Democracy and the Founding Fathers


March 2012
Ivan Obolensky

One way to create a stir with the Founding Fathers of the United States, if they were alive today, would be to announce the country they set up is now a democracy.

A democracy is defined as:

“A system of government by the whole population, or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives” and “the practice or principles of social equality”.1

The word was not always defined this way.

According to the Ancient Greeks, democracy was a combination of two words: “Demos” meaning people and “Kratos” meaning power. Democracy started in Athens around 600-500 BC and had two important characteristics.

Firstly, it was comprised of citizens who were male, over 20 years old, and from parents who were both born in Athens. Each citizen was eligible to speak and vote in the assembly which set the laws and made decisions as to war and peace. Each citizen had one vote and voted directly on each issue put before the assembly. Votes were tallied, and the issue passed or failed.

Secondly, government was run under the allotment system. This was a selection by lot such that ordinary citizens were appointed to government and court positions by chance, usually for a year.2

The Founding Fathers thought democracy was dangerous.

James Madison stated:

“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” 3

The “tyranny of the majority” as voiced by John Adams was another issue.4 What better and easier way to maneuver a populous than through a charismatic leader who, with skilled rhetoric, can get the populous to vote for whatever he wishes?

The Founding Fathers preferred to fashion the United States on the Roman model, which eschewed monarchy but allowed for indirect popular influence through elected representatives.

The Roman model of government had three branches:

The legislative branch was made up of two bodies. The first was the Senate which was aristocratic and made up of former leaders of Rome. The second was the Assembly made up of the populous which voted by tribe. These are similar to the present US Senate and the House of Representatives.

The executive branch consisted of two Consuls who shared power and acted as heads of state in a manner similar to current presidents.

Lastly, a judicial branch existed made up of eight judges that the US Supreme Court was modeled on.5

When the US Constitution was finally drafted in 1787, it was non-democratic according to the Greek definition and based on the Roman Republic model. It had checks and balances, limited representation by the people, and gave government various freedoms while restricting others. There were, of course, opposing views as to how much government was required, how much representation should exist, and exactly what the powers of the Supreme Court should be. Opinions were far from unanimous and threatened to divide the nation even before it got started.

The struggle over the Constitution’s acceptance was contentious. This difference of opinion split many of the states down the middle between those for ratification (Federalists) and those against ratification (Anti-Federalists).

The Anti-Federalists put forth the idea that the chief goal of government was to secure the rights and liberties of its citizens. The Federalists, on the other hand, countered that without a strong central government, the country would be unable to maintain adequate national security or formulate coherent foreign policy and thus be subject to the will of foreign powers.

Each put forth their points of view in written handouts and newspapers.

The Constitution was ratified in 1789 by nine of the thirteen original states but by a narrow margin in each. Those who were skeptical of government pointed out that the Constitution contained no guarantee of rights or liberties. This was such a thorny issue that several states only agreed to ratification with the understanding that a Bill of Rights would be immediately forthcoming. The Bill of Rights was eventually created but not until 1791, some two years after the Constitution was accepted. The Roman model became the law of the land.6

While the Roman model eclipsed Greece during the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw a return of Ancient Greek influence and thought.

This was the result primarily of the Napoleonic Wars and the Greek War of Independence, which took place from around 1800 to 1829. This period was marked by intellectual leaders such as Lord Byron who embraced Greek ideals and protested Turkish or Ottoman hegemony. It was also a time of an extraordinary rediscovery of Greek art.

Of particular importance were the Elgin marbles, a collection of sculptures and friezes, which were taken from the Parthenon and other areas of the acropolis in Athens. They were shipped to Britain between 1801 and 1812 under the direction of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, and British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. After a public debate in Parliament and exoneration as to their acquisition, they were purchased by the government in 1816 and displayed in the British Museum. With this came a new awareness as well as a conscious emulation of classical Greek art.

The Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, and with it came an upswing of British nationalism, and a call for political reform. When the design of Downing College, Cambridge, was awarded, it was to a design modeled in a Greek style. It was seen to emulate the ideals of civic virtue and became the dominant idiom in architecture. This theme rapidly spread in the form of the construction of the National Gallery in London and the British Museum.7

In the United States it was Jefferson who introduced this Greek revival by appointing Benjamin Latrobe as surveyor of public buildings. Through him and his students, the Greek revival style became America’s first and most predominant style of architecture.

An offshoot of this revival was the cemetery movement, which started with the cemetery at Mount Auburn, Massachusetts. Rather than simply a graveyard, Mount Auburn was developed as a pastoral landscape when it was created in 1831. This design and others like it inaugurated the widespread use of the term “cemetery”, which comes from the Greek word koimētērion that stands for “a sleeping place.”

In 1863 after the Battle of Gettysburg, it was put forward that the battlefield should be memorialized as a cemetery and the site dedicated for this purpose. It was in the Gettysburg Address that a unique idea was put forward by President Lincoln in words inspired by Greek funeral oratory that forever changed the Roman tradition of the United States to one of Greece.

At the time, the Civil War was consuming the nation. What was the role of government, and who did it represent? Whatever federal government existed was not acceptable to the half of the nation that seceded. If the country was to heal when all was finished, what the central government stood for needed redefinition and a new standard of relevance. It could not continue as it was first envisioned.

By claiming in the address that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”, Lincoln referenced the Declaration of Independence, the original founding document penned before the Constitution. He restated the words from the Declaration that all men are created equal and added that government must reflect that ideal.

The speech did not receive widespread accolades from the press or the public at the time. In fact even Lincoln considered it a flat failure when he gave it. But it struck a chord that reverberated as time passed.8

Charles Sumner, in his eulogy after the President’s assassination in 1865, remarked that Lincoln was mistaken when at Gettysburg, he had stated: “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here”. Rather, Sumner said the world noted at once what he had said and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself had been less important than the speech.9

In that speech, Lincoln redefined the republic and changed forever the definition of democracy. He did not do this directly but hinted at a more expanded view of government in that it was of the people, by the people, and for the people. It was later generations that added this nuance to the definition.

That this change occurred stems from the fact that Lincoln, whether consciously or unconsciously, recognized the country needed to be reinvented if it was to move on after the turmoil of the Civil War and that this required an idea that could at once encapsulate and inspire those that came after. Government must be a reflection of the people in spite of the dangers outlined by the Founding Fathers. A more universal ideal than first envisioned by the Founding Fathers was necessary and this is reflected in the modern definition of democracy and the current view of democratic government.

1 New Oxford American Dictionary Second Edition. (2005). Democracy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

2 McPhee, I. M. (2008, February 16). Athenian Democracy. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from

3 Madison, J. (1787). Democracies vs. Republics, Federalist Papers No. 10. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from

4 Adams, J. (1788). A Defence of the Constitutions of the Government of the United States of America. London, UK

5 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Education Place. (n.d.). Lesson 2 The Roman Republic. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from World History: Ancient Civilizations, The Rise of Rome:

6 Pangle, Professor T. L. (2007). The Great Debate: Advocates and Opponents of the American Constitution. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

7 Beard, M. & Henderson, J. (1995). Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

8 Wills, G. (1992). Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

9 Sumner, C. (1865, June 1). Promises of the Declaration of Independence, and Abraham Lincoln. Retrieved March 12, 2012, from


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© 2012 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.


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