Classical Influence in American Government

Ancient Greek Political Thought and the model of Roman Government Influenced America’s Foundations

Nick Richwagen

The founding fathers of the United States drew upon multiple sources when designing American government. Enlightenment philosophy was important, including the ideas of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and John Locke. The founders also looked towards the heritage of the Ancient world. Philosophers from classical Greece proposed the separation of powers in government, an idea that the American founders adopted for their new nation. In addition, The Roman Republic  (509-27 BC) served as a direct model of government for the writers of the constitution.  Greek and Roman political thought was critical in shaping the government of the United States of America.

Content Sections:

I. Plato’s Mixed Government

II. Aristotle: Separation of Powers

III: Polybius and the Roman Republic

IV: Classical Education and Influence in Revolutionary America

V: American Mixed Republican Government

I. Plato’s Mixed Government

Ancient Greek philosophers created the concept of separation of powers, an idea integral to the government of the United States. The Greeks developed other ideas that would be central to the American Constitution. Of the many cultural achievements of the Greek world, the greatest legacy of Ancient Greece was philosophy. Political ideas developed that would later influence the development of the United States of America, over two thousand years later.

Plato (c. 427-328 BC) wrote about the importance of mixed government, an idea that is fundamental to both the development of the separation of powers and the Constitution. Plato believed that all forms of government that existed in his time had specific strengths and weaknesses. In The Republic, Plato wrote about the benefits and drawbacks of each form. Oligarchy, rule by rich elites, could capably manage a state due to competition between members of the aristocracy, but Plato criticized this “rule by the few,” because money was the basis for power, and greed a driving factor. Democratic governance was able to able satisfy the voice of the people, but Plato attacked democracy in The Republic by calling it indecisive, disunified, and prone to political decline.[1]  To Plato, tyranny (rule by one man) was effective and efficient, but a tyrannical government could suffer abuse and depredation by an unjust ruler.[2] In his later work, The Laws, Plato discussed how a state that combined elements of oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny would be less prone to the respective weaknesses of these three forms of government. In The Laws, Plato strongly advocates this amalgamate state; he calls for the creation of a “mixed form of government.”[3] Plato writes:

There are two mothers of regimes…it would be  correct to call one monarchy [tyranny] and the other democracy, and that the Persian type is the full development of the former, while my people’s country [Athens] is the full development of the latter…Both of them [tyranny and democracy] should and must necessarily be present if there is to be freedom and friendship, together with prudence…no city will ever have a fine political life if it lacks a share in either of these…Now one of these two nations [Persia] delighted exclusively and more than was necessary in monarchy, the other [Athens] in freedom, and neither possessed due measure in these matters…[4]

In this passage, Plato compares the tyrannical, monarchical Persian Empire to the purely democratic city-state of Athens. He writes that that a strong state should contain elements of both democracy and tyranny, so that the state has a mixed government. He critiques the government of both Persia and Athens; neither states are mixed governments, for both Persia and Athens are radical opposites, “ends” of the Platonic political spectrum. To Plato, a compromise between these forms of government is the ideal of a “mixed government.” Plato’s political philosophy, particularly his idea of a “mixed” constitution, would have far reaching effects among later philosophers. His mixed government would ultimately be brought to life in the American Constitution.

Mixed government_history
Three Greek authors developed the idea of mixed government; Polybius especially elaborated on it at length.

II. Aristotle: Separation of Powers

Aristotle, Plato’s student and successor, further articulated the idea of mixed government and developed the idea of the separation of powers. Aristotle believed that all forms of government declined and evolved into different political forms. According to Aristotle, a monarchy (tyranny) is the first government to evolve out of primitive anarchy; the monarchy itself is eventually overthrown and replaced by aristocratic rule (oligarchy). The aristocracy itself would eventually be replaced by democracy, which would eventually devolve back into anarchy. Aristotle believed that a mixed government, like the one described by Plato, would halt the decline of government into anarchy. In Aristotle’s mixed constitution, defined in his work The Politics, there were to be three branches of government:

All constitutions have three elements, concerning which the good lawgiver has to regard what is expedient for each constitution…There is (1) one element which deliberates about public affairs [“legislative” branch]; secondly (2) that concerned with the magistrates [“executive” branch]…and thirdly (3) that which has judicial power .[5]

This three-tiered mixed government of Aristotle would ultimately find its way into the Constitution; Aristotle’s government was the first concept of the separation of powers. Aristotle also established the principle that the rulers of a state should be subject to the same laws as the rest of the populace; to Aristotle, the rule of law is better than the authority of “even the best man.” This concept of a “ruling official subject to the law” is an integral idea to modern government, where all political figures are supposed to be subject to the same legal code as the average citizen. [6] Aristotle’s three-tiered government system further articulated Plato’s original mixed government, and Aristotle sanctioned legal authority over executive privilege; these elements were important to the development of American government.

Aristotle classified six forms of government, three “higher forms” with degenerate counterparts. Monarchy, in decline, becomes tyranny, while aristocracy can decline to oligarchy. Aristotle considered democracy to be the result of a decline in constitutional government, though it was the “least bad” of the degenerated forms. Image: Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote

III. Polybius and the Roman Republic

The Greco-Roman historian Polybius influenced Enlightenment philosophers and American government.His writings were centered around the idea of the separation of powers and mixed government in the Roman Republic. Polybius was born in Greece, in the year 200 B.C., over two-hundred years after the death of Aristotle.[7] The Hellenistic Greece (323-30 BC) of Polybius was an entirely different world than the Greece of Plato or Aristotle.  The new states that arose from the collapse of Alexander’s conquest continued to dominate political and cultural life in much of Asia and Europe, but the post-Alexandrian successor kingdoms were eventually eclipsed by a new power- the Roman Republic. Between 225 and 30 BC, the Roman Republic conquered the various Greek states and forced them to become part of its vast empire. Polybius was caught up in this period of Roman expansion: in his youth he was forced to live in the city of Rome as a hostage. He ultimately came to proselytize of the benefits of Roman rule. Having been exposed to Roman civilization, Polybius knew the intellectual tradition of the Ancient Greeks while observing the culture, society, and government of the Roman people. Polybius, in his Histories, wrote about government’s evolution and decline, noting how monarchy transformed into aristocratic rule, which in turn transformed into democracy, eventually culminating in mob rule and anarchy  This pattern of decay is very similar to the cycle of government described by Aristotle.

Roman Republican Government. The Republic was allegedly established in 509 BC, with the tribunate formed in 494 BC after a plebian uprising.

Polybius also believed, like Aristotle, that a mixed constitution can halt this governmental decline. To Polybius, the Roman Republic was the mixed government described by Plato and Aristotle, the one government that could resist the seemingly inevitable cycle from monarchy to anarchy.[13] The Roman Republican government had the elements of all three Platonic forms of government (tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy) together in one coherent whole. The executive branch of the Roman Republic was represented by two consuls, magistrates who were elected annually by the Roman people. The consuls were the Roman heads of state; they were in charge of the military and presided over the senate. The consuls were representative of monarchical rule, or “tyranny.” The senate was the Roman legislative branch, having the authority to determine foreign policy, control finance, and manage religious affairs. The Roman senate was the embodiment of oligarchy, a lawmaking body governed by the aristocracy. The democratic part of Roman government was in the form of assemblies (Comitia), in which the Roman people directly elected executive magistrates. Ultimately, each branch of Roman government worked together to form a cohesive whole. To Polybius, the Roman government’s mixed constitution allowed the Romans to avoid the cyclic pattern of government decline. Polybius also believed that the three branches of Roman government prevented the usurpation of power by political factions or ambitious men:

For when one part [branch] having grown out of proportion to the others aims at supremacy and tends to become too predominant, it is evident that… none of the three [branches] are absolute, but the purpose of the one can be counterworked and thwarted by the others, none of them will excessively outgrow the others or treat them with contempt.  All in fact remain in statu quo, on the one hand, because any aggressive impulse is sure to be checked and from the outset each estate stands in dread of being interfered with by the others.[15]

In this excerpt from The Histories, Polybius assures that any single ambitious faction cannot gain control of the Roman government, because the other branches keep the power of any extremist faction in check.  To some degree, Polybius’ depiction of Roman Republican government resembles that of American government, with separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The political writings of classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, profoundly influenced American government, as did the political structure of the Roman Republic. The legacy of the Ancient Western world can be found, still alive, in the Constitution of the United States of America.

IV. Classical Education and Influence in Revolutionary America

The men who inspired the American Revolution and created the American Constitution were imbued with the influence of the classical Greek and Roman world. The Founding Fathers used Greek philosophy and the model of Roman Republican government into order to form a new nation based on ancient principles. The American founding fathers were well educated individuals, and they all had significant experience with ancient Greek and Roman authors since childhood. Historian Bernard Bailyn states, “knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists with any degree of education.”[17] Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, was taught Greek and Latin from the age of nine,[18] and Benjamin Franklin received instruction in Latin at grammar school and became proficient in both Latin and Greek later in life. [19] In Franklin’s Autobiography, frequent references are made to classical western figures, such as Cicero and Cato.[20] James Madison learned Greek and Latin as a child, and “immersed himself in the histories of Greece and Rome.”[21] With classical schooling such an integral part of the founding fathers’ education, America’s first political leaders studied the works of the great Greek Philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle. Polybius, a less celebrated but still influential thinker, also left his mark upon the American framers of the Constitution. Through Polybius, the founding fathers were introduced to the Roman Republic as the “mixed government” described by Plato and Aristotle. Historian Charles Mullet writes, “The founders encountered their Roman heroes in the works of Polybius.”[22] Thomas Jefferson owned several copies of The Histories of Polybius in his Monticello home,[23] and in the years prior to the formation of the American Constitution, sent copies of The Histories to several of his friends throughout the country. [24] James Madison, the main writer of the constitution, used the writings of Polybius in The Federalist Papers No. 63, referring to ancient republican governments. Other founding fathers, including James Monroe, were familiar with Polybius.[25] Clearly, the framers of the Constitution were not only exposed to classical western influence, but well versed in it. The founding fathers, from Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, were familiar with Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, classical philosophers whose political philosophy created the idea of a three-tiered government system.

V. American Mixed Republican Government

The founding fathers added many elements of classical Greek philosophy and Roman Republican government to the United States Constitution. Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution divide the federal government into three parts, the legislative, the executive, and judicial branches. This separation of powers is derived originally from Aristotelian philosophy; Aristotle himself had sanctioned the division of government into legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

The Legislature (Article I)

The legislative branch itself has several elements derived from classical philosophy, as mandated by the Constitution. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution provides that the members of House of Representatives, who are part of the legislative branch, are to be elected directly by the people of each state. This is reminiscent of Polybius’ portrayal of Roman government, in which the common people of Rome elected magistrates through the Comitia Centuriata.

The American Senate, the other part of the legislative branch, is to have its members elected differently. In Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, it is stated that members of the American Senate shall be elected by state legislatures, not directly elected by the people. This resembles Polybius’ depiction of Roman government. In the Roman Republic, the Senate was made up of members elected by the Roman Patrician, or noble, class. By forcing members of the Senate to be elected by state legislatures, the founding fathers had effectively limited power in the Senate to the American gentry, because the members of state legislatures in the late 18th century usually came from wealthy families.[26]

Because the Senate was not to be elected by the general populace, many Americans were initially afraid that the Senate could turn into an oligarchic assembly; in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton defends the Senatorial system as defined in the Constitution. The Roman Republican legislative branch was made up of both the Senate and popular assemblies (like the Comitia Centuriata); In The Federalist No. 34, Hamilton praises the Roman Republic for attaining the “pinnacle of human greatness,”[27] by giving greater authority to the Roman aristocracy through the Senate.

The Presidency (Article II)

At the end of Article II, Section 4, the framers of the Constitution give the legislative branch the ability to impeach executive officers of the United States, namely the President and Vice President. By holding executive officials accountable to the law, the Constitution is recalling a central tenet of Aristotle’s political philosophy: that the ruling officials of a nation should be subject to that nation’s laws.

A Republican Government

In Article III, Section 4, the Constitution guarantees every citizen “a Republican Form of Government.” As enumerated above, the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius ultimately concluded that a mixed government was the best government; to Polybius, the Roman Republican government was the mixed government of Plato and Aristotle. Polybius concluded that because it had three branches of government, the Roman Republic could not be usurped by any single, radical faction. The framers of the Constitution, well educated in the western classical tradition, knew that a mixed republican government would be the best form of government for the new American nation. The writings of classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius, were ultimately instrumental in the formation of the United States Constitution. The political ideas formulated by the great thinkers of the classical western world were the ideas that the founding fathers drew upon when creating the United States of America.

After seceding from the British Empire, and forced to create a new nation, the founding fathers looked not towards the future, but towards the past. The legacy of the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds inspired the framers of the Constitution to create a nation not based on new principles, but ancient ones. The philosophers Plato and Aristotle laid the principles upon which the new American nation would be based, and the Polybian interpretation of Roman government inspired the founding fathers to create a country modeled, in part, on the Roman Republic. Ultimately, the political and philosophic legacy of the Ancient Western world profoundly influenced the government of the United States of America.


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