While many see Greece as the birthplace of democracy, the true pioneers of today’s dominant political system came much later, and from a much less-polished group. 18th-century American pirates, who were the first society to theorize, organize, and implement true governance through majority-vote, are seldom associated with the concepts of politics or sociology. Yet, when it comes to answering the question “who pioneered democracy?”, it is necessary to shirk stereotypes and misconceptions to give credit where credit is due.
The idea of a pirate captain having complete authority over a ship and its crew is a myth. In reality, pirate bands conducted themselves in the simplest form of governance ever contrived: pure democracy. Before embarking on a raid, a pirate crew would write the ship’s articles: a document detailing the rules that bound every crew member, even the captain. Anyone could propose a rule; if it received a majority vote, it was added in.
During this process, they would also elect a captain. Each man got one vote; whoever had the most votes was the captain, until the crew favored someone else, or he was killed. Along with improved living quarters, the captain had special war-time powers, very similar to those afforded to the Roman Emperor when Rome was under siege. When the ship was in battle, the captain’s authority was absolute. Along with being unspeakably violent, 18th-century naval combat was loud and chaotic; there was no time to hold a forum amidst a broadside from a Royal Navy sloop, so the captain was given total control to ensure the crew could maximize their combative potential. If he said shoot, the crew shot. If he said abandon ship, over the guardrails they went.
However, when the ship was not in combat, democracy reigned. If a majority of crewmembers wanted to go home, the ship turned around immediately. If a majority wanted to stay out longer, on they sailed. This was a matter of practicality. If there are a hundred men on board a ship, and sixty want to go home, no political system of “checks and balances” is going to stop those sixty armed killers from seizing the ship and sailing it wherever they please. Unfettered democracy was the only means of ensuring the crew didn’t tear itself apart while at sea.
It is no surprise that history doesn’t credit American pirates for their civilized, effective means of governance. Political theory is commonly associated with a perceived higher intelligence, so it makes sense to see democracy as a product of ancient Greece, which is commonly thought of as a civilized, highly-intellectual society. With their intrinsic criminality and historical record of barbarism, pirates are viewed as anything but intellectuals. While their inter-generational reputation for violence and cruelty is well-founded, the notion that they were mindless barbarians that could only be governed by a tyrannical captain is false. When viewed through this lens, it is understandable why no one would go looking for meaningful contributions to democracy in the history of American pirates.
Yet, when we reexamine our misconceptions, it becomes clear they were wrong. The corrupt, self-interested politicking of Greek senators was far from democratic, while the ruthlessly violent pirates were steadfast practitioners of true democracy. As we study our past, it would benefit us to disregard our biases in favor of political fact; we might just find useful information where we least expect it.