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 form of government served as a major inspiration for the United States government. The article below outlines some of the key ideas the nation's founders borrowed from the Greeks.

After declaring independence from England in 1776, the founders of the United States realized they had a special opportunity. They had a chance to create a government of their choosing. To guide their decisions, they looked to what they considered the best examples of government throughout world history. Ancient Greece's democratic form of government soon became their primary inspiration. It greatly influenced how the founders constructed the new U.S. government.

Governing at the Local Level

Prior to 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 that each region could be governed at a local level, with a national government acting as an authority over all. These 13 colonies became the first states of the newly established country.

The structure of U.S. states was partly modeled after ancient Greek city-states. Their relationship to the federal government resembles the relationship of Greek city-states 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 ancient Greeks pioneered the concept of the rule of law. This idea came from the philosopher Aristotle's belief in natural law. He claimed that certain essential rights were based in nature, and that these rights stood above the laws written by humans. Aristotle believed government should be guided by natural law.

In the United States today, the rule of law is an essential part of our democratic system. It ensures that all laws are equally enforced and independently judged. Laws must also meet international human rights standards. The rule of law is important because it allows all individuals and institutions to be held accountable for their actions. Even the government itself is held accountable.

Pioneering the Constitution

Ancient Greece also pioneered the written constitution. Aristotle recorded the Athenian constitution and gathered together the laws of many other Greek city-states. Having a written constitution creates a common standard. It establishes how people should behave and what rules they must follow. It also establishes clear processes by which people who break the law are judged, and by which those who are harmed can be given justice.

The U.S. Constitution is a key part of our political system. It lays out the government's structure and how its different parts relate to one another and balance each other's power. The U.S. Constitution acts as 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 a jury of one's peers.

The original U.S. voting system had some similarities with that of Athens. In Athens, every citizen could speak his mind and vote at a large assembly that met to create laws. Citizens were elected to special councils to serve as organizers, decision-makers, and judges. However, the only people considered citizens were males over the age of 18. Women, slaves, and conquered peoples could not vote or serve on councils.

The United States' Representative Democracy

The founders of the United States also believed that only certain people should be allowed to vote and elect officials. They chose to structure the United States as a representative democracy. This means that citizens elect officials, such as senators and representatives, who represent them and vote on their behalf in Congress. It also means that individual citizens do not vote for the president directly. Instead, a body called the Electoral College officially casts the votes of each state for president. As in Athens, when the United States was founded not all people were allowed to vote. Only white, landowning men had that right. Over time, however, all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 have gained the right to vote.

The key elements of ancient Greek democracy are still in use today. The United States and many other countries around the world 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 equals 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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