By Editorial Staff
Published April 5, 2008
By Mark Beliles and Stephen McDowell
The development of civil liberties has been a slow and rocky path. As ancient family groups and tribes gradually formed into nations with organized civil structures, the tendency has always been to centralize power. People unwisely tend to put their trust in the state and collective political power rather than in themselves and God, Who is the source of all things.
The ancient empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and China are proof of this point. It has taken thousands of years to convince men that utopian ideas of centralized government remaining just and incorrupt are unrealistic.
The governments of every ancient civilization, with the exception of the Hebrew Republic, rested on the assumed natural inequality of men. The individual was regarded as of value only as he formed a part of the political fabric, and was able to contribute to its uses, as though it were the end of his being to aggrandize the State.
The wisest philosophers of antiquity could not rise above this idea that man was made for the State. They were convinced that power should rest in the hands of the one or a privileged few, who would then fashion the thought and control the action of the many. Throughout history, there has been a steady development of democratic ideas, which are in contrast to those above. We will highlight the main advancements.
The Hebrew Republic
The first genuine example of democratic government in world history is found in the Hebrew Republic established by Moses around 1300 B.C. This great emancipator provided a complete system of written civil law that was in great contrast to the ancient civilizations at that time. All other governments in the world centralized power in the hands of a king or emperor, but Moses set up a government with most powers decentralized.
Moses established a central body which governed the nation and was composed of both elected and un-elected officials. The Hebrew Republic was the first government in history to allow the people the freedom to elect their representatives. These representatives, furthermore, were limited in their decisions and actions but an absolute written moral and civil code known as the law of Moses which included the “Ten Commandments.”
All of these representatives, elected or un-elected, were not allowed to govern without an official agreement or “covenant” with the people to abide within the guidelines of the written code. This covenant ceremony, established by an oath before God, was the origination of the principle that government “derive their just consent of the governed.” Government based on agreement with the people was the origin of constitutionalism.
Three major principles established under the law of Moses were:
- Decentralization of government
- Election of representatives
Once the Hebrew government was conquered by other empires there was not another complete example of these principles practiced by any nation in history until the establishment of the United States of America three thousand years later.
Greece and Rome
The second major attempt at democratic government was the Greek city-state of the sixth century B.C. The Athenian lawgiver, Solon, drew up a legal system that would allow the people to make their own laws. Plato and Aristotle emphasized that a just society was one where every man is moved by concern for the common good.
These concepts were also embraced by Roman statesmen such as Cicero and Seneca in the 2nd century B.C. They proposed an impartial system of laws based on Natural Law which, Cicero said, comes from God and originated before “any written law existed or any state had been established.”
The Greek and Roman theories were never as democratic as the Hebrew, however, because of their belief in inequality of men. The ideas of democracy and freedom were only extended to certain classes and all others were denied basic rights. Cicero was murdered and they reverted to complete totalitarianism to restore order.
Greek and Roman contributions to democratic ideas were therefore more theoretical than actual, but were helpful to later generations who learned from their mistakes.
The fundamental flaws of their attempts at democracy were rooted in their belief that man was naturally unequal and that only one or a privileged few were competent to govern the rest.
A few hundred years later, Jesus Christ began to re-assert the basic Hebrew concepts of equality and liberty. Through his death and the commission He gave His followers to teach these things to all nations, the march of democracy took a major leap forward.
Christianity emphasized that, in the eye of God, all men are equal. This asserted for the individual an independent value regardless of political contribution or social class or race. It occasioned the great inference, that man is superior to the state.
Jesus specifically taught that government rulers are to be public servants. Instead of people serving government, it ought rather be fashioned to provide justice and protection for them. Government should provide this service equally to all.
Today, all of western civilization now calls its top civil rulers “ministers” which is simply another word for servants. The Christian view of man and government was a significant contribution toward democracy that made what Greece and Rome failed to achieve a possibility for future nations. The early Christian churches also established a model of self-government and unity with diversity that provided order without sacrificing freedom.
Although all of Europe was Christianized, it was the unique isolated situation that enabled the British Isles to develop their democratic institutions without interference from surrounding nations. Patrick, a Christian missionary to Ireland in the 5th century, not only spread the Christian faith but also wrote a book about the form of government established by Moses in Israel, (Liber Ex Lege Moisi, or Book of the Law of Moses).
The Irish and, later, the Anglo-Saxon governments began to establish democratic institutions. Patrick’s Liber influenced the greatest Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great, to copy from the Hebrew model in his Code of Laws in the late ninth century. He set an example of a king who truly saw his role as one of serving the people.
Some of the biblically derived democratic reforms that the Anglo-Saxons originated were:
- The Common Law
- Trial by Jury
- Habeas Corpus: (a written warrant is required for search and seizure).
In addition, they established an elected representative body called the “Witen.” Though conquered by the Normans in 1066, the march toward democratic government was revived at Runnymeade when King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta. This document, drafted by the Christian clergyman Stephen Langton in 1215, affirmed in written form the basic rights such as representation, private property, and trial by jury.
The Protestant Reformation in Europe
About the same time the Ming dynasty was ousting the Mongol dynasty in China, John Wycliffe was planting the seeds for the reformation of Europe. This Christian clergyman in 1382 translated the Bible into the common English language so that people would read it and establish, in his words, “a government of the people; by the people; and for the people.”
By the early 16th century, similar translations had been completed in Germany, France, and other European countries. The results were not only religious reformation but also political reformation.
The writings of Protestants such as John Calvin, Samuel Rutherford, and the Huguenots led finally to the English Bill of Rights in 1628 and the establishment of the first true democracy in modern history among the European exiles in America.
These exiles, having no other government to contend with in the New World, were the first free men to form their own government by consent through the signing in 1620 of what is known as the Mayflower Compact.
The Mayflower Compact was just one of 86 different constitution-like documents drafted by the 13 colonial governments in America over the 150 year period preceding the American Revolution. The first really complete constitution was written for Connecticut in 1638 by the Christian clergyman Thomas Hooker. The first “Bill of Rights” in America was written by another clergyman, Nathaniel Ward, for Massachusetts in 1641.
The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and approved by the Continental Congress in 1776, was the most significant national document in modern times that articulated democratic ideals to their fullest extent. Thirteen years later these ideas were established institutionally in the United States Constitution.
The Enlightenment in Europe
Back in Europe the Protestant Reformation gave rise to a movement of free-thinking men who continued to influence that continent toward democracy. The English Bill of Rights was written in 1689 which established the supremacy of England’s representative body known as Parliament.
A year later, the Englishman, John Locke wrote his Second Treatise on Civil Government, (1690). He had studied previous works such as the Frenchman John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), and the French Protestant document, A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants (1579), which was written by Samuel de Puffendorf.
In France, The Spirit of Laws, written by Baron von Montesquieu in 1748, articulated very effectively the principle of the separation of powers into three branches with checks and balances.
Others with a more secular approach like Rousseau and Voltaire were also influential, especially in France. The French Revolution, with its Declaration of the Rights of Man, followed on the heels of the American Revolution but had entirely different results.
It followed the chaotic pattern similar to pure democratic efforts back in Greece and Rome. The “Reign of Terror,” a result of mob rule, was brought to an end only by the restoration of totalitarianism under Napolean Bonaparte.
Many other revolutions have occurred around the world since then and dozens of constitutions have been written and rewritten with little effect. One hundred and sixty constitutions exist in the world today and all but fourteen were written in the last forty years.
The average life span of a constitution today is fifteen years before a military coup or popular revolt takes place. Many countries recognize the powerful idea of democracy and offer elections that are not really free; their one-party system effectively eliminating all choice in the contests.
How can we avoid the pitfalls that many peoples have already suffered through? What are the missing parts necessary for success that have eluded many countries who have experienced a revolution such as France had 200 years ago?
The French political philosopher, Alexis De Tocqueville, offered some insightful answers. De Tocqueville realized that the American experiment with democracy was successful due to Christian principles embedded in the foundation of our Republic. Without the basic Christian principles essential to support a Democratic Republic, De Tocqueville reasoned, democracy will not work.
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