THERE IS A common belief, especially among Californians, that direct democracy is a California phenomenon, invented in the Progressive Era to battle the power of the railroads. But millions of people around the world have used the initiative and referendum process over several centuries, dating to the Mayflower Compact of 1620.
In the late 1700s, Jean-Jacques Rousseau lent intellectual credence to the idea when he wrote "The Social Contract," in which he described popular sovereignty as a counterweight to the absolute power of kings and emperors. These words inspired the French revolutionaries of 1793 to introduce a new constitution that included -- for the first time in history -- the right of citizens to introduce new laws through the initiative process and the requirement that any constitutional changes be approved by the voters in a national referendum.
From revolutionary France, where the old, undemocratic order was soon re-established by Napoleon Bonaparte, the idea of initiatives and referendums moved to nearby Switzerland. The first nationwide referendum there took place in 1802, and a popular referendum process -- similar to California's -- was added to the constitution in 1874.
The Swiss and French experiences were soon being discussed around the world. Progressives and populists in the U.S. began advocating for similar actions, and in 1898 it was not California but South Dakota that became the first state to add the initiative process to its constitution. Between 1898 and 1912, at least 22 state constitutions -- including California's in 1911 -- were modified to include the initiative process.