Ancient Greek and Roman
Many of the most important features of American Democracy
are rooted in the philosophy, teachings and implementations of
the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The very concept of a Democracy can be traced to the
city-state of Athens in ancient Greece. The Athenians
practiced a form of Direct Democracy, in which all eligible
citizens (land-holding men) were allowed to vote on key issues
and decisions and their votes counted directly. This concept
of direct democracy is reflected in the early American
colonies in the New England Town-meetings of Massachusetts
and other colonies, in which the male membership of a town was
assembled to decide upon important issues of governance. Under
the original form of the US Constitution the election of
Representatives to the House of Representatives was the
only implementation of direct democracy, with both the President
and the Senate elected by in-direct methods. (Note: The
indirect election of the President is still conducted via the Electoral
College, Senators are now directly elected following the
passage of the 17th amendment in 1913.)
The ancient Romans further expanded upon the concept of
democracy, further contributing to its implementation in
America. The main concept contributed by Rome and utilized in
our system is that of Representative Democracy, in
which representatives are elected by the citizenry and
empowered to act on their behalf in government. America is a
Republic which is in great part defined by the election of representatives,
such as Representatives in the House and Senators in the
Senate. Additionally, the concept of Senators (and a
Senate) are directly borrowed from the Roman Senate. The
earliest example of representative democracy in the early
colonies was the Virginia House of Burgesses, an
elected, representative body responsible for governing the
colony of Virginia.
One of the strongest philosophical influences on the
founding fathers and drafters of the Constitution was the Enlightenment
of the 1700's. This philosophical movement sought to limit the
power and influence of the church and royalty by replacing
absolutism and theocracy in Europe with governments based upon
reason and the will of the people. The thoughts and reasoning
of the writers of the European Enlightenment can be clearly
seen in the foundation of American government by the
in US Government
Two Treatises on Government (1690)
- Social Contract: This
notion held that an unwritten contract or agreement
existed between the people and their rulers, by which
the people allowed the government to rule and in
exchange the government protected the natural rights
of the people. Furthermore if the government fails to
protect these rights the people can replace that
government with a new system.
- Natural Rights: Natural rights
are believed to be the rights all people are born with
and that are to be protected, Locke expressed these as
"life, liberty and property".
Consent of the governed: Locke reasoned that to be
legitimate a government had to rule with the consent of
the people to be governed.
| - The American Revolution is
an exercise in ending the social contract. It was
reasoned by colonial thinkers such as Thomas Paine
(in his influential work Common Sense)
that King George III had failed to protect the
rights of colonists and as such a revolution was
- The notion of natural rights can be directly
traced to the language used in the Declaration of
Independence, which contains reference to inalienable
rights such as "life, liberty and the pursuit
- In American democracy
the consent of the governed is expressed by voting
for the politicians who wield power. This idea is also
expressed by Jefferson in the Declaration of
The Spirit of Laws (1748)
| - Separation of Powers:
Montesquieu believed that governments functioned best
when the powers of government were not concentrated into
the hands of one person or group. This was a direct
reaction to the monarchies and nobility in Europe that
concentrated absolute power into the hands of only a
- Checks and balances: The idea of separating
power is further developed by not only dividing powers,
but allowing the various parts of government the ability
to oversee and limit the actions of the others.
| - Within the US Federal Government,
there are three branches each with unique powers and
responsibilities, the Executive Branch (the President
and the agencies of government which run government and
enforce the laws), the Legislative Branch (Congress
which creates law) and the Judicial Branch (Supreme
Court and lower federal courts which interpret
laws and actions).
- Checking and balancing is a key component to the
separation of powers within the US Federal Government,
keeping each branch within its defined roles through
oversight by the other two branches. For example, the
President may veto laws passed by the US
Congress, the Congress impeach the President
(removal from office) and the Supreme Court can declare
unconstitutional a law of Congress or an action
of the President.
The Social Contract (1762)
| - Social Contract: While the
concept of the Social Contract was first proposed by
John Locke, the French thinker Rousseau further
developed the concept in his work of the same name.
Rousseau went further that Locke in defining and
defending the ability of the people to replace the
government by forcible action if necessary.
|| - It is clear that the American
Revolution was a forcible, violent action taken by
the colonists in reaction to the English violation of
the social contract as defined by the writers of the
Enlightenment. The French Revolution a short time
later would be equally influenced by the writings of
Rousseau and the example of the American
The Manifest Destiny philosophy grew out a young
America's desire for territorial expansion in the first half
of the 19th century (1800's). Americans believed (as the term
implied) that it was the fate or destiny of the United States
to grow from ocean to ocean, all that was needed was the will
and desire to manifest or make happen the obvious. While the
origins of the philosophy are unclear, the reasoning behind it
Reasoning behind Manifest Destiny:
- Americans had constantly desired more land,
constantly expanding the bounds of the colonies in an
effort to grow, mainly for increased or better
farmland as well as to accommodate a steady flow of
- Businesses and business people saw westward
expansion as opening new demand for products, as well
as opening up new sources of raw materials and goods.
- As the US economic and manufacturing power grew, the
desire for new markets, particularly in Eastern Asia,
drove the desire for a ports and access via the west
- Americans also believed that it was a duty of
America to spread its government, religions and ideals
to all reaches of the western territories.
Key developments in Manifest
- 1803 - THE LOUISIANA PURCHASE
served as the first great expansion of the US
territory. Purchased by Thomas Jefferson from
Napoleon of France for $15 million, the Louisiana
Territory effectively doubled the size of the nation,
added thousands of French and Spanish settlers to the
American populous and gave the US full control of the Mississippi
river and its key ports.
- 1845 - THE ANNEXATION OF TEXAS
added the independent nation of Texas (which had just
declared independence from Mexico) into the United
States as the 28th state. The annexation
further aggravated poor relations with Mexico and
would precipitate the Mexican-American War.
- 1846 - THE OREGON TERRITORY a
dispute between the US and Britain was peacefully
resolved by an 1846 treaty that settled the northern
border at the 49th parallel, effectively the
same US/Canadian border of today.
- 1848 - THE MEXICAN CESSION
ended the Mexican-American War that had raged
from 1845-1847. Under the terms of the Treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo which formally ended the war,
Mexico agreed to surrender nearly all of its territory
north of the Rio Grande river in exchange for $15
million. The territory included what was to become the
states New Mexico, Arizona and California.
- 1853 - THE GADSEN PURCHASE
allowed the United States to purchase a small strip of
land in lower Arizona and New Mexico that seemed well
suited for construction of the Transcontinental
Railroad from the Mexicans for $10 million.
As America began the process of industrialization in
the 1800's an economic philosophy known as Laisse-Faire became
the guiding principle of both government and industry. The
core idea in Laisse-Faire is one of non-involvement by
government in the workings of a nations economy. This is
typified by a lack of regulation or interference in the
capitalist marketplace, allowing businesses and industries to
complete for consumers dollars based on the efficiency of their
production and the quality of their products.
The roots of Laisse-Faire lay in the writings of English
economist Adam Smith in his work The Wealth of Nations. In The
Wealth of Nations, Smith hypothesized that no government
regulation was necessary because the competition among
businesses will insure that the best and most necessary
products at ideal prices will be produced. This
"self-regulating market" would, according to Smith,
be guided by an "invisible hand".
During the late 1800's, as the US economy expanded at a
furious rate the lack of government regulation over the
economy led to many abuses by businesses, as a result by the
Progressive Ear of the early 1900's the government was forced
by public outcry to begin to enact consumer and worker
protections via regulation.
Action or Regulation
Railroad monopoly abuse of farmers:
ex. "short-haul" rates - charging
farmers more to ship goods shorter distances
The Granger movement
of the late 1800's helped enact passage of the Interstate
Commerce Act, which created the ICC (Interstate
Commerce Commission) to regulate railroad rates.
Monopolies, Pools, Trusts:
ex. The Standard Oil Company of NJ, headed by John
D. Rockefeller used its monopoly over 90% of refined
oil to manipulate prices, drive smaller competitors out
of business, and demand "rebates" from
railroads for shipments of its oil.
In 1890 the Sherman Anti-Trust Act
was passed, making it illegal for a company to be
"in restraint of trade".
The 1911 Clayton Antitrust Act
was passed to further strengthen the government's
ability to eliminate harmful monopolies.
Several early monopolies which the
government acted against include the 1904
"busting" of the Northern Securities Co.,
the 1905 prosecution of the Swift & Co.
beef trust and most famously the 1911 break
up of the Standard Oil Trust.
Abuse of workers:
ex. working conditions of this era included long hours,
poor pay, use of child labor, dangerous
workplaces and little to no job security
Fueled by the growing popularity of Unions
such as the Knights of Labor and the AFL
(American Federation of Labor) the government
responded to workers issues.
In 1906 the Employers Liability Act
was the first step towards disability insurance,
and individual states such as New York and Oregon passed
laws limiting working hours.
The most notable shift in policy came
during the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike, in which President
Theodore Roosevelt reversed the long standing trend
of the government siding with business interests by
backing the striking miners in the dispute.
Lack of Consumer Protection:
Absent government regulations companies were free to
produce products that were often ineffective or
ex. medicines that contained nothing more than alcohol
or worse, dangerous and addictive drugs such as cocaine
or morphine, were not uncommon.
In 1906 the government
responded directly to the conditions of the meat packing
industry exposed by Upton Sinclair's muckraking
work The Jungle with passage of the Meat
Inspection Act, requiring government oversight of
the meat packing industry.
Also in 1906 came the Pure
Food and Drug Act, which limited ingredients and
most notably required ingredients to be listed on food
and drug packaging, allowing consumers a better idea of
what they were ingesting.
Closely linked to the idea of Laissez-Faire economic
theory was the philosophy of Social Darwinism. Social
Darwinism was based upon the theory of Natural Selection
in evolution that was put forth by Charles Darwin in
his work The Origin of Species (1859).
Darwin's ideas held that competition among a species for
limited resources lead to a "survival of the
fittest" under which only the best will survive and propagate.
Herbert Spencer (pictured at right) used Darwin's
theories as the basis for Social Darwinism in his 1862
Principles, in which he applied natural selection to
human society. Social Darwinism was used as justification for
why some people succeeded, becoming very wealthy and
successful and others remained poor and destitute, the most
successful must be the "most fit" and justified by
these natural laws. Economists also adapted these teachings as
justification for Laisse-Faire economic policies,
believing that success or failure in business was governed by
these same natural laws and as such should not be
interfered with by government regulation.
The philosophy of Social Darwinism was embraced by American
in part to the growth of the "American Dream"
held by many Americans and recent immigrants, which was
obtainable to anyone if he or she was simply willing to work
hard to obtain success. These ideas were reinforced by popular
novels such as the "rags-to-riches" stories
of Horatio Alger jr.. Alger's novels such as Facing
the World, Risen From the Ranks and Ragged
Dick were widely read in the late 1800's and usually
focused on a hero who rises from humble beginnings to great
success by being honest, hardworking, thrifty and smart. While
inspiring to many, the reality faced by millions of Americans
and recent arrivals was a far cry from Alger's' ideals, even
the hardest working found success illusive amid squalid city
conditions and abusive work environments.