In framing the U.S. Constitution, the Founding Fathers looked towards numerous other civilizations for evidence of success and failure. They closely studied the governments of countries both ancient and modern, with a special emphasis on those in Europe. In addition, the Founding Fathers also closely studied Native American governments.
Democracy in Ancient Greece, known as Athenian Democracy, influenced the Founding Fathers in both positive and negative ways. For one, voting was central to Ancient Greece, but only a select group of Greeks were allowed to cast ballots. In early American government, however, this was also true, with the franchise being limited primarily to land-owning men. Athenian Democracy involved many participants with each voter participating directly in the nation's decision-making process. American Founding Fathers disagreed with this approach and selected a representative democracy instead.
While Greece offered some philosophical ideas to the Founding Fathers, Rome was the primary ancient civilization that the framers studied. Rome's representative form of government and its division of authority appealed to the framers. Rome, for example, had a Senate and an Assembly with separate powers, and this became a model for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The Constitution also authorized a secret ballot, which was used in Ancient Rome. Finally, Rome's population was much larger than Athens', which made it a better model for the United States.
Even though the Founding Fathers had led a revolution against Great Britain, the framers nonetheless studied the country's major democratic inventions, like the English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta. In 1215, the Magna Carta established the idea that the English Monarchy should be limited and not absolute. This idea was transferred to American government, along with the 1628 Petition of Right, which gave commoners a voice in English government. The 1688 English Bill of Rights also guaranteed free elections and authorized certain rights for people accused of crimes, which were both ideas that American framers wanted to preserve.
The Six Nations of the Iroquois created a confederation of different Native American tribes in the northeastern part of the United States. Benjamin Franklin had met with delegates of the Six Nations in 1744, where he became inspired to mimic the Iroquois and implement a federalist confederacy in the U.S. Constitution. When the Constitution was being drafted, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met further with Iroquois representatives, where they acquired ideas about how power comes from "we, the people" and how effective a union of disjointed American colonies could be.
- Gustavus Adolphus College: Introduction to Athenian Democracy of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE
- History Extra: Ancient Greek Democracy: as Similar to Ours as We Think?
- New York Times: Historians Give Romans Better Marks in Democracy
- U.S. History: 2.: Foundations of American Government
- University of Pennsylvania: Franklin and the Iroquois Foundations of the Constitution
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