Basic American Ideals of Democracy & Self-Government

The Declaration of Independence emphasized America's ideals of democracy and self-government.
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American ideals of democracy and self-government may seem "self-evident," but these ideals were not always so universally accepted. They originated in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, during a period known as the Enlightenment, and were incorporated into the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its associated Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, America has, in many instances throughout its history, failed to uphold these ideals.

1 The Enlightenment

Though the concepts of democracy and self-government existed since the times of ancient Greece, the specific versions of these ideals that influenced the American founding fathers were developed during the Enlightenment, a 17th- and 18th-century European intellectual movement. French intellectuals such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau wrote works that emphasized the importance of democracy and self-government, and directly emphasized future generations such as the founding fathers of the United States.

2 Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, which not only established the United States as independent from Great Britain, but also emphasized certain ideals of democracy and self government. As the document states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

3 The Constitution

Such ideals were also enshrined in the Constitution and its associated Bill of Rights. When James Madison sought to ensure the Constitution's ratification, he encountered resistance from various state governments, who argued that they needed further guarantees of individual civil rights. Thus the Bill of Rights -- the first ten amendments -- was born, enshrining rights such as speech, petition, assembly, and jury, among others, and passed along with the Constitution.

4 Failings

Yet though these ideals were incorporated in the nation's founding documents, America did not always live up to them. Most obviously, slavery remained an integral part of America's economy and culture at the time of its founding, and the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal" did not extend to African-Americans. Additionally, only men of property were allowed to vote and participate in this ideal democracy. It took many years for America to correct these flaws, and some would argue we still have a ways to go.

  • 1 The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; Bernard Bailyn
  • 2 The American Revolution: A History; Gordon S. Wood

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.