The Athenian and American Systems of Government

Topics: Separation of powers, Democracy, United States Pages: 5 (1662 words) Published: November 14, 2003
Athens of ancient Greece had perhaps the most advanced system of government of the ancient world. The system of Athens was called a Democracy. That is, every citizen voted on everything. People have claimed that the United States is also a Democracy. This is not true. The government of the United States is a Constitutional Republic (Every). United States citizens vote for representatives, who then vote on the laws. They themselves are limited by a constitution. Democracy is a flawed government system. The Constitutional Republic is also flawed, however, it is better at safeguarding individual rights, when applied correctly. Therefore, a Constitutional Republic is a better system than a Democracy.

Athens was one of the largest Greek city states. (Stockton, 4). It was about one thousand square miles (Stockton, 4). Athens was founded in the 8th century BC (Muller). It was at first ruled by the college of archons. (Muller). After a term of one year, the archons became members of the Council of Elders (Muller). The people had a voice in the popular assembly, the Ekklesia (Muller). However, it did not have real power until 600 BC. By then, it was an established institution of Athens (Muller). It became the central policy making body in the 5th century. There were two main governmental bodies, the Assembly and the Council. (Acropolis). The Assembly was responsible for policy making. (Acropolis) The Council was responsible for administration and implementing the Assembly's policies. Not everyone could participate in Athenian politics. Slaves, resident aliens, and women were excluded.

The main architect of Athenian law was Solon. It is unknown when Solon was born. He died in 559 BC. (Plutarch). Solon allowed everyone to participate in court (Stockton 19). He created a code of laws based on justice, balance, and good order (Muller). Solon abolished the practice of debt bondage (Muller). Solon created the Council of 400 (Boule), and a court called the Heliaia. (Muller) Solon divided Athenians into classes in accordance with their income (Plutarch). The lowest class, the thetes, was ineligible for election to office (Plutarch). However, they could still come into the assembly and act as jurors (Plutarch). The other classes, from lowest to highest, were zeugits, hippies, and pentakosiomedimnoi (Muller).

Solon's laws were obscure and ambiguous (Plutarch). The court, therefore, and wide powers of interpretation. This gave a significant amount of power even to the thetes. Before a matter could be submitted to the public for vote, it had to be approved by the Council of 400 (Plutarch). By 431 BC, however, the Council of 400 lost power (Agar 13). All power was in the hands of the popular assembly (Agar 13).

There were many flaws in Athenian Democracy. There were almost no checks on the power of the masses. If a person was not liked by the masses, he could be ostracized-forced to leave Athens. Because the court had so much interpretive power, anyone could be punished for anything-even executed. Witness Socrates. He was executed for being impious (Agar 12). This charge was brought against anyone in Athens who thought for themselves, and not what the masses wanted people to think (Agar 12). Contrary to popular belief, there was no absolute right to free thought, free criticism, and "freedom to cast doubt on all men's most intimate prejudices" (Agar 12). These are Western concepts (Ager 12). Athenian Democracy does not protect individual rights.

We now turn to the American system of government. Contrary to popular belief, America is not a Democracy. It is a Constitutional Republic (Every). America has a Constitution that spells out basic, inalienable rights, and citizens vote in representatives who are supposed to safeguard those rights, even when unpopular (Every).

The American government is its current form was created in 1789, with the Constitution of the United States of America. The government consists of three branches:...

Cited: Hospers, John "Freedom and Democracy" Liberty Haven June 1984 5/7/03
"Athenian Democracy" The Acropolis 5/7/03
Plutarch Lives 5/7/03
Plato The Republic 5/7/03
Muller, Helmut M. The Birth and Development of the Polis in Athens 1992 5/7/03
Every, David Only Individuals Have Rights 6/27/99 5/7/03
Agar, Herbert The Perils of Democracy 1965
Stockton, David The Classical Athenian Democracy 1990
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