4th of July: The Greek Influence on American Independence


Ancient Greece has influenced the western world in a variety of aspects, but the most important element of our modern society, Democracy, was the key element to American Independence. President Obama described that influence in a proclamation that he issued on March 23rd commemorating Greek Independence Day.

“Two hundred and thirty-six years ago, a new American Nation was founded on an old Greek principle — democratic rule by a free people. We trace this enduring idea to ancient Hellas, where Greeks brought forth the world’s first democracy and kindled a philosophical tradition that would stand the test of time.”

“As America’s Founders built a Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, they drew inspiration from the democratic pioneers who shaped a small group of ancient Greek city states. In the years since, Greece and America have strengthened that connection through shared history and deep partnerships between our people.”

All of the founding fathers had studied ancient Greek texts which drew inspiration about morals, ethics and the sense of independence.

Author Tom Jewett points out that “Jefferson admired many aspects of the ancient Greeks; he could read and speak the language. He agreed with many of their precepts, such as the Greek idea that man is measure of all things. This was the groundwork for his belief in humanism, which recognized no barriers to the use of the mind, and which sought to make all knowledge useful to man. Jefferson particularly admired the Greeks’ idea with respect to man’s relationship to himself”.

“Jefferson was also influenced by the Greek philosophies of Epicures and the Stoics. He believed as Epicures that happiness was humanity’s main goal and it could be attained through moral and noble actions. From the Stoics, Jefferson took the idea of reining in emotion. He felt these ideas about self-control, moderation and rational behavior in the face of misfortune were paragons on how one should comport oneself.”

Joe Wolverton, II writes that “George Wythe, the renowned Virginian who would come to be known as the “Teacher of Liberty,” was himself taught to appreciate the writings of the ancients at home by his mother. Tragically, Wythe’s mother died when he was very young, but she lived long enough to anchor her son’s education on very firm moorings.”

According to one early biographer, Wythe “had a perfect knowledge of the Greek language taught to him by his mother in the backwoods.”

John Adams would often use Greek words in his letters to Jefferson. He was also a great admirer of Xenophon.

Greek philosopher Polybius from Megalopolis, Arcadia had a great influence on the founding fathers. His political beliefs have had a continuous appeal to republican thinkers, from Cicero, to Charles de Montesquieu, to the Founding Fathers of the United States. Marshall Davies Lloyd has argued that Polybius influenced the Founding Fathers to implement the separation of powers as a form of government. LIoyd traced the origins of the theory of mixed constitution to antiquity and especially Polybius’ Histories, while underscoring similarities between Polybius’ system and that of the American Constitution.

“These men,” says Simmons, discussing the Philadelphia debates in 1787, “had read and digested Polybius, Aristotle, and Cicero, and they used the ancient luminaries to frame and illustrate their ideas before the assembly…These heated yet erudite debates, along with the Federalist Papers, fairly pullulate both with subtle classical allusions—with which Madison, Hamilton, and Jay assumed readers to be tolerably familiar—and direct references to the leagues—Amphictyonic, Achaean, Aetolian, Lycian—formed by the ancient Greeks in order to achieve political and physical security.”

On the 4th of July Greek-Americans have one more reason to celebrate the American independence, their Greek heritage.


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