Professor Pasi Ihalainen

Professor of General History (until 31 July 2009)
PhD, Docent in Intellectual and Conceptual History
Department of History and Ethnology/History
P.O. Box 35 (H)
FI-40014 University of Jyvaskyla


The Agents of the People: Democracy and Popular Sovereignty in British, Swedish and Dutch Parliamentary Debates, 1734–1800

This study suggests that the histories of the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘the sovereignty of the people’ should be studied by analysing the debates in which the leading political decision-makers were involved. In conceptual history, it is the content of the original argument and the exact choice of words by past writers or speakers that counts, not some analytical or philosophical concept of ‘representative democracy’, for instance, applied by the historian in the interpretation of the sources. I am asking how exactly – and to what extent – political elites of a handful of Western European countries with representative institutions (Britain, Sweden and the Batavian Republic) became advocates of the notions of ‘democracy’ and ‘the sovereignty of the people’ in the eighteenth century, which is when these received a clearer conceptual expression, recognition and acceptance in parliamentary and public debates.

Parliamentary debates provide us with extensive source material enabling the study of how political key concepts were used by the decision-makers. Without questioning the significance of the rise of the public sphere, this study vindicates the importance of the forums which had long traditions of debate for and against, in which political decisions were really made, and which may hence have played a significant role in changing the conceptual world of each political culture. Parliamentary speaking as such supported change in the language of politics by providing a forum for the expression of political opinions by the use and definition of concepts. Arguments for and against a particular motion revealed differing conceptualisations of political reality not only by government and the opposition but also within these groups. As all sides were forced to present their points of view clearly, the central political concepts of the day unavoidably entered the debates. These conceptualisations were not ‘mere rhetoric’ but they really mattered in the decision-making process. One noteworthy possibility is that instead of just engaging in a delayed reflection on the innovations which were emerging from the public sphere, representative bodies could redefine the concepts related to ‘democracy’ and ‘the sovereignty of the people’. This dynamism and potential for conceptual innovation in parliamentary debates should come as no surprise given the debaters’ degree of knowledge on the traditions of political thought, the actual political state of each country and the political discourse of the day, as well as the obvious creativity of the debating parliamentarians.