American Democracy & the U.S. Constitution in


In ancient Greece, many of the so-called city-states (the polis) created and maintained early forms of democracy (democratia or "rule by the people") by giving all male citizens the power to participate in governing the polis. Assemblies of men with some influence on the king had existed in certain earlier states in the ancient Near East, but Greek democracy broke new ground with the amount of political power that it invested in its male citizen body. As a result, the Athenians established Greece's most renowned democracy in which the individual freedom of its citizens flourished to a degree unprecedented in the ancient world. With this in mind, it is clear that Greek democracy as it existed in ancient times was highly influential in the development of the United States Constitution which, for the most part, is based on the same democratic principles espoused by the founders and leaders of Athens, especially during the times of Pericles, the greatest Athenian orator and political reformer.

According to the prevailing definition, democracy is a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving free elections that are held periodically. This definition can be traced back to the principles of Athenian citizenship which helped to create the present American system with its certain legal rights and responsibilities, such as access to courts to resolve disputes, protection against enslavement and the right to participate in one's chosen religion and culture. Citizenship also implies participation in politics, although the degree of participation varies according to the social status of the individual. For example, the ability to hold public office could be limited in some cases to owners of a certain amount of property or wealth. But one of the most influential aspects of Athenian democracy which was later incorporated into the American Constitution was the idea of majority rule which symbolizes the principle that the interest of the group must prevail over that of the individual citizen when the freedom of the group and the freedom of the individual come into conflict. Thus, the Athenians assumed that the right way to protect democracy was always to trust the majority vote without any restrictions on a person's ability to say what he thought was best for his country and for democracy. And much like the political ideals associated with the "Founding Fathers" such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, majority rule rested on the belief that the cumulative political wisdom of the majority of voters must always outweigh the voices of the minority, especially when the minorities act upon certain eccentricities and commit irresponsible acts which might upset the democratic system.

Another important aspect of Athenian democracy which is reflected in the American Constitution is the theory of legal equality, being the expectation of equal treatment under the law. This theory came to serve as the premier basis for the Greek city-state and remained the most important form of political and social organization in Greece until the beginning of the Roman Empire.

One of the most important historical events that led to the drafting of the Unites States Constitution was the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement of the 18th century characterized by a rejection of traditional social, religious and political ideas with an emphasis on rationalism. As Jacques Barzin points out, "the drafting and ratification of the American Constitution were triumphs for the framer's Enlightenment philosophy which were based on a faith in the essentially rational character of man and society and a belief in man's ability to define and solve social and political problems adequately" (424). Thus, the Constitution can best be understood as a document born out of the Enlightenment, for in its preamble the "Founding Fathers" demand that justice, order, liberty and the general welfare of the American people are of paramount importance, not to mention the ideals connected to limited government, civil liberties, the separation of church and state, the confinement of military power and an open and free society where men and women can think and express their own thoughts and opinions without the danger of being unlawfully imprisoned or sentenced in a court of law for heresy or civil disobedience.

Of all the important figures associated with the Enlightenment, one stands out like a beacon of democracy that illuminated the minds and hearts of all concerned, namely Baron Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755), the French political philosopher and writer best known for his advocacy of the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. As far as the foundational aspects of the Constitution is concerned, Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws, first published in 1748, "greatly assisted in establishing the doctrines of modern political science and was read by many leaders of the American Revolution, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams" (Leone 32).

According to some historians, The Spirit of Laws stood for many years as the most basic guide to political thought and was especially respected by a number of moderate leaders in the early days of the French Revolution which leads one to believe that the U.S. Constitution may have some connection with French political ideology. Also, portions of this essay were used as examples during the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. James Madison, one of the framers of the Constitution, wrote in his Federalist that Montesquieu was "an oracle who (was) always consulted and cited as a convincing authority" (Leone 56).

In 1781, the Articles of Confederation were officially adopted, and in 1787 the drafting of the new U.S. Constitution took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This period of activity was highlighted by "weakness, dissension and turmoil," due to part to the "Founding Fathers" who could not agree on many aspects of the new constitution. For example, the Articles of Confederation had "no provisions... For an executive branch to enforce the laws nor for a national court system to interpret them. A legislative Congress was the sole organ of the national government, but it had no power to force the states to do anything against their will" (The Constitution: An Enduring Document, Internet).

In addition, many differences in opinion "threatened... To disrupt the Convention and cut short its proceedings before a constitution was drafted," many because a number of the existing colonies, such as Pennsylvania, New York and the Carolinas, "argued in favor of proportional representation in the legislature," meaning that "each state should have voting power according to its population." Some of the other colonies, like Rhode Island and New Jersey, "fearing domination by the larger ones, insisted on equal representation for all states" (The Constitution: An Enduring Document, Internet). Most of these disputes were then solved by the "Great Compromise" which gave all the colonies fair and equal representation in Congress. This compromise then led to the familiar Senate and House of Representatives which is still in effect today. In essence, the Senate allowed for each colony to have two seats, and in the House of Representatives, "the number of seats would depend on population." This was a very wise choice by the "Founding Fathers" and ultimately led to House of Representatives being "given the power to originate all legislation dealing with the federal budget and revenues" (The Constitution: An Enduring Document, Internet).

The final draft of the U.S. Constitution, based in part on the Athenian ideals of democracy, did indeed allow the common people to rule. With the establishment of the Senate which allows two seats or senators to represent their individual states/colonies, and the House which contains state/colonial representatives based on population, the people in the colonies held the power through their constitutional right to vote, for each member of the Senate and the House "represent" the needs and desires of the people and thus make laws and regulations that best suit the overall requirements of the people.

In regard to the political philosophy embodied in the United States Constitution, not all members at the Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, nor all those who rallied to support and endorse the Constitution later on, shared exactly the same political beliefs. For example, Alexander Hamilton was at great odds with his colleagues at the Convention due to his disdain for the public, his admiration for the British House of Lords, and his insistence for a President elected for life, all of which seemed to reflect the possibility that Hamilton desired the Constitution to be modeled after its English counterpart. However, most of the other members shared a moderate republican position. In this respect, the "Founding Fathers" were in essential agreement on the question of human nature and on the exercise of political power. Most of them, even those who recognized the need for a centralized government, shared the common fear that power might be misused if it were concentrated in the hands of a few men. This fear can be traced back to the ancient Greeks of Athens and to Montesquieu, for both entities…