Democracy from the Past to the Future

Searching for models for the new government they were creating, America's Founding Fathers studied both the democracy of Athens and the republic of Rome, but they favored the latter. In The Federalist essays, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay argued that Athenian democracy was unstable. They thought Athens was too easily ruled by group passion, rather than reason:

Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob. (The Federalist, No. LIV; by Alexander Hamilton or James Madison)

To justify the size of the House of Representatives, the author argued against a larger assembly by claiming that in large groups, like the Athenian assembly, "passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason."

Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next. (The Federalist, No. LXIII; by Alexander Hamilton or James Madison.)

In support of a 6-year term for Senators, the author cited the misfortune that befalls a government without such continuity. He claims that Athens' short terms of office led to inconsistency and lack of personal accountability.

Although the Founding Fathers favored the republicanism of ancient Rome over the direct democracy of Athens, they admired the achievements of ancient Athens. Even today, the ideals of Greek democracy influence the way we govern ourselves.

What Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude. (Rights of Man by Thomas Paine)

Written in 1792 in defense of the French Revolution, Thomas Paine's Rights of Man is a statement of republican ideals. Paine believed that America had adapted the virtues of ancient Greek democracy to the modern world.

Direct initiative, or the right of citizens to propose and vote on legislation, has roots in Greek democracy. In ancient Athens, all decrees had to be ratified by the assembly of citizens before becoming law. In 1977 Senator James Abourezk proposed a constitutional amendment to allow direct initiative nationwide. Many states have some form of direct initiative.

Excavations in the Athenian Agora are conducted by the American School of Classical Studies.
Primary funding is provided by the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI).