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Foundations of Democracy When we talk about government and democracy, what kinds of thoughts come to you: Rules? Congress? The President? Politics? Democracy is something that we value greatly as a nation, but where does it come from? How did it originate? How does it change and evolve? The United States was the first country in over 2000 years to be founded as a democracy, but it has changed tremendously over the past 230 years. And, it was not something that was created from scratch. Our Founding Fathers drew upon the influences and experiences of many cultures and peoples. They drew from the wisdom and experiences of the following: Athenian Greece and the Roman Empire, Religion (the Judeo-Christian Tradition and the Reformation), the British, and the Enlightenment. This packet will describe these contributors in more depth. It is important to first understand the importance of government. Governments have taken many shapes and forms over time. They have been formed by family or clan groups, religious leaders, conquerors, kings, even people living in a particular town or village. Whatever the origins, governments have sought to create order and stability in the societies where they were formed. A particularly important concept when studying government is the concept of rule of law. This means that, when a rule is made, it is meant to be enforced. How well would rules work if nobody followed them? Not very well! So, when governments demand certain behaviors, they need to be able to back them up. These rules are designed to allow people to live safe and productive lives, enable them to run businesses, and protect their personal property. If a government can enforce its laws and rules, then all is good. But, if it cannot, it will lose control over the population. The word Democracy comes from the Greek language, and literally means “rule by the ruled” or “rule by the people.” Depending on where it is being practiced, democracy can be very simple or very complex. People who live in a democracy are known as citizens, and should expect to be protected by the same laws that they help create and should, consequently, follow. In its broadest sense, there are two major forms of democracy: direct democracy and indirect democracy. Direct democracy means that ALL eligible citizens work together to debate and vote on laws. In a more familiar sense, people who vote for a favorite person to stay or leave a reality show are participating in a direct democracy. When American voters choose the candidate they want for President, they are also participating in a form of a direct democracy. Sometimes, there are too many people to participate in a direct democracy, or some don’t want to be troubled with the day-to-day workings of keeping a government on track. In this case, they may choose to participate in an indirect democracy. When this happens, citizens vote to select people to do government work on their behalf. They should be choosing people who support their own values. When we elect a President, Judge, Senator, or Representative to do government work on our behalf, we are participating in an indirect democracy. Athenian Greece and the Roman Empire When we think of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, we get images of beautiful marble temples and palaces, mythological adventures, and thoughts of conquest and warfare. But, the Greeks and Romans were both tremendously influential in the development of American democracy. And, look at the fantastic buildings in Washington, DC: they are modeled after Greece and Rome! Greece Greece was not one country, as we think of it today. In ancient times, it was a league of many different city-states, cities that were their own independent countries. Greek city-states were tremendously different from each other. We will be studying the democracy of Athens, but it’s important to understand that Athens’ biggest rival was Sparta, a military-based society. Many Athenians helped develop democracy, but one who was important to our democracy was a leader named Pericles. He believed that the leaders of Athens should be chosen based on their merits, or abilities/reputation, rather than nobility. Athenian Greece was, in fact, a combination of direct and indirect democracy. The lowest level of government was the Assembly, which met every 1-2 weeks and could be attended by any citizen. In the case of Athens, a citizen was an adult male born in Athens. It was much like a town hall meeting, and could be pretty loud! The assembly elected people known as the Council of 500. Athens was organized into 10 demes (kind of like counties), and each deme elected 50 men (aged 30 or over) by lot (randomly, like a lottery). The Council of 500 took down the ideas from the Assembly, and did the work to see what were good ideas, and what were not. They set the agenda for the Assembly meetings, and reported back findings for the Assembly to vote for a final resolution. Being on the Council was full-time work, so members were paid for serving. Each member of the Council of 500 served a one-year term, and could not serve more than two in his lifetime. This is an early example of term limits. At the top of Athenian democracy was the Board of Generals. The Board consisted of 10 men (each elected by individual demes). These were the only truly elected positions in Athens. They were the executive branch of government, in that their job was to enforce (or execute) whatever laws were decided by the Assembly. Courts enforced the rule of law and were similar to trials today in the U.S., in that a jury of peers made decisions. There were key differences, though. No lawyers were permitted, juries were made of 201 people (instead of 12 here), and trials lasted one day, with no appeals. Jurors were paid for their service. When understanding Athenian democracy, though, we shouldn’t idealize: Athenian citizenship rules allowed roughly 15% of people to participate, and women were not considered citizens. Women and foreigners were not even allowed to talk in court, if on trial. A citizen spoke for them! Athens was funded by colonization and taxation of other cities, who received no rights. Roman Empire The Romans built a tremendously large empire, and overthrew the Greeks for domination in the Mediterranean. Though the Romans defeated the Greeks, they held great respect for Greek traditions, philosophies, religion, and government. The Romans renamed many Greek gods and also built upon the democratic traditions of the Greeks. Since the Roman Empire was so large, a direct democracy was practically impossible. So, the Romans developed a very strong indirect democracy with a capital city in Rome. The Roman Empire was a Republic, as the United States is today. At the top of government was the Emperor, though earlier tradition called for two Consuls to be like a co-Presidency. Rome also had a Legislative Branch that made laws: it had two parts – the Senate (made up of Patricians, or landowning elites) and the Assembly (elected by both elites and non-landowning). Roman Law set many precedents that were followed in the United States: laws were codified (published for all to see, understand, and follow); in a trial, you are considered innocent until proven guilty, with the burden of proof place on the accuser; and, all were equal in the eyes of the law. Unfortunately, though, slavery was also permitted in the Roman Empire. Slaves included criminals, those captured in battle, and those who could not pay their debts. For its many great innovations, though, there were some problems. The Roman elites, known as Patricians, owned much of the land and wealth. Though they were technically represented in the Assembly, or lower house, the common Plebeians could never emerge from the shadow of the elites, and resented it. Most importantly, though, there was no plan or peaceful way for an emperor to succeed (or come to power) after the death of the previous emperor. This plunged Rome down a slippery slope of civil war and assassinations, which weakened centralized power, and led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Important People to Know: Aristotle: (Greek) Believed in the idea of rationality and logic. Thought that government should be like an organism – with many parts that work together to be alive. Plato: (Greek) Believed that a “philosopher-king” was the best kind of leader – should be wise and intelligent, but not necessarily open to a pure democracy. Justinian: (Roman) Was the first to codify (or put into writing) all of Roman law. Much easier to understand and follow it! Religion (The Judeo-Christian Tradition & Reformation) Throughout history, and throughout the world, religions have provided a tremendous amount of influence to government. Religions traditionally portray people as being subordinate to a higher power, and also provide rules, morals, and codes of conduct for people to follow, with tremendous reward or punishment. Governments have been able to build off of these traditions and values, as they have already introduced the concept of rule of law to the population. Judeo-Christian Tradition The Judeo-Christian Tradition refers to the values and teachings of Judaism and Christianity. Both religions are closely related to each other, as the Jewish Torah, or sacred text, is part of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Both religions have a common ancestor in Abraham, as do the Arabic peoples (most commonly associated with Islam). Both Judaism and Christianity have been extremely important to the development of democracy. Both religions teach that individuals have an individual relationship with God and an individual responsibility to follow God’s laws. Since this is the case, the individual, no matter the social standing, gender, or amount of wealth, is equal (and equally responsible) in God’s eyes. This fits in very strongly to the concept of democracy, where government is “by the people, for the people.” Both Judaism and Christianity teach that we are to love and care for our fellow man equally. And, sacred texts provide us with laws and rules to follow. Unfortunately, earlier kings used religion to justify their rule: Divine Right told people that the king ruled with God’s blessing! The Reformation Before 1517, if you were a Christian, you could be of two types: a Catholic (western Europe) or Orthodox (eastern Europe, Russia). There were no other choices without being considered to be a heretic (which is like a traitor to one’s faith – not good!). Things changed in 1517: a German Catholic Monk named Martin Luther challenged the teachings of the Catholic Church. Luther was troubled with the teachings and actions of the Church, particularly with what he saw as hypocrisy and corruption. One issue that most troubled him was the Church’s sale of indulgences, that allowed people to buy “credits” to forgive sins. He felt that people were using money, rather than faith or proper behavior, to get forgiveness for sin, and that the Church was doing this for profit. Luther also disliked that the Church conducted all of its services and wrote the Bible in Latin, which was not the language of most in Europe. Luther believed that services and texts should be in the vernacular (or local) language of the people. Luther also disliked that the Pope (leader of the Catholic Church) was seen as infallible (without mistake). These beliefs of Luther led to his excommunication (or expulsion) from the Catholic Church. As it relates to democracy, the Reformation was a very important event. It allowed people to question the teaching of the Church (which people would begin to do with government, leading to democracy). It also allowed people to have choices in matters that were traditionally “above” them. The British Before the War of Independence, beginning in 1776, America was a British colony. As a consequence of this, our Founding Fathers borrowed very heavily from the political traditions of Britain. England (also known as the United Kingdom and Great Britain) is a constitutional monarchy. It means that the British are technically led by a king or queen (a monarch), but s/he must follow British law, and cannot act above it. As a result, people in England today are not citizens; they are subjects of the monarch. England was not always a constitutional monarchy. In fact, it used to be ruled by the monarch, with no interference from anybody else. This all changed in the year 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta. In 1215, England was ruled by a King, who ruled over nobles, who then told the peasants what to do. Though the King had a tremendous amount of power, he relied on the nobles to pay taxes to finance wars, castles, etc. The nobles hated to hand over tax money (that they wanted for their own wars and castles). So, they met up and decided to write the Magna Carta. It said that the King can’t raise taxes whenever he felt like it, and that he would have to talk to the nobles first. In effect, it really limited the King’s powers, because he had to run things by the nobility. This set of procedure is known as due process, where certain things must be done in a certain order, so that nobody forces his power or authority on somebody else. When confronted by the nobles with the Magna Carta in 1215, King John naturally was not happy. He knew it would make him a “weaker” king, and he was unwilling to sign it. But, the nobles gave him the option of signing or dying, so he chose to sign the Magna Carta. It created a place for the King to talk with the nobles about taxation (Parliament), and the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy were formed. Political reform stopped at the king, though. The nobles were unwilling to extend the same privileges to their taxpayers (the peasants). These reforms came very slowly. They included the following: Petition of Right: Written by Parliament, closed up loopholes found by the King to re-assert authority over the British Nobles English Bill of Rights: This document created a system of checks and balances between the King and Parliament. It gives the advantage of power to Parliament. When we look at the American Revolution, remember it was “No Taxation Without Representation” that set off the Revolution. When studying British political reform, remember that these reforms did not come quickly, and they were not in one single document like our Constitution. The reforms were in a series of documents, which were at first designed to benefit only the nobles and elites, not the common man! (And, even less for women!) The Enlightenment The Enlightenment was a period of time between 1650-1800 that was based mostly in England and France. It really was the catalyst that led to the American Revolution, and the formation of modern democracy. Remember, the most important reason that England had a Constitutional Monarchy was the idea that a government cannot charge taxes without an explanation to the nobility. By the late 1700s, this expectation had trickled down to the non-elite. The American colonies were largely run and managed by British subjects, and they expected to be treated just the same as if they were living in England. But, unfortunately, they were not. Parliament figured that, since colonists were in the Americas, they would not realize what was going on, or should not expect the same rights and traditions that would be given to them in England. England had been involved with many wars in the Americas (especially with the French) and figured that the Americans should pay for the war costs (without representation). That led to the Declaration of Independence, and we all know where that led! Many French and British (and some Italian) thinkers, known as philosophes, started to look at the nature of government in new ways. They drew heavily from the logic and rationality of the Greeks and Romans, and tended to idealize the Greek and Roman democratic traditions of the past. Most important to the philosophes were the ideas of the individuality and individual rights, and the responsibility of the government to respect it. The Founding Fathers drew heavily from this thinking in drafting the Declaration of Independence, and later on in the writings of the Articles of Confederation (document of government after Revolutionary War) and the Constitution (replaced the Articles of Confederation in 1787 and still our “Law of the Land”). Extremely Important Philosophes: John Locke: British – strong believer in idea of natural rights (life, liberty, property). If government could/would not respect these rights, must be overthrown. Believed that people born naturally good. Thomas Hobbes: British - believed that men were born naturally evil and corrupt, that a strong dictator was best way to keep order. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: French – most notable contribution was Social Contract: gov’t rules according to agreed-upon actions/interactions Baron de Montesquieu: French – most notable contribution was system of Checks and Balances: multi-branch government with unique powers and abilities to keep others from becoming dictator-like. We have a three-branch government because of this. Cesare Beccaria: Italian – Protect rights of accused; no cruel or unusual punishment. Mary Wollstonecraft: British – supported suffrage (voting rights) for women, and equal rights, too!
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