Greek Influence on U.S. Democracy

Greek Influence on U.S. Democracy

The United States has a complex government system. One important tenet of this system is democracy, in which the ultimate power rests with the people. In the case of the United States, that power is exercised indirectly, through elected representatives. Although the U.S. has been a strong proponent of democracy, it did not invent democracy. The Greeks are often credited with pioneering a democratic government that went on to influence the structure of the United States. Read this article that describes how elements of ancient Greek democracy heavily influenced the figures that designed the United States government.


5 - 12+


Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History

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Ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy. Its democratic government served as a major inspiration for the United States government. The article below presents some of the key ideas its founders borrowed from the Greeks.

The founders of the United States had a special opportunity. Having declared independence from England in 1776, they had a chance to create a government of their choosing. To guide their decisions, they carefully studied past governments. They soon decided ancient Greece's democratic form of government was the best model to follow.

Original 13 City-States

Before independence, the future United States was divided into 13 separate colonies. The founders of the United States decided to keep the country divided into states rather than dissolving the colonial boundaries. They did this so each region could be governed at a local level. In that way, each state remained somewhat independent and self-governing. The 13 colonies became the first states of the newly established country. The federal government was established as a single, greater power that bound the states together.

U.S. states are partly modeled after ancient Greek city-states. Their relationship to the federal government is similar to the relationship Greek city-states had to Greece overall. For the most part, Greek city-states acted independently. However, they also sometimes banded together to defend Greece from foreign invaders. Major city-states included Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Syracuse.

The Rule of Law

One very important ancient Greek idea was the rule of law. It grew out of the philosopher Aristotle's belief in natural law. He claimed that certain key rights were based in nature. These rights stood above the laws written by humans. Aristotle believed government should be guided by natural law.

The rule of law became a key part of U.S. democracy. It ensures that all laws are equally enforced and independently judged. The rule of law creates a system under which everyone is held accountable for their actions. No one is so powerful they can stand above the law. Even the government is accountable.

Written Constitution

Ancient Greece also pioneered the written constitution. Having a written constitution creates a common standard. It establishes how people should behave and what rules they must follow. It also establishes how people who break the law are judged, and how those who are harmed can be given justice.

Our own U.S. Constitution is a key part of our political system. It lays out the different parts of our government, and how these parts balance each other's power. The U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It establishes individual citizens' rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to a trial by jury.

The original U.S. voting system had some similarities with that of Athens. In Athens, every citizen could vote at a large assembly that met to create laws. However, the only people considered citizens were males over the age of 18. Women, slaves, and conquered peoples could not vote.

The founders of the United States also believed that only certain people should be allowed to vote. For many years, only white, landowning men had the right to vote. Over time, however, all U.S. citizens over 18 gained that right.

Representative Government

In ancient Athens, representatives were chosen to serve on special councils. They represented the wishes of groups of citizens. The founders of the United States also made this country a representative democracy. Citizens elect officials, such as senators or congresspeople. These officials represent citizens in Congress. They cast votes that are supposed to reflect the will of the people they represent.

The key elements of ancient Greek democracy are still in use today. The United States and many other countries have adopted democratic government to give a voice to their people. Democracy provides citizens the opportunity to elect officials to represent them. It makes all citizens equal under the law.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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