Ancient Greek democracy had a deep influence on the design of political institutions in the United States. The various members of the founding generation of the United States saw ancient Athens -- the cradle of Greek democracy -- as both an inspirational model and also as an example of dangerous excess. Understanding the influence of Greek democracy on the United States requires understanding the way democracy was understood by the ancient Greeks.
Ancient democracy developed in Athens following the reforms of Solon in 594 B.C. It was a system of direct, rather than representative democracy, meaning that every adult, male Athenian citizen had the right to participate in deliberations and voting in the law-making assembly and other governing institutions. Representative democracy, in contrast, is a system where citizens vote for representatives rather than participating directly. Whereas today, democracy is presented as a universally positive idea, for much of political history, between the collapse of ancient Athenian democracy in 338 B.C. and the revival of democratic institutions in the early 19th century, democracy was a highly critical term signifying a chaotic, anarchic system in which political power was in the hands of the rabble.
Democracy vs. Republic
By the late 18th century, the term democracy was still overwhelmingly seen as a pejorative label. James Madison, one of the most important co-authors of the Constitution, shared this view. He described a “pure” democracy, like that of Athens, as hopelessly insecure and unable to combat the dangers of factionalism. Madison contrasted dangerous, unstable democracies such as Athens to more stable, large-scale republics such as America. For Madison, whereas democracies like Athens were territorially small and allowed citizens to directly govern themselves, republics like the United States were spread out over a large territory and were governed by representatives rather than by the people themselves. (Ref.3)
Thomas Paine and Democracy
Whereas Madison’s more conventionally negative understanding of Athenian democracy served as a counterpoint to American institutions, Thomas Paine stood out as a very early defender of ancient democracy. Paine even dared to depict the United States as following in the lineage of ancient democracy and expanding upon it. Of Athenian democracy, Paine wrote in The Rights of Man that “We see more to admire and less to condemn, in that great, extraordinary people, than in anything which history affords.” Whereas Madison interpreted representation and expanded territory as the opposite of democracy, for Paine the principle of representation was a means of augmenting and perfecting democracy rather than abandoning it. Paine’s words may have influenced Americans to think of themselves within the democratic as well as republican tradition. (Ref.4)
Ancient Democracy Today
While most members of the U.S.'s founding generation -- with the exception of Thomas Paine -- looked to ancient Greek democracy as a negative example to be avoided, the influence of ancient democracy today is more complex. In ancient Athenian democracy citizens directly governed themselves, while in the contemporary United States citizens are governed by their representatives. Yet today, many complain of the civic alienation fostered by this system, and recent political movements have dramatized widespread frustration with the perceived failures of representative democracy. For example, the Occupy movement was inspired by direct rather than representative democracy and has even been compared to ancient Athenian practices. Additionally, many states have adopted direct citizen initiatives, loosely modeled on Athenian institutions. (Ref.5)
- Redescriptions. Yearbook of Political Thought and Conceptual History, v.10; After Athens -- the Genealogy of Modern Democracy; Hubertus Buchstein
- Democracy and Knowledge; Josiah Ober
- The Federalist Papers #s 10, 63; James Madison
- Rights of Man, Part II; Thomas Paine
- They Can’t Represent Us! Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy; Dario Azzellini and Marina Sitrin
- American School of Classical Studies: Democracy from the Past to the Future
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images