An honest and effective study of democracy must consider the positive outcomes of non-democratic forms of government. These other forms of government set a standard that the success of a democracy will be measured by. Democracy is a declaration that states, “We can govern ourselves. We don’t need a king and don’t want a dictator. As necessary we’ll elect competent people to handle governance.” The Declaration of Independence was literally such a statement.
Above is an image of King Wenceslas venturing out on a harsh winter day to feed the poor. There are many examples of benevolent and competent rulers throughout history. In some cases these good leaders were required to take power by force to overcome exploitative and oppressive regimes (enemies from within and without). As a result, the “Good King” has become a kind of trope in literature: “The Good King is honorable, virtuous, wise and understanding. He cares about his subjects no matter how seemingly unimportant they are and puts their well-being above his own. He governs the land fairly, is a Royal Who Actually Does Something and is often very modest about his rank and position.”
Below are some examples of leaders throughout history who, despite their failings and faults, offer an example of good leadership. The examples given below are of people who rose to power, perhaps without the initial support of the people. Though not democratically elected, some developed the respect and loyalty of their citizens. Those in the list below are not considered great because of military victories. Instead, their greatness is measured in the quality of life improvements they influenced.
- Akbar the Great (14 October 1542 – 27 October 1605). “To unify the vast Mughal state, Akbar established a centralised system of administration throughout his empire and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. In order to preserve peace and order in a religiously and culturally diverse empire, he adopted policies that won him the support of his non-Muslim subjects. Eschewing tribal bonds and Islamic state identity, Akbar strived to unite far-flung lands of his realm through loyalty, expressed through a Persianised culture, to himself as an emperor who had near-divine status.” (source)
- Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE). A benevolent leader, it is recorded in the Kalinga edicts, he addresses his people as his “children”, and mentions that as a father he desires their good. In the Edicts of Ashoka, although Buddhism and the Buddha are mentioned, the edicts focus on social and moral precepts, rather than specific religious practices or the philosophical dimension of Buddhism. The edicts describe in detail the Ashoka’s view about dhamma, an earnest attempt to solve some of problems that a complex society faced. The edicts convey Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, the description of his efforts to spread Buddhism, his moral and religious precepts, and his social and animal welfare program.
- Augustus of Rome (23 September 63 BC – 19 August 14 AD). Augustus Caesar ruled as the Emperor of Rome for 41 years. During this time, Augustus improved the infrastructure and military of Rome. He also reformed the taxation process. His reign is known as Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, because during his reign diplomacy flourished.
- Chandragupta Maurya (340 BC – 298 BC). “Chandragupta was influenced to accept Jainism by the sage Bhadrabahu; he abdicated his throne to spend his last days at the Shravana Belgola, a famous religious site in southwest India, where he fasted to death. Along with his grandson, Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya is one of the most celebrated rulers in the history of India. He has played a crucial role in shaping the national identity of modern India, and has been lionised as a model ruler and as a national hero.”
- Cyrus II of Persia or Cyrus the Great (576 BC–530 BC). “Cyrus the Great respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered. It is said that in universal history, the role of the Achaemenid empire founded by Cyrus lies in its very successful model for centralized administration and establishing a government working to the advantage and profit of its subjects.” (source)
- Mao Zedong (26 December 26 1893 – 9 September 1976). “Mao remains a controversial figure and there is little agreement over his legacy both in China and abroad. Supporters generally credit him with and praised for having unified China and ending the previous decades of civil war. He is also credited with having improved the status of women in China and improving literacy and education.” (source)
- Meiji of Japan (明治天皇 Meiji-tennō?, 3 November 1852 – 30 July 1912). “The Meiji period (明治時代 Meiji-jidai?), also known as the Meiji era, is a Japanese era which extended from September 1868 through July 1912. This period represents the first half of the Empire of Japan during which Japanese society moved from being an isolated feudal society to its modern form. Fundamental changes affected its social structure, internal politics, economy, military, and foreign relations.” (source)
- Henry IV of France (13 December 1553 – 14 May 1610). “Henry IV proved to be a man of vision and courage. Instead of waging costly wars to suppress opposing nobles, Henry simply paid them off. As king, he adopted policies and undertook projects to improve the lives of all subjects, which made him one of the country’s most popular rulers ever. Henry is said to have originated the oft repeated phrase, ‘a chicken in every pot.’ He was a man of kindness, compassion, and good humor, and was much loved by his people.” (source)
- Muhammed or Abū al-Qāsim Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib ibn Hāshim (Arabic: محمد بن عبد الله بن عبد المطلب; c. 570 – c. 8 June 632). “Among the first things Muhammad did to settle down the longstanding grievances among the tribes of Medina was drafting a document known as the Constitution of Medina, ‘establishing a kind of alliance or federation’ among the eight Medinan tribes and Muslim emigrants from Mecca, which specified the rights and duties of all citizens and the relationship of the different communities in Medina (including that of the Muslim community to other communities, specifically the Jews and other ‘Peoples of the Book’).” (source)
- Shivaji (Marathi [ʃiʋaˑɟiˑ bʱoˑs(ə)leˑ]; c. 1627/1630 – 3 April 1680). “Shivaji allowed his subjects freedom of religion and opposed forced conversion.[page needed] Shivaji also promulgated other enlightened values, prohibiting slavery in his kingdom, and applying a humane and liberal policy to the women of his state.” (source) Vivekananda stated, “Shivaji is one of the greatest national saviours who emancipated our society and our Hindu dharma when they were faced with the threat of total destruction. He was a peerless hero, a pious and God-fearing king and verily a manifestation of all the virtues of a born leader of men described in our ancient scriptures. He also embodied the deathless spirit of our land and stood as the light of hope for our future.” (source)
- Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire (6 November 1494 – 7 September 1566). “At the helm of an expanding empire, Suleiman personally instituted major legislative changes relating to society, education, taxation, and criminal law. His canonical law (or the Kanuns) fixed the form of the empire for centuries after his death. Not only was Suleiman a distinguished poet and goldsmith; he also became a great patron of culture, overseeing the ‘Golden’ age of the Ottoman Empire in its artistic, literary and architectural development. Suleiman was well educated and spoke five languages.” (source)
- Zhao Ziyang (17 October 1919 – 17 January 2005). “Zhao was branded by conservatives as a revisionist of Marxism, but his advocacy of government transparency and a national dialogue that included ordinary citizens in the policymaking process made him popular with many.” (source) “Western observers generally view the year that Zhao served as general secretary as the most open in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Many limitations on freedom of speech and freedom of press were relaxed, allowing intellectuals to freely express themselves, and to propose ‘improvements’ for the country.” (source) “I refused to become the General Secretary who mobilized the military to crack down on students.” (source)
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