Topic 1

The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

Goddess of Democracy
The Goddess of Democracy Statue, Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, Public Domain

Snapshot of Topic 1

Explore the topic's sub-chapters to learn more about the philosophical foundations of the United States political system.

Supporting Question

Massachusetts Standards [8.T1.1-5]

  1. The Government of Ancient Athens
  2. The Government of the Roman Republic
  3. Enlightenment Thinkers and Democratic Government
  4. British Influences on American Government
  5. Native American Influences on American Government

Advanced Placement Standards for U.S. Government

Topic 1: The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

Topic 1 explores the origins of the United States system of democratic government, beginning with Ancient Athens and the Roman Republic and including how Enlightenment thinkers, colonial governments, and First People tribes influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

The word Democracycomes from the Greek words “demos” and “kratos,” meaning "rule by the people" (Defining Democracy, Museum of Australian Democracy). Although the term does not appear in either the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, democracy is the foundation for government in this country. Americans believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people.  

Democracy, as a framework of government, has evolved over the centuries and now includes concepts that are the foundations of civic and political life in our country: freedom, justice, liberty, individual rights and responsibilities, shared power, and a system of checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the government.

More than half the countries in the world consider themselves democracies, although not all are fully democratic (Desilver, 2019). In the modern world, contends one researcher, an "authentic democracy" includes the following structures, without which a democratic system cannot exist:

Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan (2020) has noted that democracy is not a binary concept; countries are not exclusively democratic or not democratic. Instead, democratic nomrs are always advancing in some places and eroding in others in response to current events. The organization Freedom House reported that even before the events of the 2020 presidential election and 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol, the United States was experiencing a decline in the index of democracy in the world, occuping a position between Italy and Argentina, well below the most democratic countries: Austria, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay.

Democracy and democratic institutions are under assault around the world. The Nations in Transistion 2020 report from Freedom House details what it calls a "decade of democratic deficits" in which countries experiencing declines in democracy have exceeded countries with gains every year since 2010. In Central Europe, the report notes, there is a growth of "hybrid regimes" in Poland and Hungry where authoritarian leaders have created quasi-autocracies by undermining the independent judiciary, attacking the free press, curtailing civil liberties, and spreading disinformation and propaganda to inflame people's attitudes toward outsiders such as immigrants and asylum-seekers. Despite these developments, the Freedom House report notes, citizen protests against corruption and for environmental protections, particularly in Ukraine and Armenia, represent a significant counterweight to anti-democracy in the region. Democracy - Our World in Data and Democracy 2019,The Economist magazine’s annual index offer additional perspectives on the place of democracy in the world today.

The standards in Topic 1 explore the philosophical and historical origins of the United States democratic political system, beginning with the emergence of democratic principles in ancient Greece and Rome and continuing to political philosophies of Enlightenment thinkers, the struggles between monarchs and nobles in medieval England, and the question of how extensively did Native Americans influence on the structure of American government.

The governments and politics of Greece and Rome profoundly influenced America's founding generation. Comparing the educational backgrounds of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, historian Thomas E. Ricks (2020) found Greco-Roman learning was "part of the culture; a way of looking at the world and set of values." Ricks notes that the United States "Senate" meets at the "Capitol." Our political parties are "Republicans" or "Democrats." The Supreme Court's architexture recalls a Roman temple. Latin phrases are familiar parts of the legal and political vocabularies. The Roman word "virtue" (which in the 18th century meant putting the common good above self interest) appears some 6000 times in the writing of members of the Revolutionary generation. At the same time, the Founders, as with their ancient world predecessors, accepted human slavery and built that acceptance into the structures of American government as well as the fabric of American life.

Topic 1: Foundations of the U.S. Political System: Media Literacy Activities Choice Board

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Topic 1 Chapters