The roots of
American democracy stretch back beyond the formation of
the United States, having origin in ancient Greek
thinking, the Enlightenment, as well as colonial
injustices under the English.
Influences on American Democracy
The ancient Greeks in the city-state Athens
created the idea of the democratic government, practiced
as a direct democracy (government in which all
citizens had say via participation in voting). The
Romans developed the concept of the representative
democracy (one in which the citizens elect
representatives to act of their behalf in government).
This was best exemplified by the Roman Senate. The upper
house of the US Congress is the Senate in ode to this
The United States was founded as a representative
democracy in which qualified citizens elect
representatives to carry out their will in government.
However, the ONLY example of directly elected officials
in the original Constitution was election of
representatives to the House of Representatives, as the
President is in-directly elected by the electoral
college and senators selected by state legislatures.
of the Enlightenment
The thinking of the founding fathers (especially
Thomas Jefferson) was heavily influenced by the
intellectual changes occurring in 1700's Europe. The
European Enlightenment focused on reason, human thought
and experience as opposed to the divine reasoning of
religious thought. This thinking in government is best
seen in the work of Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu.
Locke declared that all men are born with the natural
rights of "life, liberty and property"
and no government can revoke these rights.
Locke maintained that citizens grant governments the
power to rule, in order to protect their natural rights.
When a government fails to protect rights and consent is
revoked, the government can be changed or replaced with
a revolution. Jean Rousseau developed the idea of
the social contract, based on the previous ideas
of Locke. It held that a social contract existed between
government and the people. It further stated that when
government broke the contract by failing to serve the
will of the people, a revolution was justified. Baron de
Montesquieu was an enlightenment philosopher who
wrote of the benefits of dividing power in a government
among more than one branch.
Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers borrowed
many of these ideas when crafting the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution. Natural Rights
appear in the declaration as "life, liberty and
the pursuit of happiness".
The notion of replacing a government that fails to
maintain consent is cited as justification for the
American Revolution against the English. Finally,
separation of powers is integrated into US government
along the three branch system and protected by the
system of checks and balances.
Democratic developments during the colonial
era date back to the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth
rock. The Mayflower Compact was the earliest
example, in which the Pilgrims consented to be governed
and to abide by the decisions of their government.
Franklin's Albany Plan of Union in 1754 was the
earliest attempt at organizing the 13 colonies against
the French. It was soundly rejected by the colonial
governments as a threat to the democratic institutions
that had created in the absence of direct British rule.
During this era the English government had no specific policy of
direct governing of the colonies. This became known as
the period of salutary neglect or the ignoring of the colonies for their
own health, during which they developed forms of self-rule.
During this period of salutary
neglect the colonists began to develop their own forms
of government. In Virginia, the House of Burgesses
developed as a representative democracy in which elected
officials served as the voice of their regions within
the state. In Massachusetts, many towns relied upon a
New England style town meetings in which all
white, land-holding men were allowed to participate.
Articles of Confederation Fail
During the years immediately following the Revolutionary
War, the colonies organized themselves into a new
American government. The Articles of Confederation
(1781-1789) served as the foundation for this first
attempt at a national government and while a failure, it
was the lessons learned under the articles that helped
strengthen the government formed by the Constitution.