Sources of Ideas That Shaped the American Plan of Government
Human beings have been living
together in groups for thousands of years. For as long as people have lived in
groups, they have felt the need for some type of organization that provides order.
Without order, a society would be in chaos, the few constantly trying to
assert their will over the many. A government is a way to create order in a
society. For example, in your school, the teachers and the principal are, in
effect, the government. And students are the governed. You may not always agree
with school policies and rules, but imagine what school would be like if there
were no rules! After they declared independence from
Ancient Greeks and Romans Contributed Ideas on Government
The first societies to
experiment with ideas on government that would later influence Americans were
Ancient Greece and
A Democracy in Ancient
Poorer Athenians, such as farmers and small merchants, protested the great power of the Council. They believed that the laws made by the Council harmed the interests of the middleclass and poor. Many Greeks wanted to participate directly in making laws affecting their lives. Greeks used the word “demos kratia”, to explain what they wanted. The equivalent word in English is democracy, which means government by the people.
Gradually, Athenian leaders agreed that more Greeks should be allowed to participate in the Great Council's decision-making process. They developed a political system now known as a direct democracy. In a direct democracy, people not only vote for leaders, but actually serve in the government. In order to decide who should be allowed to serve in the Great Council, Greek leaders developed the idea of citizenship. Those Athenians who were citizens had the right to participate directly in government. But how was citizenship determined? Greek leaders decided that only men who owned large plots of land were citizens. Women, slaves, and people with little or no property were not given the rights and responsibilities of Athenian citizenship. While the Ancient Greeks restricted democratic rights to a small portion of the population, the idea of democracy was born.
English History influenced American Thinking on Government
The first European nation to
experiment with democracy was
English common law. In the 1100s, King Henry II attempted to expand the power of the monarchy. One way he did this was by strengthening the royal court system. The king established courts throughout the country. The king's judges assembled juries to hear cases involving crimes and disputes. The king's judges made the laws that these juries used to resolve disputes and to decide whether a person was guilty of a crime. Royal judges made laws based on the customs of the people. The royal courts decisions were gradually written down and became the basis for common law. Under common law, the courts applied the same legal ideas to all English citizens.
The Magna Carta. The
expansion of royal power in
To John's barons, the Magna Carta was simply a written guarantee of their traditional rights and privileges. It stated that the king could not place taxes on the barons without the consent of a group of influential barons known as the Great Council. The Magna Carta also stated that no free person could be imprisoned without a jury trial. In the 1200s, however, most English people were not free. Rather, they were serfs or peasant farmers who lived on land controlled by the king and his lords. Thus, most English people were not protected by the Magna Carta.
Despite protecting only a small portion of the British population, the Magna Carta was a major political achievement. It showed that a monarch's power could be legally limited by the citizenry.
Parliament. The creation of the Great
Council and the signing of the Magna Carta were the
first steps in the development of representative government in
By the 1600s, Parliament had become more of an equal partner in the English government, sharing power with the monarchy. A government where a monarch does not have absolute power is a limited monarchy. Even though the king and Parliament shared power, they did not always cooperate with each other. James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649), for example, claimed that they ruled by divine, or God-given, right. As a result, king and Parliament were often engaged in a bitter power struggle.
The Bill of Rights. In the mid-1600s, the power struggle between the monarchy and Parliament led to a civil war. Although Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans abolished the monarchy for 10 years, it was re-established in 1660 after Cromwell's death. In the process Parliament gained more power. By the 1680s, Parliament had so much power that it was able to pick the new queen and king to succeed King James II. Parliament offered the throne to Mary, James's oldest daughter, and her husband William. In exchange for the throne, Parliament demanded that the new queen and king sign the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights gave the British Parliament more power than the king and queen. It stated that the monarchy could not make or suspend laws without the consent or approval of Parliament. The king and queen also needed the consent of Parliament to raise taxes and maintain an army. Finally, the Bill of Rights stated that the monarchy must not interfere in Parliamentary elections. Voters had a right to elect their representatives and the king and queen must respect voters' choices.
These three events - the signing of the Magna Carta, the creation of Parliament, and the signing of the Bill of Rights - gradually lessened the power of the British monarchy. As Parliament gained more power, the idea of the "divine right of kings" died out. The British were growing more and more interested in the idea of representative government.
The first lesson discussed
ways in which the king of
European Philosophers Also Influenced American Thinking on Government
During the Enlightenment in
the 1600s and 1700s, many political philosophers met and discussed their ideas
on government together. The Enlightenment was a period in European history
when many educated people stressed the importance of learning and reasoning.
Education was considered the key to understanding and solving society's
problems. Many Enlightenment thinkers lived in
Locke Develops the "Contract Theory" of Government. John Locke, an English political philosopher, helped to further develop democratic ideas. In 1690, Locke published the First and Second Treatises on Government. These two books explained Locke's contract theory of government.
According to Locke, the Magna Carta and Bill of Rights protected the inalienable, or natural, rights of all British citizens. Locke wrote that all people had the inalienable "right to life, liberty, and property" Locke believed that people created government and chose to be governed in order to live in an orderly society. In other words, government arose from an agreement, or contract, between the ruler and the ruled. Thus, a ruler only had power as long as he or she had the consent of the governed. And, as a result, a ruler could not justly deny peoples' basic rights to life, liberty, and property. Many Americans had read Locke’s book, and they agreed with what it said about government. Those who had actually read Locke’s book knew his ideas from newspapers, political pamphlets, church sermons, and discussions.
Most people in the American colonies believed that everyone had a right to life, liberty, and property. These rights were called natural rights. (Sometimes these are now called basic rights or fundamental rights. The idea of natural rights means that all persons have these rights just because they are human beings. Everyone is born with these rights and they should not be taken away without a person’s agreement. Many of the Founders of our government believed people receive these rights from God. Others believed that people have them because it is natural for people to have them.
Protecting natural rights
Although people agreed on certain natural rights, they worried about how those rights could be protected. Locke and others thought about what life would be like in a situation where there was no government and no laws. They called this situation a state of nature. They were afraid that in a state of nature their rights would be taken away.
1. The stronger and smarter people might try to take away other people's lives, liberty, or property. 2. Weaker people might band together and take away the rights of the stronger and smarter people. 3. People would be unprotected and insecure.
The social compact
John Locke and other philosophers developed a solution to the problems that exist in a place without government. In a state of nature.. people might feel free to do anything they want to do. However, their rights would not be protected and they would feel insecure. Locke argued that people should agree with one another to give up some of their freedom in exchange for protection and security. They should consent to follow some laws in exchange for the protection that these laws would give them. This agreement is called a social compact or social contract. A social compact is an agreement people make among themselves to create a government to rule them and protect their natural rights. In this agreement the people consent to obey the laws created by that government.
Rousseau Expands the Contract Theory. In his book, The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote about an ideal society. In this society, people would form a community and make a contract with each other, not with a ruler. People would give up some of their freedom in favor of the needs of the majority. The community would vote on all decisions, and everyone would accept the community decision. When Rousseau wrote The Social Contract, there was not a society in the world with such a system. His vision, however, was shared by American colonists and others.
Montesquieu Suggests Limited Government. In his book on government, The Spirit of Laws, Baron de Montesquieu developed practical suggestions for creating democratic governments. He stated that the best way to ensure that the government protects the natural rights of citizens is to limit its powers. And the best way to limit government's powers is to divide government's basic powers among a number of authorities.
By dividing powers between different branches or parts of the government, no one authority would have too much power. Montesquieu referred to this as a system of checks and balances.
ideas might sound familiar. The last lesson contained excerpts from the
Declaration of Independence. In that document, recall that Thomas Jefferson
wrote that "all men are created equal; that they are endowed with certain
inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of
The people who
created the United States Constitution found great political wisdom in the
past. The system of government in place in the
Blackstone, Sir William (1723-1780)
William Blackstone was a British jurist and legal scholar, whose work Commentaries on the Laws of England was used for more than a century
as the foundation of all legal education in
Blackstone was born in
Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679):
what is today
Plato: When Socrates was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by a jury in Ancient Athens in 399 BC, his student, Plato, become bitter. Plato resented the democratic system that had put his mentor, Aristotle, to death. Plato believed that the best type of leader was a King. In his book, The Republic, he wrote that man was born evil. He wrote that society is naturally divided into three groups of people; society was naturally hierarchical. The three groups were warriors, workers, including merchants and farmers, and intellects. The King should come from the group of intellects and should be a philosopher-king who rules benevolently and wisely.
Democracy – government by the people
Direct democracy – a system of government in which people participate directly in decision making through voting on issues
Citizenship – the status of a citizen, or member of a country, with all its duties, rights, and privileges
Republic – a system of government in which people elect representatives to govern them; also known as representative government
Absolute Monarch – an all powerful king and queen
Common Law – a system of law based on accepted customs, traditions, and past decisions
Limited Monarchy – a government in which the rule of the king and queen is held in check by a constitution or by another part of the government