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The 19th‐​century reformer and self‐​taught classicist George Grote was responsible for the rehabilitation of democracy as a viable and virtuous form of government.

Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor, Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org

For a long time, the word democracy was synonymous with anarchy due to the horror stories of ancient Athenian democracy. The self‐​taught polymath and enthusiastic democrat George Grote rehabilitated democracy by arguing that Athens, the birthplace of democracy, was a vibrant and liberal society. Grote was no mere academic; he was also on the frontline for the fight for democratic rights such as the secret ballot and a more inclusive voting system.



Today the word democracy is intimately associated with the legitimacy of our respective governments. However, this was not always the case. For a very long time, democracy was thought of as a potentially dangerous idea which often resulted in anarchy and a suspension of civil rights. Ancient Athens is the metaphorical birthplace of democracy. Thus how we interpret the fate of Athens colours how we interpret the legitimacy of democracy. The 19th‐​century reformer and self‐​taught classicist George Grote was responsible for the rehabilitation of democracy as a viable and virtuous form of government. His work was crucial in changing democracy from a dirty word to one which inspires ideals of justice, freedom and fairness. But George Grote was no stuffy academic. He spent a great deal of his life fighting for democratic reform in his home country of England. His magnum opus on Athenian democracy was produced after Grote had spent a great deal of time advocating for democratic reforms. As both a politician and a scholar, Grote was dedicated his life to the ideal of a society in which all people had a say in how things ought to be.

Early Life

George Grote was born in Kent in England on the 17th of November 1794. George’s grandfather had started a successful banking house in London which his father (also George) later inherited. Grote was born into a comfortable life. His education began with his mother Selina who tutored him before sending him to grammar school first in Kent and then in Surrey. At school, Grote was an astute and successful student. Considering his family’s comfortable financial situation, he could have easily attended higher education at university. However, his father had different ideas. Grote’s father disdained academic learning and instead wished for him to attend the practical affair of running the family business. Despite his father’s disdain, Grote spent much of his spare time studying philosophy, economics, teaching himself languages such as German and Italian, and most consequently, studying the history of ancient Greece. But his father’s disdain for academic learning was not the only factor stopping him from attending college. The two great universities of England Cambridge and Oxford were deeply intertwined with the Anglican church. If anyone wished to attend these esteemed institutions, they had to first declare their belief in a series of doctrinal statements in agreement with the Church of England. Grote, who later became a religious skeptic would have to compromise his conscience to gain an education in the subjects he deeply adored. And so Grote fulfilled his duties at the family bank, quietly studying at night when he had a spare moment.

The Philosophical Radicals

The private nature of Grote’s study changed in 1819 when he met James Mill, one of the leading members of what came to be known as the Philosophical Radicals. Like so many others, James Mill made a lasting impression upon the young Grote, who was only twenty‐​one years old.

Following their meeting, George became associated with the philosophical radicals. Very cool name, but what exactly is a philosophical radical? Led by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, the goal of the philosophical radicals as a political party was to eliminate the privilege and abuses of the oppressive aristocracy. The pernicious influence of the aristocracy was to be snuffed out through concrete democratic reforms such as universal suffrage, frequent elections, and most importantly, the secret ballot. In early 19th‐​century England only men who owned property of a certain value were permitted to vote. The vast majority of people had no say in the political process. On top of this votes were not cast anonymously. Imagine if your landlord threatened to evict you unless you voted for their preferred political party. Despite your strong convictions, you need a place to sleep. You comply and vote for their candidate. Today we have avoided this issue through secret ballot voting, the practice of making our votes anonymous and therefore immune to public scrutiny.

However, like many things, this was not always the case. During Grote’s life, votes were not cast anonymously. Instead, one’s decision was public knowledge, the idea of hiding one’s convictions was deemed a sinister practice. Conservative political commentators viciously attacked secret ballot voting as a un‐​English idea. The open system of voting allowed those in positions of power to impose their beliefs upon others, through either shady bribery or outright coercion.

Early Advocacy

In 1821 Grote published his first written work entitled Statements of the Question of Parliamentary Reform. In this lengthy pamphlet, he attacked the views of James Mackintosh. Grote explained that naturally, all individuals and groups are self‐​interested. If only a particular class or sect were capable of voting, they would benefit themselves at the expense of others. This was the situation in England, the aristocracy held a firm grip on political power and used it to line their pockets. Grote estimated that measly two hundred families voting controlled the majority of seats in parliament. To solve this, he argued for universal suffrage, frequent elections and the secret ballot, the planks of the philosophical radicals. By now Grote was married to Harriet Levin, a supporter of the philosophical radicals and a biographer. At some time around 1823, Harriet suggested to her husband that he should follow his true passion for ancient history and dedicate his efforts towards writing. George did not follow her advice immediately, later realizing as many men do that their wife is nearly always right. But in 1826 we see the beginnings of Grote’s thoughts on democracy in a review of William Mitford’s History of Greece, a figure who we will discuss a little later.

The Political Career of Grote

On the 6th of July, 1830, Grote’s father died. Until now, Grote had been working arduously at the family bank detracting from his more philosophical work. With his father’s death, he gained a sizable inheritance giving him the means to dedicate his life to study and leisure. Despite having the means for a scholarly life, Grote had to dedicate a large portion of his time as the executor of his father’s will. Harriet wrote that for a time “every spare moment” Grote had “ was employed in the aid of movement out of doors.” Despite his business he still managed to publish Essentials of Parliamentary reforms in 1831, which for the most part was a rehash of his previous pamphlet in 1821. In 1831 a parliamentary election was called. Grote, who was popular among the entrepreneurial class of London, was urged to run based upon his upstanding reputation in the community and his reformer credentials. Grote’s popularity is attested in the newspapers of his day. The Examiner commended Grote’s “high honour and respectability” while the Morning Chronicle noted that he “has long been distinguished as a most enlightened reformer.” Grote did not run for office in 1831, due to party reasons. Harriet wrote that “the History of Greece must be given to the public before George can embark in any active scheme of a political kind.” In 1832, again not listening to his wife, Grote ran for office as a member of parliament. In his campaign, he advocated for the secret ballot, more frequent elections, the elimination of certain taxes, free trade, and the abolition of slavery. Grote’s progressive campaign won in a landslide due to both his progressive ideas and personal character. Grote would serve in parliament for nine years constantly advocating for the implementation of the secret ballot to no avail. But ultimately, Grote was not a good fit for political life, and the philosophical radicals began to lose their momentum. By 1841 Grote did not stand for reelection and returned to private life. Grote was finally free to pursue his love of ancient history.


Grote’s masterwork was entitled a history of ancient Greece and a hefty twelve volumes long. As the title the suggests, it was a history of ancient Greece, but Grote put Athens at the centre of attention as not only an impressive achievement from the past but a model to be copied and adapted in the present. This sounds pretty tame, but at the time it was anything but tame. It was a thesis statement which went against all conventional knowledge for the last two thousand years. To explain why Grote’s work was so different, we must delve into the nature Athenian democracy and its reception throughout European history.

The History of Athens

After overthrowing a pair of tyrannous brothers the Athenian reformer Cleisthenes took charge of Athens in 508BC. While there had been democratic reforms under another lawmaker named Solon, Grote attributed the flourishing of democracy to the reforms of Cleisthenes. Under Cleisthenes male, Athenian citizens could vote in the assembly or Ecclesia. Bills were put forward to the assembly by the council which consisted of 500 citizens chosen at random who presided in the council for a single year.The assembly elected magistrates who applied the laws and led the army. Criminal cases were handled by large juries composed of random citizens. While there were further reforms after Cleisthenes, his were by far the most important. We can see that the Athenian system but a great deal of trust in the people. Many offices were decided by random selection instead of elections. For the Athenians democracy was not merely voting, respectfully taking turns to rule and be ruled. There was also a large set of complicated institutions which kept those in power accountable. After playing a major role in defeating the Persian empires invasions into Greece, Athens became the leading cultural, economic and political powerhouse. Athens quickly transformed into a city bustling with commerce, literature, science, art, architecture, poetry, music, and most famously philosophy. The Athenians took great pride in their city and attributed their success to their novel system of government. But nothing lasts forever. Athens and the other significant power of Greece Sparta eventually came into conflict in what became known as the Peloponnesian war in 431BC. After a long and complicated war, Athens was subdued by Sparta in 404BC Athens walls were torn down, and an oligarchy was installed in the once democratic city. While Athens quickly shook off its unpopular oligarchic regime and returned to democracy, Athens never returned to its former glories. It began to decline and was eventually subdued by the Kingdom of Macedonia by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

How did the once‐​dominant power of Greece become so feeble? The ancient commentators were all in agreement democracy was to blame. One of the world’s most famous philosophers Plato condemned democracy as mob rule which granted tyrannical powers to the unwashed and uneducated masses. The famous Athenian historian Thucydides recorded numerous horror stories of the bipolar decisions the Athenians made in foreign affairs in the assembly. A classic example is the revolt of a city called Mytilene, which was under Athenian rule. Upon hearing of the revolt, the Athenian assembly voted to kill every man Mytileanian and sell every woman and child into slavery. The next day the Athenians stripped of their passion decided only to kill the leaders of the revolt instead. The ancient sources were unanimous in their assessment. Democracy was a corrupt form of government and should be avoided at all costs. The corpus of texts that make up the canon of classics was deeply respected in the Victorian era, meaning their words, despite being written two millennia ago, still carried great weight. It was common to see ancient Greece and Rome being used to justify a wide array of ideological positions throughout the enlightenment. Attitudes around Grote’s time While the world was undergoing major changes during the enlightenment, attitudes on democracy were slow to change. James Madison in the Federalist papers explained that “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention”. Thomas Jefferson, in a similar vein, described democracy as “nothing more than mob rule.” The French Revolutions fervent endorsement of democracy followed by anarchy did few favours to the reputation of Athens. William Mitford, an English Tory supporter and ardent opponent of the French Revolution, published his own ten‐​volume History Of Greece published throughout 1784–1810. Mitford’s history was written in large part to articulate “the inherent weakness and the indelible barbarism of democratic government.” Mitford concluded that democracy was a form of government run by the dregs of society which usurped civil liberties, redistributed private property, and made ill‐​informed decisions. He believed that people were easily manipulated by the flashy rhetoric of demagogues leading to all sorts of misery. The lesson Mitford took from Athens was that constitutional monarchy is the best way to run a nation. Mitford’s text was hugely popular, making it the perfect target for Grote.

Grote’s Scholarly Endeavour

While Grote had not attended college, after long hours at the bank he studied as often as he could. Through his efforts, he had become a self‐​taught polymath and polyglot. By not formally studying classics in university Grote, had a surprising advantage, he was free from the prejudices and assumptions commonly held by the academies of his day. He was never told what to think by anyone. He came to his own independent conclusions. The vast majority of Grote’s contemporaries, such as Mitford placed great faith in the words of ancient accounts of democracy. Grote did not. Instead, he embarked upon a rigorous cross‐​examination of all the sources he could access. What quickly became apparent was that the critics of democracy were inconsistent. On one end they would accuse the Athenian citizenry of being ruthlessly efficient tyrants and on the other end being incompetent thumb twiddlers. Grote concluded you couldn’t have it both ways, either the Athenians were ruthless, or they were dumb. By pointing out these inconsistencies, Grote began to prove the picture painted of Athenian democracy was heavily biased and generally articulated by disgruntled aristocrats. In tandem with this Grote began arguing that the institutions established by Cleisthenes and later reformers produced an amazing stability by keeping those in power accountable to the public. Grote not only exposed the falsities of the anti‐​democratic tradition, he also made the positive case for democracy.

Grote’s Moral Endeavour

Moral character was of the utmost importance to Victorian Britain. For Grote to rehabilitate democracy, he also had to articulate the virtues of the Athenians. Grote attaches Athens greatness to their political institutions which promoted their unique national character. Grote did not believe the Athenians achievements were due to any inherent or inborn greatness; it was due to their institutions. He explained that the Athenian experiment of democracy was “Their grand study” which aimed to “surround the delivery of that judgment with the best securities for rectitude, and the best preservatives against haste, passion, or private corruption.”

Active Citizenry

Athens contemporary rivals were city‐​states run by oligarchies. Grote believed that these oligarchies only promoted the interests of those in power similar to England. But Athens was unique. It had an active citizenry which was encouraged to share their perspective with others and come together to make decisions. No one class or sect dominated society, instead Athenians rich and poor alike worked together for a common goal. Grote argued that oligarchies could at best rely upon their subjects “passive acquiescence and obedience.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Athenian democracy relied upon active citizens, who through their efforts cultivated an “energy of public and private action, such as could never be obtained under an oligarchy.” By exercising their influence at assemblies, citizens came to identify their “own safety and happiness with the vote of the majority, and became familiarised with the notion of a sovereign authority.” This sovereign was the Athenian people which was “composed of free and equal citizens.” The open society Citizens through the power of the assembly both expressed their thoughts and listened to others. Open and free expression of ideas without suppression was crucial to the Athenian experiment, and according to Grote, this led the Athenians to become a liberal people. Free speech became “words which no Athenian citizen afterwards heard unmoved.” Grote explained that the Athenians recognized the benefits of the free exchange of ideas, tolerance and constant discussion. Grote eulogized Athens liberal nature stating that “Within the limits of the law, assuredly as faithfully observed at Athens as anywhere in Greece, individual impulse, taste, and even eccentricity, were accepted with indulgence; instead of being a mark, as elsewhere, for the intolerance of neighbours or of the public.” The free exchange of ideas led to Athens becoming a cultural monolith which leaped ahead in all manner of intellectual endeavours. Grote believed few governments in his time ever achieved the generous tolerance or promoted the intellectual curiousity that Athens had cultivated.

But What About When Democracy Goes Wrong?

But what about all the times Athens pursued terrible ideas and made short‐​sighted decisions how did Grote respond to democracies obvious mistakes? In Athens history there were many terrible blunders, but Grote’s reply was that all systems of government are bound to make mistakes, even democracy eventually.The crucial difference lies in incentives. Democracies may fail, but since the people run them, they have every reason to attempt to benefit themselves. An autocratic government has no reason to benefit anyone but those in power. Grote explains further that democracies learn by making decisions consistently and applying new knowledge. On the other hand, even the most enlightened autocratic government always runs the risk of becoming unenlightened. For Grote, democracy is a dynamic system which adapts and grows with new knowledge and experience.

The Legacy of Grote

As Grote published his twelve volume tome, he received more and more praise for his immense effort and unparalleled scholarship. His History of Greece quickly became a widely used textbook in universities such as Cambridge. Thanks to Grote, democracy became less of a dirty word as time passed. While many liberal‐​minded thinkers praised his work, it is worth mentioning the impact he had upon John Stuart Mill, a colossal figure in classical liberal thought. Mill gave glowing reviews of Grote’s work, but most importantly, we can see traces of Grote within Mill’s democratic thinking. In two of Mill’s seminal works On Liberty and Considerations of Representative Government, we can observe the democratic spirit of Grote. In On Liberty Pericles, the Athenian leader stands out as a model of self‐​development and toleration. In the third chapter Considerations of Representative government where Mill discusses democracy, like Grote he discusses the benefits of an active citizenry. Mill’s democratic streak was deeply indebted to Grote’s scholarship. While Mill preferred representative democracy to Athenian direct democracy, the tolerance and civic virtue of Athens inspired his political thought. The 20th‐​century liberal thinker Karl Popper made use of Grote’s history in his work Open Society and Its Enemies. Written in 1945 following the end of World War II, Popper attacks the ideological roots of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism which he believed were at complete odds with the liberal society we ought to protect. Popper believed Athens was the birthplace of both liberal democracy and what he termed the open society, a society marked by critical thinking and political free​dom​.To this end, Popper constantly makes use of Grote’s portrait of Athens as a progressive, cosmopolitan and individualist society to berate totalitarianism and emphasize the virtues of liberalism. Grote’s magnum opus is still a revered piece of scholarship that has received lavish praise from contemporary historians many arguing that despite being written nearly two hundred years ago, Grote’s scholarship is still admired, a rarity in academia where new research constantly debunks old research. The classical scholar Terrence Irwin commented that “Grote’s work constitutes a contribution of the first rank both to the study of Greek history and to the study of Greek philosophy. None of his English contemporaries equalled his contribution to either area of study; and no one at all has equalled his contribution to both areas.” George Grote is without a doubt one of the most impressive people I have ever researched. He was a humane thinker who diligently strove to reform society in favour of the disenfranchised. While he was not ultimately successful in his goals to reform the British government he did a great deal to shift the overton window towards new ideas which would eventually be adopted. As well as an activist he was a dedicated politician and a man renowned for his upstanding character. But above all else what I find most amazing about Grote is his abilities as a self‐​taught man. It is inspiring to see a person through sheer passion follow their intellectual curiosities to their fullest while somehow balancing heading a reform movement and working a full‐​time job. Last but not least Grote, is probably one of the more dramatic examples of how historians can change the world. How we view the past deeply affects how we act the present, Grote’s dramatic overturning of the anti‐​democratic tradition is a perfect example of how historians by looking to the past can paradoxically carve a new path into the future