Foundation of Democracy

The Development of Democracy in America

Greek Contributions to the Development of Democracy in America

The cradle of Western civilization, ancient Greece, gifted humanity with numerous philosophical, artistic, and scientific advances. Among its most influential contributions, however, stands the inception of democracy—a revolutionary system of governance that continues to shape political landscapes across the globe. To grasp the depth of the Greeks’ impact on the democratic ideal, one must explore three pivotal aspects: the invention of democracy, the significance of the Polis, and the mechanics of direct democracy.

Invention of Democracy

The term “democracy” finds its roots in the Greek language, combining “demos” (people) with “ocracy” (rule). Literally translating to “rule by the people,” it encapsulated the revolutionary idea that governance should emanate from the majority’s will. Prior to this, societies largely adhered to monarchies or oligarchies, where the reins of power were held by single rulers or a privileged few. But in certain city-states of ancient Greece, particularly Athens, there arose a belief that the best decisions were derived from a collective, where every citizen had a say. This fundamental departure from conventional rule showcased a radical trust in the wisdom of the common man—a faith that the collective consciousness could sculpt a just and prosperous society.

The Polis

Central to the Greek democratic experience was the concept of the “Polis.” More than just a city or city-state, the Polis was the very fabric of ancient Greek life. Athens, being the most notable Polis, was not merely an administrative center but a vibrant hub for public discourse, cultural exchange, and political decision-making. It was within the bounds of the Polis that democracy found its truest expression.

Athenians regularly convened in the Agora, the heart of the Polis, not just for trade but to engage in spirited debates on public matters. Every issue, be it warfare, diplomacy, or civic projects, was dissected, discussed, and decided upon by the citizenry. The Polis thus acted as a melting pot where individuals, regardless of their social standing, could voice their opinions and influence the course of their society. This culture of open dialogue fostered an environment of intellectual freedom and collective responsibility.

Direct Democracy

Within the vibrant setting of the Polis, ancient Greeks practiced what is now termed “direct democracy.” Unlike representative systems where individuals vote for delegates to make decisions on their behalf, in a direct democracy, the citizenry directly voted on laws and policies. Every eligible Athenian citizen had the right to attend assemblies, propose legislation, and cast their vote.

This system’s beauty lay in its simplicity and inclusivity. A clarion call of “one man, one vote” resonated through the marble streets of Athens, ensuring each citizen’s voice was heard. Of course, it’s crucial to note the limitations. Not all residents of Athens were considered citizens, excluding a vast number of people, including women, slaves, and non-natives, from this democratic process. However, for those who were enfranchised, the direct democracy of Athens provided an unprecedented level of political agency.

The value of such a system was twofold. First, it ensured that the government’s actions were truly reflective of the people’s desires. Second, it fostered a deep sense of civic duty, with citizens actively participating in the affairs of their state, taking ownership of both its successes and failures.

In sum, ancient Greece’s democratic experiment, though imperfect and limited in its scope, laid the philosophical and practical groundwork for subsequent democratic systems. Their belief in the power and wisdom of the people is a legacy that continues to inspire and shape democracies worldwide.

Roman Contributions to the Development of Democracy in America

While ancient Greece planted the initial seeds of democracy, the Romans cultivated these ideas, evolving and adapting them to fit their vast and diverse empire. The Romans were pragmatic builders—both of infrastructure and governance systems. Their profound legacy is seen in the foundations of many Western political systems today. Two key components of this legacy are the Roman’s creation of representative democracy and their emphasis on codified written laws.

Representative Democracy

At its zenith, the Roman Empire spanned three continents, encompassing a myriad of cultures, languages, and traditions. Such vastness rendered the Greek model of direct democracy impractical. To govern this sprawling empire, the Romans innovated by developing a system of representative democracy.

Central to this system was the Roman Senate, a deliberative body of aristocrats known as “senators.” Unlike the direct democracy of Athens, where every citizen could participate in decision-making, the Roman Republic entrusted a selected group to act on the public’s behalf. Senators were not directly elected by a popular vote; instead, they were chosen based on their social standing, wealth, and contribution to society.

The Senate’s primary role was to draft and enact legislation, oversee financial matters, and set foreign policy. This body became a powerful and enduring symbol of Rome’s republican values, serving as a check on other parts of the government and ensuring that no single entity grew too powerful.

Representative democracy, as championed by the Romans, provided a scalable governance model, which was essential for maintaining order and stability across vast territories. This innovation would later resonate through history, shaping the representative systems of many modern democracies, including that of the United States.

Written Laws

If Greece provided the democratic ideal, then Rome gave the world a structured realization of that ideal through its codification of laws. One of Rome’s groundbreaking contributions to governance was the belief in the supremacy of written law over arbitrary rule.

Historically, the Twelve Tables stand as the epitome of this belief. Drafted in the 5th century BC, they were Rome’s first attempt to create a comprehensive legal code, covering everything from property rights to inheritance and contractual obligations. Publicly displayed in the Roman Forum, they provided a clear and accessible legal framework, ensuring that every citizen knew their rights and obligations.

The emphasis on written laws underpinned the principle of “Rule of Law,” asserting that every individual, regardless of their status, was subject to the law. This was revolutionary at a time when many societies were dominated by the whims of monarchs or the caprice of the aristocracy.

Furthermore, the Romans advanced the field of jurisprudence by establishing a structured legal profession and a complex court system. This not only facilitated the consistent application of laws but also fostered an environment where legal principles were debated, refined, and evolved.

In essence, Rome’s legal legacy is its unwavering commitment to justice, order, and transparency. The codification of laws ensured that governance was not left to the unpredictable and often biased nature of individuals. Instead, it was anchored in a set of clearly defined, universally applicable rules—a concept that remains central to the legal foundations of many modern states.

In conclusion, while Rome did not originate the idea of democracy, its innovations in representative governance and its dedication to the rule of law provided invaluable building blocks for the democratic systems we recognize today. Their pragmatic approach to governance ensured the stability and longevity of one of history’s most influential empires and set the stage for future democratic evolutions.

Enlightenment Thinkers Contributions to the Development of Democracy in America

The Enlightenment, an intellectual and cultural movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, reshaped the way humanity understood society, politics, and the nature of governance. Pioneered by a cadre of brilliant minds, it championed reason, individual rights, and secularism, sowing the seeds for democratic revolutions and the establishment of liberal democracies. Here, we delve into the seminal ideas of five key Enlightenment thinkers, whose philosophies profoundly influenced the development of democracy in America and beyond.

John Locke

Often dubbed the “Father of Liberalism,” John Locke’s ideas on governance, rights, and the social contract are foundational to modern democratic thought.

Natural Rights:

Central to Locke’s philosophy was the concept of inalienable natural rights—Life, Liberty, and Property. Locke posited that these rights were inherent to every individual and that no government could justly deprive a person of them without due process. These rights were not gifts from monarchs or governments but were innate, derived from a state of nature where individuals existed in perfect freedom.

Consent of the Governed:

Locke vehemently opposed the divine right of kings, advocating instead that the legitimacy of any government lay in the consent of its people. He believed that societies formed governments through a social contract, where individuals voluntarily gave up some of their freedoms to secure collective protection and order. However, this agreement was conditional; if a government failed to protect its citizens’ rights or acted against their interests, it could be justifiably overthrown.

Right to Rebel:

Flowing from the above idea, Locke maintained that people had not only the right but the duty to rebel against any tyrannical regime. A government that consistently violated the social contract’s terms had forfeited its right to govern.

Baron de Montesquieu

A staunch advocate for the rule of law and a critic of absolute monarchy, Montesquieu’s most notable contribution to political theory was his doctrine of the separation of powers.

Separation of Powers:

In his seminal work, “The Spirit of the Laws,” Montesquieu argued for a tripartite system where the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government were distinct and independent. He believed this division was vital to prevent power concentration and the emergence of a despotic rule. By ensuring that each branch could check and balance the others, Montesquieu’s model promoted a harmonious coexistence of powers, safeguarding liberties and preventing abuses.


A fierce defender of civil liberties, Voltaire’s sharp wit and unyielding commitment to freedom of expression left an indelible mark on democratic ideals.

Freedom of the Press:

Voltaire is often associated with the quote, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend until death your right to say it.” While the exact attribution is debated, this sentiment encapsulates his fervent belief in the sanctity of free speech. He consistently championed the freedom of the press, asserting that an informed populace was the bulwark against tyranny.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s works on social equality and the collective will are cornerstones of democratic philosophy.

Social Contract:

In his treatise “The Social Contract,” Rousseau argued that societies were shaped by a collective agreement where individuals surrendered some freedoms to enjoy the benefits of communal living. Unlike Locke, Rousseau emphasized the collective will or the “general will” as the driving force behind legitimate governance. For Rousseau, true democracy was realized when societies operated in sync with this collective consciousness.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

While not strictly Enlightenment thinkers in the traditional sense, both Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli provided pivotal insights into political realism and the nature of power.

Strong Central Government:

In “Leviathan,” Hobbes painted a bleak picture of human nature, suggesting that in a state of nature, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To avoid anarchy, he advocated for a strong central authority—a Leviathan—to maintain order and security. Similarly, Machiavelli’s “The Prince” offers pragmatic, sometimes ruthless advice for leaders, emphasizing the importance of power and statecraft over moral idealism.

In sum, Enlightenment thinkers equipped the world with a new vocabulary of rights, freedoms, and governance principles. Their ideas transcended borders, inspiring revolutions and shaping constitutions, laying the groundwork for modern democratic states. Their collective legacy is a testament to the power of reason, dialogue, and the unyielding pursuit of a just society.

Effect of Enlightenment Thinkers on America

The philosophical storm that was the Enlightenment did not confine itself to the European continent. Its ideals traversed the Atlantic, deeply influencing the American Revolution and the formation of the United States. The fledgling nation, breaking away from the yoke of British colonial rule, found in Enlightenment principles the intellectual ammunition to justify its rebellion and the blueprint to build a novel form of governance. Let’s explore the profound influence of key Enlightenment thinkers on America’s democratic foundations.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau’s emphasis on the social contract and the legitimacy of governance derived from the collective will resonated profoundly with the American revolutionary spirit.

Mayflower Compact and Foundational Documents:

Long before the Revolution, the idea of self-governance was present in America. The Mayflower Compact of 1620 can be seen as an early embodiment of Rousseau’s social contract theory. This document, though rudimentary, showcased the settlers’ intent to form a collective, just, and equal government. Similarly, foundational documents like the Virginia House of Burgesses hinted at a governance system anchored in collective decision-making.

Democratic Foundations:

Rousseau’s belief in the “general will” echoed in the American ethos of popular sovereignty. The idea that government should represent the collective interests of its people and not just a privileged few was a cornerstone in shaping America’s democratic institutions.

John Locke

Locke’s notions of natural rights, consent of the governed, and the right to rebel found not only ideological but also practical expression in America’s revolutionary journey.

Declaration of Independence:

Locke’s fingerprints are all over this seminal document. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration speaks of “unalienable Rights” reminiscent of Locke’s natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Further, the list of grievances against King George III outlined in the Declaration mirrors Locke’s idea that when a government fails its people, the latter have the right, even the obligation, to overthrow it.

Consent and Governance:

The U.S. Constitution, with its preamble “We the People,” underlines the idea that the new republic’s authority emanated from its citizenry’s consent. This directly draws from Locke’s notion that legitimate governance arises from a social contract with the governed.

Baron de Montesquieu

The American founders were deeply wary of unchecked power, having witnessed its perils under British colonial rule. Montesquieu’s doctrine provided a solution.

Separation of Powers:

Directly influenced by Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of the Laws,” the framers of the Constitution integrated a clear division of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The system of checks and balances ensured that no single branch could dominate, a practical manifestation of Montesquieu’s vision.


While Montesquieu himself did not explicitly promote federalism, his emphasis on power distribution inspired the American federal system. By dividing power between state and federal governments, the framers created an additional layer of checks and balances.


Though often embroiled in controversies due to his sharp critiques, Voltaire’s unwavering advocacy for freedom of expression found a firm foothold in the New World.

Freedom of Speech:

The American reverence for freedom of speech is in many ways a tribute to Voltaire’s ideals. The Trial of John Peter Zenger, a landmark case predating the Revolution, championed freedom of the press against seditious libel charges, paving the way for robust First Amendment protections.

Bill of Rights:

The First Amendment, which guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition, echoes Voltaire’s impassioned defense of civil liberties, ensuring that America would be a place where ideas, no matter how unpopular, could be aired without fear of government reprisal.

Hobbes and Machiavelli

Though their views often veer from conventional Enlightenment optimism, both thinkers offered insights into power’s pragmatic aspects.

Federalism and Strong Central Government:

The framers of the Constitution, while valuing individual rights and state powers, also recognized the need for a potent central authority. This acknowledgment, in part, can be attributed to the realist perspectives of Hobbes and Machiavelli. The Constitution’s establishment of federal powers—like raising an army, regulating commerce, and coining money—reflects the recognition that a cohesive, effective national government was vital for the new republic’s survival and prosperity.

In conclusion, the Enlightenment, with its galaxy of thinkers, provided the intellectual scaffolding upon which the United States was constructed. As the young nation grappled with its identity and destiny, it found in the Enlightenment a treasure trove of ideas, principles, and frameworks. The resultant American experiment, blending European philosophical traditions with New World innovations, birthed a democracy that would become a beacon for nations worldwide.

Want more American History Lessons? Visit