Greek Americans have one more reason to be proud on the Fourth of July each year, because they don’t only celebrate America’s Independence Day, but also the great influence of Hellenism on the birth of the American nation.
The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic after 1776 owe a debt to the ancient civilization of Greece. The Greek ideals on democracy and the Rule of Law, now provides people around the world with a means of protecting their human rights and holding each other accountable as equals under the law.
All of America’s founding fathers, who were faced with the momentous task of creating a government of their choosing, had studied ancient Greek philosophers’ texts, drawing inspiration about morals, ethics and the sense of independence, all fundamental principles of a democratic society.
They looked to what they deemed the best philosophies and examples of government throughout world history. Along with the Roman model, the democratic model of ancient Greece’s system of self-government greatly influenced how the founding fathers set out to construct the new United States government.
US State and Greek polis
A U.S. state resembles the community structure of an ancient Greek polis or city-state. A polis was composed of an urban center and the land surrounding it, developments similar to that of the major cities and state capitals in the United States and the rural areas surrounding them.
In ancient Greece, some of the main city-states were Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Syracuse. These city-states acted independently for the most part. However, sometimes they engaged in a war against each other. They also banded together to defend Greece from foreign invaders.
Historian and professor Carl J. Richard notes that from Herodotus and Plutarch, the founders learned the story of the Persian War, the near miraculous victory of the tiny Greek republics over the seemingly invincible Persian empire.
“From this tale, the founders learned that it was possible for a collection of small republics to defeat a centralized monarchical empire in a war for survival. This was a crucial lesson because the founders faced just such a power in the Revolutionary War,” he adds.
Rule of Law
All Greek city-states had sets of rules by which the people lived in observance and laws they were required to obey. In ancient Greece, the idea of Rule of Law came from philosopher Aristotle and his belief in natural law. He claimed the existence of a higher justice in nature—certain essential rights—that superseded the laws written by humans. Aristotle believed that people should align themselves with this natural law and govern by its ethics.
In the United States today, the Rule of Law is a principle that ensures that all laws are publicly accessible, equally enforced, and independently judged and that they adhere to international human rights ethics. The Rule of Law is important because it allows all individuals and institutions (including the government itself) to be held accountable for their actions. By agreeing to follow the Rule of Law, the United States can prevent abuses of power by leaders who might act as if they are above the law.
F. A. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty, traces the very concept of the rule of law to the Greeks. But such should be expected. If the Greeks advocated natural law they would also advocate the rule of such law. This is what Aristotle meant when he said “it is more proper that the law should govern than any of the citizens.”
Another important ancient Greek concept that influenced the formation of the United States government was the written constitution. Aristotle, or possibly one of his students, compiled and recorded The Constitution of the Athenians and 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 those who are harmed as a result can be compensated or given justice.
Like The Constitution of the Athenians, the U.S. Constitution is a vital document. It lays out the government’s structure and how the checks and balances of power within it, relate to one another. The U.S. Constitution acts as the supreme law of the country and establishes individual citizens’ rights, such as the right to free speech or the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers. Today, the U.S. Constitution is still regularly referenced in law as the supreme law of the land and is enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court, the country’s highest court.
The original U.S. voting system had some similarities with that of Athens, where 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 in Athens were males over the age of 18. Women, slaves, and conquered peoples could not vote in the assembly or be chosen to 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 president directly, a body called the Electoral College officially casts the votes of each state for the president. As in Athens, when the United States was founded, only white, landowning men were allowed to vote. Over time, however, all U.S. citizens over the age of 18 who have not been convicted of a felony have gained the right to vote.
US Presidents praise Ancient Greek ideals
Successive US Presidents have payed moving tributes to the contribution ancient Greece made to the ideas that shaped American Independence and western democracy.
For his last foreign trip in November 2016, Barack Obama chose Athens. Standing on the Acropolis he said that with his visit he wanted to express his gratitude for all that Greece — “this small, great world” — has given to humanity through the ages.
“Our hearts have been moved by the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Our minds have been opened by the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides. Our understanding of the world and our place in it has been expanded by Socrates and Aristotle”, Obama said.
When he visited the Parthenon, “this symbol of western democracy,” he stressed that “our ideals about democracy our notions of citizenship, our notions of rule of law, began to develop here.”
Speaking in March 2019 in the White House, President Donald Trump said that “the U.S and the whole western civilization has been shaped by the achievements of the Greek people.”