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Athens and America: Democracy and Empire

Today, we hear democracy and empire and think that the two couldn’t possibly be used to describe the same world power. Democracy is a government for the people by the people whereas an empire is typically synonymous with an expansive monarchy. However, there have been many historical examples of nations governed by democracy that have become imperialistic in their nature. The Greek city-state of Athens was the first power publicly known to be ruled by democracy and became an expansive empire before the Peloponnesian War. In addition, the United States of America became a democratic-republic after its independence and its territorial expansion can be described as a period of imperialism. Overall, the ways in which democracy and empire are able to be mutual beneficiaries can be examined through an analysis of both the Athenian and the American strategies of government and foreign policy.

The Athenian democracy was only available to those who were citizens of the state, meaning both parents had to be Athenians for one’s voice to be heard in government. This led to the realization that Athens could take over neighboring cities and islands and utilize their resources without having to worry about any interference or change in government. The modus operandi for Athenian expansion was to murder the men and enslave the women and children.  In this way, Athenian democracy could feed off of its imperialistic measures. Pericles’ Funeral Oration praises Athenian democracy and the standard that it set for the rest of the world. In it he states, “When we invade our neighbors…we usually overcome them by ourselves without difficulty, even though we are fighting on hostile ground against people who are defending their own homes.” This quote shows that while Pericles lifts up democracy as the greatest system of government on the earth, invading and conquering other lands and territories is not contradictory to its principles.

In the early years of the United States, the country was determined to expand its borders and claim more and more territory for itself. Many refer to this acquisition of new lands as the desire for Manifest Destiny, the belief that expanding the nation from coast to coast was unavoidable and was the will of the Lord. In the late 1800s, the United States began a form of foreign policy with an imperialistic approach. The Spanish-American war gave the U.S. many territories including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico as well as the opportunity to annex Hawaii. The U.S. began spreading its influence to South America and the Caribbean with the hopes of expanding its naval power, especially after the construction of the Panama Canal. While never officially declaring itself an empire, America has historically wanted to use other territories as a means to an end and has followed through on those plans many times.

Democracy comes with a positive connotation and to American ears it sounds as though it is the right and only way a country should be run. However, as witnesses with both Athens and the 19th-20th century United States, many times the goodness of democracy can rationalize the actions of imperialism. Democracy and empire may not closely resemble each other, but they have been proven to work coherently together in the past.

-Nate Utesch

Word count: 540

One thought on “Athens and America: Democracy and Empire

  1. Your post was very well constructed and written. I especially liked your description of the Athenian Democracy and how while praising it, Pericles was also setting up an empire that was the antithesis of a traditional democracy. It was well known how eloquent of a speaker he was and in the age where information was often second hand it’s not hard to see how he was able to combine facets of an empire and democracy into his life’s work. I also liked your point about how only citizens of Athens could affect government change so when conquering others there was no fear that they would be able to shake up the system. This was another key aspect of an empire strategy meshing with a democratic worldview. You did well pointing out how the United States has also used empirical methods to advance our own democracy, specifically in the Caribbean and Panama Canal.


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