Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible citizens actively participate in politics and civic life; choose and replace the government through free and fair elections; directly or indirectly (through elected representatives) propose, develop, and create laws; and function under an equally-applied rule of law.

Democracy also protects the human rights of all citizens.

A republic is form of democracy in which a country is governed by an elected leader (such as a president) rather than by a king or queen.

The United States is both a republic and a democracy.

An estimated distribution of democratic governments throughout the world is depicted in the map above.

Although this and the following background information is helpful, your ability to comprehend the essentials—Main Idea, Detail, Inference—from what you are given to read is more important for answering questions than tapping into an encyclopedic memory.


The roots of democracy go back as far as 500 BC with the ancient Greeks.  Closer to our time, the idea of democracy gained traction in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Age of Enlightenment, a period in which philosophers pushed for logic and reason, rather than tradition and “old ways,” in public affairs.

Considerations that went into the formation of democracy include but are not limited to:
A country’s authority to govern itself.

Social Contract
The willingness of citizens to do what is good for society as a whole, including surrendering some of their individual rights, so that their country’s sovereign government can protect their remaining individual rights.

Rule of Law
The influence of law within society.

Natural Law
The “Law of Nature,” which asserts all people, by their very existence, are entitled to certain natural, inalienable (unremovable) rights.

The ability of individuals to live freely and control their own actions without interference by the government.

Civil Liberties
Individual freedoms.

Something that a person is or should be morally or legally allowed to have, get, or do.

Separation of Powers
The degree by which government is divided into branches with separate and independent powers.

Checks and Balances
The degree by which branches of government act as counterweights to one another’s separate powers.

Majority Rule
Governmental rule based on more than half of a citizenry’s votes or “wishes.”

Tyranny of the Majority
Majority Rule that improperly oppresses individuals and minorities.

Protection of Minorities
An offshoot of Natural Law and the Rule of Law that grants universal rights to all people and guards against Tyranny of the Majority.

Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson championed a metaphorical wall between organized religion and the government of the nation.

Philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment include but are not limited to:
His book Leviathan favored a sovereign government with absolute power to impose a strong rule of law and social contract that would protect the people from themselves.

His treatise, The Social Contract, favored self-rule by the citizenry.

His concept of Trias Politica favored separation of powers.

His Second Treatise of Civil Government favored natural law.

Milestones of American Democracy

Democracy in the United States of America takes into account much of the above.  It is also based on but not limited by the following milestones:

Magna Carta (1215)
This “Great Charter” is the first document imposed upon the King of England to limit his powers and protect his subjects’ rights.  It was signed by King John at Runnymede, a meadow by the River Thames.

Mayflower Compact (1620)
Pilgrims, also known as Separatists, left England on a ship called the Mayflower in search of religious freedom.  After sighting Plymouth Rock and landing in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims drafted a social contract for self-government based on consent of the governed and majority rule.

Declaration of Independence (1776)
The document by which the American colonies declared their independence from the British Empire.

Articles of Confederation (1777)
The first constitution of the United States.

Treaty of Paris (1783)
The treaty between the American colonies and Great Britain that formally recognized the United States as an independent nation.

Federalist Papers (1787-1788)
Articles pushing for the ratification of the United States Constitution.

Constitution (1789)
The ratified and current United States Constitution.

Bill of Rights (1791)
Forming the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights guaranteed civil liberties (personal freedoms).

Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
A proclamation made by President Abraham Lincoln that all slaves held by the Confederacy were from then on “forever free.”

Gettysburg Address (1863)
Lincoln’s succinct message at the dedication to the Union cemetery after the Battle of Gettysburg linked the battle to the purpose of the entire Civil War: A struggle to reaffirm the principles upon which the entire nation was founded, so that “government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

13th Amendment to the Constitution (1865)
Abolished slavery throughout the United States.

14th Amendment to the Constitution (1868)
Established all native-born and naturalized people as citizens with rights of due process.

15th Amendment to the Constitution (1870)
Gave all men the right to vote, regardless of race, color, or previous slavery.

19th Amendment to the Constitution (1920)
Established the right of women to vote (women’s suffrage).

Brown vs. Board of Education (1954)
Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, thereby overturning the “separate but equal” provisions of its 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision.

Civil Rights Act (1964)
Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Voting Rights Act (1965)
Designed to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, prohibited discrimination in voting, particularly against racial minorities.


In general, the modern concept of Democracy includes at least the following components:
• Citizens actively participate in politics and civic life.
• Citizens choose and replace the government through free and fair elections.
• The human rights of all citizens are protected.
• The rule of law applies equally to all citizens.

Democracies can be found in but are not limited to:
Presidential Republic
A country governed by a freely elected president.
Example: United States

Parliamentary Republic
A country governed by a freely elected parliament (which elects a leader).
Example: India

Constitutional Monarchy
A country governed by a (directly or indirectly) freely elected presidential or parliamentary leader in the setting of a symbolic but powerless royal family:
Example: United Kingdom

The Social Contract
– Rousseau
– 1762

1  If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be.  It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed.  It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.

2  In fact, I can confidently lay down as a principle that, when the functions of government are shared by several tribunals, the less numerous sooner or later acquire the greatest authority, if only because they are in a position to expedite affairs, and power thus naturally comes into their hands.

3  Besides, how many conditions that are difficult to unite does such a government presuppose!  First, a very small [Country], where the people can readily be got together and where each citizen can with ease know all the rest; secondly, great simplicity of manners, to prevent business from multiplying and raising thorny problems; next, a large measure of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality of rights and authority cannot long subsist; lastly, little or no luxury—for luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the [Country] all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion.

Practice – Questions
1.  The above passage was written by a French philosopher.  Which of the following can you infer from this passage?
A.  He thought democracy could succeed everywhere.
B.  He thought democracy could succeed only in France.
C.  He thought democracy could succeed only in the United States.
D.  He thought democracy could succeed only in small countries.

2.  What is the main idea of this passage?
A.  Democracy is readily defined.
B.  Democracy is widespread.
C.  Democracy is difficult to implement.
D.  Democracy is easy.

3.  According to the passage, in a strict sense, there never has been a:
A.  Santa Claus
B.  real democracy
C.  public
D.  private

4.  According to the passage, there should be a large measure of:
A.  equality

B.  inequality
C.  sunshine
D.  rain

5.  Which of the following does this passage imply?
A.  Democracy is cut and dried.
B.  Democracy is imperfectly perfect.
C.  Self-government is deplorable.
D.  Government by the people ends up in the hands of a few people.

Practice – Answers
1.  D.  He thought democracy could succeed only in small countries.

2.  C.  Democracy is difficult to implement.
Main Idea

3.  B.  real democracy

4.  A.  equality

5.  D.  Government by the people ends up in the hands of a few people.

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