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Greek Paradigms That Influenced American Independence

Greece, the epitome of democracy, has inspired civilization around the globe. The Fourth of July, reflecting principles originally expressed by the Declaration of Independence, symbolizes the ideals and practices established by ancient Greek society, based most importantly on the idea that ultimate power rests with the People. On a solid base of self-determination, devotion, and dedication to individual and human rights, and elevating and holding each other accountable as equals, the rule of law and government “of the People, by the People and for the People” was established in America.

After declaring independence from England in 1776, America’s founding fathers were faced with the duty to construct a government of their choosing. Encouraged by the teachings of philosophers, they studied ancient Greek and Roman works, the latter also inspired by Greeks, which emphasized the significance of morals, ethics, and a sense of independence, all fundamental values of a democratic society.

The state created in America reflected a paradigm inspired by the community structure of the ancient Greek polis – city-state. A polis constituted an urban center and the land adjoining it, similar to state capitals in the United States, main cities, and rural areas encircling them. Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse on the island of Sicily were some of the major city-states of the ancient Greeks. Each of these areas in had a set of rules that were required to be followed by its people.

The Constitution of the United States is a document that serves as the fundamental law of the country. Photo by Anthony Garand via Unsplash

The father of natural law discourse, Aristotle, is the one who emphasized the importance of the rule of law. He claimed that what is “just by nature” is not always the same as what is “just by law,” meaning that there is a natural justice that is valid everywhere in the world, and that this justice is positive and doesn’t vary according to people’s different perspectives.

Today, the rule of law in the United States is a principle that safeguards that all laws are publicly available, equally implemented, and independently judged, and that they obey the norms of international human rights conventions and treaties. It is a key factor in the system as it permits both individuals and constitutions to be held liable for their actions and consequences. By agreeing to respect and follow the rule of law, United States leaders are prevented from abusing power.

The formation of the United States was also influenced by the ancient Greek concept of the written constitution. The constitution of the Athenians and of other city-states that were collected and documented by Aristotle shaped the United States today. Having a written constitution forms a common standard as to how people should act and what rules they must follow in order to have a stable society. Those who break the law will be judged accordingly, depending on the severity of their actions, and those who are harmed on the other hand will either be compensated or given justice.

Similarly to the constitution of the Athenians, the U.S. Constitution is an essential document that forms the foundation of the laws of the country. It sets out the government’s structure and how the checks and balances of power within it operate. Individual citizens’ rights are part of the U.S. Constitution, such as the right to free speech or the freedom to practice the religion of their choice – or not to practice any religion. The country’s highest court, the Supreme Court, frequently references the U.S. Constitution as a basis of their decisions.

The Statue of Liberty, a colossal neoclassical sculpture on Liberty Island in New York Harbor in New York City. Photo by Peter Lloyd via Unsplash

The original U.S. voting system shared resemblances with that of Athens. In Athens, every citizen could voice their opinion and vote at a large gathering that met to create laws. Citizens were chosen to represent them on councils and to serve as organizers, decision-makers, and judges. However, free males over the age of 18 were the only ones considered citizens in Athens, immediately revealing inequality compared with modern norms. Women, slaves, and conquered peoples were not able to vote or be selected to serve on councils.

The American founding fathers had a similar ideology in terms of allowing only certain people to vote and elect officials. The United States was structured as a representative democracy, meaning that citizens could elect representatives, who vote on behalf of citizens they represent in Congress. Also, instead of each citizen directly voting for a president, a body called the Electoral College officially casts the votes of each state for president, and until 1913, senators were appointed by legislatures of the states.

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