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American Democracy Through Ancient Greek Eyes

Barry Strauss looks at the contrasts and similarities between the city-states and the 'land of the free'.

Two thousand five hundred years after the founding of democracy in Athens, the United States of America is a larger, wealthier, and more powerful democracy than any Athenian could have imagined. But would an Athenian indeed consider America to be a democracy? If he could be restored to life and brought to Washington DC, would an Athenian visitor feel at home, even among the marble columns and the neo-classical façades? Would he judge the American government to embody 'the power of the people', as did Athens' demokratia (a compound of demos, 'people', and kratos, 'power')?

America a democracy? It is not merely the vast difference in size of territory and population between Athens and America that might make an ancient democrat reject the idea. At a size of about 1000 square miles, the American state of Rhode Island is no larger than Attica (as the territory of ancient Athens was called), but no Athenian would be any more the willing to consider Rhode Island a democracy. Nor would either the equality of women or the abolition of slavery or the ethnic and racial diversity of America be the crux of the problem for an Athenian. In early nineteenth-century America women could neither vote nor hold office, African slavery was widespread, and most free citizens traced their ancestry from within the British Isles. Americans nonetheless considered their country a democracy, as did such European observers as Alexis de Tocqueville, whose visit to the States in 1831-32 furnished the material for his classic analysis, De la democratie en Amérique (Democracy in America). An Athenian, however, might well have been unconvinced.

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