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The Routes of Democracy

We track the great American experiment from the old world to the new and revisit the messy, marvelous result.

Stoa of Attalos in Athens, Greece
Photo caption
The restored Stoa of Attalos shows how Greeks shopped, hung out, and voted.


Athens | Rome | London | Syracuse, New York | Philadelphia

In the midst of the most interesting election campaign in—well, ever—it's time to revisit this democracy of ours. I decided to travel through space and time to walk in its footsteps. Not that I lacked for democracy at home. My little town of Orange, N.H., has it in spades. Every March, most of the 200 voters gather for a potluck supper and town meeting where we wrangle over the budget for our part-time policeman. But sometimes you have to leave a place in order to see it better. Visiting democracy's past shows you how little we can take for granted. Our country's founders considered their republic an experiment to see if people were capable of "establishing good government from reflection and choice," as Alexander Hamilton put it, or whether politics was doomed to depend on "accident and force." That experiment is unfinished, and the hypothesis remains as fresh as ever. When you see the people we have to rely on for the survival of democracy, you have to wonder how it's come as far as it has. "We the People" includes not only the wise and the good but also types we might cross the street to avoid—jerks and idiots, bigots and bullies, lunatics left and right. Yet somehow, when you put us all together, we create a weird self-righting mechanism that gets things back on track just when they seem hopeless. Look at the first contested election for president— when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were each convinced that the other would bring the country down in flames—right on up to our own perilous times. In fact, if you and I can maintain the richest, most powerful nation by sharing government with the guy who cut you off on the freeway yesterday, then it's hard to believe that democracy will ever die. That's one reason to explore the birthplaces of earlier systems. Our deepest roots go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome—where the experiment eventually failed.


Most people who want to hit the highlights of Athens head straight to the perfect-columned Parthenon, which sits high above the city like a peaceful fortress. But the ancient Athenians' most impressive feat—the Agora, center of commerce and politics—lies in ruins down below. Bone white marble blocks and fallen columns include the foundation of the jail that held Socrates and a round building called the Tholos where families took turns serving as a combined administration and police force. Rule by the people was then, as it is now, a real chore.

One evening, after souvlaki and beer at an outdoor taverna overlooking yet another ruin, I wandered up a rise just one hill over from the Acropolis, and what I saw took my breath away. Here was the Pnyx (pronounced p'neeks in Greek), a hilltop with a stone platform where speakers addressed the masses. The orator climbed a set of stairs that were carved into rock and have remained intact. A wall behind him—also still whole because it too was chiseled out of stone—amplified his speech. From here, Demosthenes and Themistocles and all the other great orators harangued the Ecclesia, or people's assembly, gathered 5,000 strong on the flat stone below. The acoustics are amazing. I spoke softly in the still air and felt sure the proles could hear me in the back.

Yes, I know: You can't really locate democracy on a hill in Athens any more than you can find freedom in the Liberty Bell. But if democracy has an essence, it comes down to this: talking. Entertaining, maddening, endless speechifying. In a government by the people, the only way to get agreement on anything is to persuade one another.

The founding fathers knew this, even if they didn't exactly copy the Greek system. "They wouldn't have known what to do with the Athenians," says Donald Lutz, professor of political philosophy at the University of Houston. Although many of the founders studied Greek and Latin in school, "classical authors are notable for their absence" in early U.S. political thinking, Lutz says. But without the Greeks, he adds, we would never have had a Roman republic. And without the Roman republic, the founders would have lacked democracy's greatest cautionary tale.


The ancient Romans both looked up to the Greeks and resented them for the same reasons that some of us admire and dislike the French. The Romans considered their eastern neighbors more cultured and sophisticated; they hated the Greeks' snobbery while imitating them slavishly. For instance, you'll discover a Sacred Way in Athens and in Rome. The one in Athens leads through the Agora and up a steep hill to the Parthenon, the temple to their matron goddess, Athena. The one in Rome leads through the Forum up a less steep hill to the Temple of Jupiter, the empire's god in chief.

You can still walk the Forum as the Romans did: passing through the menorah-decorated Arch of Titus that celebrates Rome's victory over Jerusalem, going by the House of the Vestal Virgins, popping your head into the beautifully marbled Senate, then hanging a hard left and climbing Capitoline Hill. Brutus and Cassius holed up in the temple at the top after they killed Julius Caesar. Art and archaeology museums designed by Michelangelo stand there now.

At the base of the hill sits the least crowded and most democratically significant part of the Forum, the Rostra: a speaker's platform named for its hood ornaments, the beaklike prows—rostra—of ships captured as early as the 4th century B.C. Few tourists ever find it. The platform has crumbled into a small pile of rocks in front of the Tabularium, the building where the empire kept its records. Back in the day, Cicero, Brutus, Cato, and their pals orated while gazing down from the Rostra at the entire length of the Forum. (The Arch of Septimius Severus now blocks the view.)

Roman politicians maneuvered through a tangle of overlapping government branches. A pair of consuls shared equal power. Below the consuls were eight praetors, two censors, the senate, and finally the tribunes of the people. Each consul could veto the other and everyone below him. The praetors could veto each other. Tribunes could veto both each other and the praetors. Praetors and consuls and tribunes could even veto vetoes. Censors could demote senators and praetors. Add to all that the Comitia Tributa, the general assembly. Armed gangs made sure the votes went the way the leaders wanted. The whole thing was a mess, really, one that staggered along for nearly 500 years and created one of the world's greatest empires.

The colonial Americans thought they could do better. They envisioned a nation that would be an "empire of laws," as they called it (using the ancient Roman writer Livy as a source). "The founders definitely saw the fall of the Roman republic as a lesson," Lutz says. They created as Caesar-proof a system as they could. But we shouldn't get too uppity about our republic—we need to survive another two centuries and then some before we can say ours outlasted the Romans'.


Visiting England, you'll find peacetime Brits much less patriotic than their Yankee cousins: While we crowd our own historic sites, it seems that practically the only visitors at the British ones are from the United States.

My daughter, Dorothy Junior, and I had the small, chilly Magna Carta room in the British Library all to ourselves. Tucked away off a larger gallery that holds such treasures as the lyrics for the Beatles hit "A Hard Day's Night" (scrawled on the back of a birthday card for John Lennon's 1-year-old), the Magna Carta room contains two of the four surviving copies of the 793-year-old charter. The document's 2,500 words are in Latin with many abbreviations to save space. Most of its 63 clauses deal with trade and other technical matters; only three have anything to do with liberty or democracy. But one of those is the biggie, clause 39: "No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or dispossessed or outlawed or banished or in any way destroyed . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land."

Actually, the Magna Carta amounted to more of a surrender than a stirring proclamation of rights. The man who approved it, King John, was an incompetent leader who had fought a disastrous war and nearly bankrupted his country. He managed to lose most of Britain's lands in France, and his people called him Lackland and Softsword. (The English propensity for hilarious royal nicknames reveals a democratic attitude that predates the Magna Carta.)

After losing yet another battle in 1214, John staggered home to find his barons in open rebellion. The nobles captured London and offered the throne to Prince Louis of France. This wasn't as traitorous as you might think: For one thing, both John and the nobles were Normans who spoke French.

After several days' negotiation at a soggy pasture on the Thames River halfway between London and Windsor Castle, the king gave up some of his power. But John held a trump card: The pope outranked the king. John figured he could mollify the barons until Rome got a copy. Sure enough, 71 days after John's big wax seal was affixed to the Magna Carta, Pope Innocent III declared the charter null and void and "shameful." You can see the pope's annulment in the British Library, lying right next to the Magna Carta. The pope's seal is made of lead.

So the document in which our Constitution has its origins was a stopgap measure written by Frenchmen that remained law for all of 10 weeks before being quashed by a pope. It took the British 82 years to revise the charter and enter it into the statute books as one of the world's first written constitutions.

But it did anticipate the Constitution of the United States, which is why my daughter and I made Runnymede, the pasture where John and the nobles haggled, our next stop. We sloshed past an oak tree planted by Americans in 1987 with soil from Jamestown, Va. A plaque acknowledges that "the ideals of liberty and justice embodied in the Constitution trace their lineage . . . to the Magna Carta." Then we passed a second young oak tree, which Queen Elizabeth II had planted a week later to celebrate National Tree Week.


Perhaps as early as 1142, perhaps as late as 1600, the leaders of five other nations came together to form a powerful federation. To visit the spot where they joined, my wife and I planned a romantic weekend near a notorious toxic waste site. We drove to Syracuse, N.Y., and checked into a bed-and-breakfast two blocks from Onondaga Lake, a four-mile-long stretch of water that was once the most polluted large lake in the United States.

We had a wonderful time.

According to Native tradition, the Iroquois League got its start with a man named Dekanawidah, a Huron Indian, and his Onondaga sidekick, Hiawatha, who had both been adopted by the Mohawk. Together they managed to persuade five tribes—the Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga—to form an alliance. The nations, it is said, sealed their pact on the shores of Onondaga Lake. (A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined in the 1700s.) The confederation dominated other tribes in the Northeast and ruled trading throughout the region. And the deal had legs. The League survives to this day, comprising 17 communities in New York and Canada.

Female elders determined who would be chief, choosing from a pool of aristocratic families. The bravest and most competent men could become war chiefs, and the best warriors and orators in a clan could vie for election as Pine Tree Chief, a kind of grand vizier. A man built his prestige through prowess in fighting, hunting, and speaking. The Iroquois revered their greatest orators— in fact, the League owed its existence to these silver-tongued persuaders.

While both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine openly admired the Iroquois League, historians debate how much influence it had on the U.S. union. Clearly, the Boston Tea Party patriots had Indians in mind when they dressed up as Mohawk. Their costume was symbolic, according to Bruce Johansen, professor of Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and author of Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom. "The founders didn't copy the Iroquois, any more than they copied the Greeks, the Romans, the Magna Carta, or the Swiss cantons," Johansen writes. Nonetheless, "whenever peoples meet, they absorb each other's ideas." Just as the Romans sucked up Greek culture after conquering the Greeks, the newcomers to these shores couldn't help picking up a thing or two from the people they encountered here. Directly or indirectly, the Iroquois League set a fine example.

Dan Weidman, who with his wife owns the Ancestors Inn in the Syracuse suburb of Liverpool, told us that the site we were looking for lay somewhere near the intersection of two quiet roads, Hiawatha Trail and Iroquois Lane. We didn't see any signs marking the spot, but Weidman's directions led us to the top of a hill with a commanding view of the water: the perfect setting for an Indian version of Independence Hall.

Most Iroquois at the time lived in hilltop fortresses surrounded by earthworks and palisades. Within these walls, they built their longhouses. In fact, the Iroquois men—who in daily life enjoyed plenty of leisure time, and sported jewelry, tattoos, and fur coats—probably had it easier than the delegates who sweated through negotiations in Philadelphia. The Indians, at least, could swim during breaks.


Of all the historical artifacts and displays in Philly, only one makes the founders seem almost human. It is a group of silent bronze statues, each of them life-size and posed to look as if it is interacting with the others, assembled in a sparely decorated Signers' Hall. You can find them in the Constitution Center, a broad, modern two-story building separated by a long stretch of grass from Independence Hall. Giant George Washington stands in the front of the room, with sickly little James Madison looking on. Madison barely comes up to my chin. Saggy old Benjamin Franklin sits in a chair, one of the few bronze figures not standing. Dubbed the "evil genius" of the Revolution by King George III, Franklin was a gouty 81 years old during the Constitutional Convention. New York's Gouverneur Morris, with the hulking body of an aging linebacker and a surprising peg leg, leans over the old inventor-statesman. It was good to be among these gentlemen, who appear to be momentarily stilled by some magic spell and eager to resume one of history's most civilizing acts.

Touring Europe before Philadelphia produces a kind of time shock. After Rome and Athens, Independence Hall looks modern, a neat little spired brick building with more recent structures towering behind it. The hall's tiny Assembly Room is where all the good stuff happened—the debating, editing, and signing of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 and the United States Constitution 11 years later. The space is disconcertingly small. You have to wonder how the delegates avoided fisticuffs.

But they had serious work at hand, creating a kind of Democracy 3.0. They based their government on rule by the people, which the Greeks had invented, and division of powers, which the British had copied from the Romans. So what was left to invent?

"Limited government," Lutz answers. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect citizens against their own rulers— unlike British common law. "Churchill said that Parliament could do anything it wished except change a man into a woman," Lutz notes. The founders must have done something right. Along with Hollywood and jazz, democracy has been one of our most compelling exports. In the past century, the number of democracies around the world has skyrocketed from eight in 1910 to 40 in 1970 to more than 120 today.

After confabbing with the constitutional delegates, I skipped the Liberty Bell, in part because it was a tad anachronistic— its cracked gong sounded 23 years before the signing of the Declaration—but also because a bell can only proclaim freedom, not cause it. While soldiers defend it, politicians debate it, lawyers interpret it, and the press exercises it, citizens embody it. We the people make liberty happen. If we don't keep freedom and justice vigorous—by serving on juries and following the news and voting in every election—we can allow them to die. That's what happened in Rome. Its citizens didn't create the imperious Caesar, whom the Senate named dictator for life. They allowed him.

On the other hand, our Constitution seals a tighter bond between citizens and government than the Romans ever had—or the Greeks or the English or even the Iroquois. "The Americans were good Calvinists, and they saw the Constitution as a kind of covenant," Lutz says. "A covenant is like a marriage. It recognizes that we're attached to each other more strongly than to even the document itself." Our loyalty isn't to the Constitution; it's to the People.

For that matter, you can see democracy itself as a kind of marriage: challenging, high maintenance, full of squabbles and annoyances, and—when luck and effort converge—a miracle. Seen in that nuptial light, my trip turned out to be more than a walk in the footsteps of democracy. It was a second honeymoon.

Photography by Robbyn Peck


This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.