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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The United States has a complex political system. The central element of this system is democracy, a form of government 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 United States has been a strong promoter of democracy, it did not invent it. The true pioneers of democracy were the ancient Greeks. As the article below shows, the men who designed the structure of the U.S. government were heavily influenced by ancient Greek political thought. The democratic form of government they developed was in many ways modeled on ancient Greek democracy.

After declaring independence from England in 1776, the founders of the United States had a unique opportunity 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 system of democratic self-government soon became their primary inspiration. It provided an example that greatly influenced how the founders constructed the new U.S. government.

Prior to independence, the east coast of what is today the 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 would become the first states of the newly established country.

50 City-States

A U.S. state resembles the structure of an ancient Greek polis, or city-state. A polis was composed of a city center and the land surrounding it. Major city-states included Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Syracuse. For the most part, these city-states acted independently. However, they also sometimes banded together to defend Greece from foreign invaders.

The ancient Greeks also pioneered the key democratic concept of the rule of law. This idea came from the philosopher Aristotle's belief in natural law. He claimed that there were certain essential rights based in nature, which 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 a core principle. It ensures that all laws are equally enforced and independently judged, and that they meet international human rights standards. The rule of law is important because it allows all individuals and institutions—including the government itself—to be held accountable for their actions. It prevents abuses of power by leaders who might consider themselves above the law.

A Common Standard

The written constitution was another important ancient Greek concept that influenced the formation of our own government. Aristotle recorded the Athenian constitution and gathered together the laws of many other Greek city-states. Having a written constitution creates a common standard as to 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 founders of the United States similarly 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 vote on behalf of the citizens they represent in Congress. It also means that instead of each individual citizen voting for a president directly, 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.

A Means for Human Rights

The principles underlying ancient Greek democracy are still in use today. The United States and many other countries throughout the world have adopted democratic government to give a voice to their people. Democracy provides citizens the opportunity to elect officials to represent them, and it makes all citizens equal under the law. Democracy and the rule of law provide people around the world with a means for protecting their human rights.

Media Credits

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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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