationale : mardi XI décembre 1792, Louis Capet dernier roi des Français fut traduit de la tour du Temple… : [estampe] / [non identifié], 1792. 

Further Reading:

Innes, Joanna and Mark Philp. Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, and Ireland, 1750-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Friedland, Paul. Political Actors: Representative Bodies & Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Nelson, Dana D. Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.

Gustafson, Sandra M. Imagining Deliberative Democracy in the Early American Republic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Smith, Barbara Clark. The Freedoms We Lost: Consent and Resistance in Revolutionary America. New York: New Press, 2010.

Wood, Gordon. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.


[1] Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, Volume 57: du 12 janvier 1793 au 28 janvier, 1793 (Paris: Librairie administrative de P. Dupont, 1862-1913), 316.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mark Philp, “Talking about Democracy: Britain in the 1790s,” in Joanna Innes and Mark Philp, Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, and Ireland, 1750-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 101-113; Ruth Scurr, “Varieties of Democracy in the French Revolution,” in Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions, pp. 57-68.

[4] Maximilien Robespierre, “Sur les Principes de Morale Politique qui Doivent Guider la Convention Nationale dans l’Administration Intérieure de la République,” in Robespierre: Textes Choisis, Tome Troisième, aout 1793-juillet 1794, ed. Jean Poperen (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1958) pp.110-131, 113. This passage is also cited in: William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 272; Scurr, “Varieties of Democracy in the French Revolution, 66-67.

[5] R.R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolution: a political history of Europe and America; 1760-1800 , 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959-1964).

[6] Seth Cotlar, “Languages of Democracy in America from the Revolution to the Election of 1800,” in Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions, pp. 13-27; Matthew Rainbow Hale, “Regenerating the World: The French Revolution, Civic Festivals, and the Forging of Modern American Democracy, 1793-1795,” Journal of American History, Vol. 103, No. 4 (March 2017), pp. 891-920; Dana Nelson, Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

[6] Paul Friedland, Political Actors: Representative Bodies & Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 11.

[8]  Archives Parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, Volume 56: du 29 décembre 1792 au 11 janvier 1793 (Paris: Librairie administrative de P. Dupont, 1862-1913), 561.

[9] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Ian Shapiro (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 51.

[10] Ibid., 320.

[11] Cotlar, “Languages of Democracy in America from the Revolution to the Election of 1800,” 20-21.

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