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Influence of Ancient Greece on American Founding Fathers

Founding Fathers USA Rock
One of the fundamental ideas of U.S. statehood was democracy, whose roots go back to Ancient Greece. Credit: Zach Dischner / CC-BY-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In the path of the United States of America to nationhood, the influence of Ancient Greece and its philosophers looms large. The Founding Fathers, the architects of American democracy, learned many of the fundamental principles of freedom, democracy, and individual rights from the thinkers of Ancient Greece.

“What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude,” were the words of one of the most famous American Founding Fathers, political theorists, and philosophers, Thomas Paine. “The one was the wonder of the ancient world, the other is becoming the admiration and model of modernity.”

Indeed, one of the fundamental ideas of American statehood was democracy, whose roots go back to Ancient Greece. The United States declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, giving the Founding Fathers the unique and difficult task of creating their own state from scratch. They had to complete a by no means trivial task, namely to form their own government, which would be free of colonial rule.

This represented a moment of historical importance, and for guidance and inspiration they turned to what they considered to be the best philosophies and models of management in human history. Their attention fell on the democratic model of self-government of ancient Greece, the lessons and principles of which became the foundation for the structure and values of the new government of the United States.

Greek Polis and the American States

Panoramic view of Athens
Athens was one of the ancient Greek city-states. Credit: Matt Kieffe / CC-BY-SA-2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

One of the main questions that the Founding Fathers had to solve was the system for managing the country’s territories. Even prior to independence, the east coast was divided into thirteen separate colonies, which later became the first states. The Founding Fathers decided to preserve this mosaic character, preferring to maintain the boundaries of the colonies as state territories. Thus, each region could be governed locally, with the national government acting as the dominant authority over all.

This structure took much of its inspiration from the social organization of the ancient Greek polis, or city-states. It included the city itself and the surrounding area, with similar infrastructure and development that can be analogized to modern large cities and state capitals in the United States. In ancient Greece, city-states such as Athens or Sparta functioned largely autonomously. However, they also periodically joined forces. This was in times when it was necessary to defend against external enemies, for instance.

Aristotle and the Rule of Law

The United States currently operates under the rule of law, which ensures that all laws are equally applied and independently assessed in accordance with international human rights standards. This principle is of paramount importance because it ensures that every person and every institution, including the government itself, is held accountable for their actions.

Respect for the rule of law prevents potential abuses of power by leaders who may act as if they are above the law. This principle ensures that no one is untouchable and that justice is applied to every citizen and institution as equally as possible.

This principle also originated with the philosophers of Ancient Greece. Thus, the idea of the rule of law has its roots in the beliefs of Aristotle. The philosopher believed that there is a natural justice to which everyone is subjected. It does not depend on the decisions or laws of any one group of people. Aristotle encouraged people to follow these natural norms and use their ethics to create social rules and laws.

Voting System

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, painting
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy, 1940. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Another important principle borrowed from ancient Greek thinkers concerned the voting process. In ancient Athens, every citizen could express his opinion and vote in large assemblies called to pass laws. This process can hardly be called inclusive. Only men over eighteen or, according to some sources, twenty years old could participate.

Women, slaves, and conquered peoples were denied the right to vote or hold positions on councils. For example, Aristotle, in his book On the Good Wife, emphasized the passive role of women in political processes, noting that a good wife should “obey her husband, giving no heed to public affairs.”

Likewise, the founders of the United States also assumed that only certain categories of citizens should vote and elect officials. As a result, they shaped the United States as a representative democracy in which citizens elect officials such as senators and representatives who vote on behalf of those they represent in Congress. Similar to the situation in Athens, during the founding of the United States, the right to vote was limited to white male landowners. However, over time, this right has been extended to all U.S. citizens over the age of eighteen who have not been convicted of serious crimes.

Ancient Athens and the Written Constitution

An Ancient Greek concept that greatly influenced the formation of government in the United States is the idea of a written constitution. Aristotle and perhaps his students documented the constitutions of Athens and many other Greek city-states. A written constitution established general standards of behavior and rules to be followed. It also established clear legal procedures for lawbreakers and provided opportunities for victims to seek justice.

Namely, Aristotle’s school of philosophers researched and put the constitutions of 158 Ancient Greek city-states into writing. This served as the basis for his work Politics. These documents, although well known in ancient times, were then lost.

However, in the 19th century, papyrus scrolls containing a significant portion of the Athenian Constitution were discovered in Egypt. This text became a valuable source of information on the development of Athenian democracy and life of this ancient city-state.

Much like the Athens Constitution, the Constitution of the United States plays an important role in modern society. It is the supreme law of the land, establishing the structure of government and the relationships between its branches. It also protects the rights of citizens, including freedom of speech and the right to a jury trial.


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