Topic 1

The Philosophical Foundations of the United States Political System

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

Democracy comes 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.

But, as researchers with the Varieties of Democracy project have noted, there is "no single agreed-upon list of what are (or aren't) issues of democracy" (FiveThirtyEight, September 1, 2021). Some think about issues of electoral democracy such as the importance of free elections and a free press while others focus on social and economic democracy and issues around women's rights, civil liberties, economic justice, voting access, and overcoming the historical legacies of slavery and discrimination against people of color.

Here you can find five types of democracy (electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian) and issues associated with them.

Here are the essential elements of democracy as defined by the United Nations Commission of Human Rights in 2000:

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 further influences from Greece and Rome on our political system:

At the same time, the Founders, as with their ancient world Greek and Roman predecessors, accepted human slavery and built that acceptance into the structures of American government as well as the fabric of American life.

Foundations of U.S. Political System Media Literacy Digital Choice Board

Screenshot of media literacy choice board for topic 1
(make your own copy of this choice board to remix/share/use)

Topic 1 Chapters

The Government of Ancient AthensThe Government of the Roman RepublicEnlightenment Thinkers and Democratic GovernmentBritish Influences on American GovernmentNative American Influences on U.S. Government

This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

Access it online or download it at