As Americans, there is a general sense of pride that we are a group of free people who set the stage for democracy and civil rights. Similarly, the ancient city-state of Athens is known for the birth of democracy and therefore is typically portrayed in a very positive light. However, in both situations we can observe that the initial façade of freedoms and democracy are a very real danger to outside civilizations. The democratic republic that United States citizens enjoy today is a product of an imperialistic expansion of power and control, just as the Athenians demonstrated against their fellow Greek city-states. To analyze this concept, let us first remind ourselves of the initial colonization of North American lands.
Arriving from Britain, one simple mission drove the colonist’s motives; to develop and cultivate this new frontier to be a newfound place of religious freedom. As time went on and the American Revolution was fought and won, the fundamentals of the Constitution became an integral part of American culture. As a result, the concepts of inalienable rights and civil liberties became the political focus with special focus on freedom and liberty. Sounds like a nice place to be associated with on the surface, however, what if you were not an American citizen that those freedoms were being applied to?
The blanket of freedom offered by the United States did not give equal opportunity to all those it affected. Of course there were not just slaves living in the United States, but also the Native Americans who also occupied this area during this time received the full might of the imperialistic might of the expansion of territory at that time. Although the conclusion can be made that there were some amazing positives being created from the American expansion westward, when regarding those who received the harshest cost of this conquest, a different set of consequences are observed. Instead, we see a brutal, aggressive, and relentless conquering of the lands further and further West as the Americans continued to press for more land and control. Under the pretext of freedom and democracy, little to no regard or mercy was extended to those who were found living off the land already. The fact was simple: we desired the land and had the means to take it, and therefore we did.
This is a direct parallel to the actions of Athens during their rise of power and fights among other Greek city-states during the Peloponnesian War. Under the veil of defense to add extra protection against another possible attack from the Persian Empire, Athens grew their military might. With a particular focus on a capable navy, Athens began to tighten their grip on those other Greek city-states that agreed to assist in the defensive build-up. Refusing to let city-states leave their pact with Athens, strong and violent action was taken towards those who attempted to leave. It was becoming increasingly clear to surrounding cities that Athens’ intentions were not as they were originally laid out to be, particularly when the treasury was moved from neutral land to the center of Athens. At this point a historian of these conflicts and events, Thucydides, summarized this mindset in this one famous quote:
“Our opinion of the gods and our knowledge of men lead us to conclude that it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.” (V:105; p. 404)1
This concept, that the powerful can overtake the weak, has been repeated throughout history, from Ancient Greece to the United States just over 200 years ago. It also is a demonstration that an imperialistic motive can be hidden behind the ruse of Democracy.
David A. Majd-Faridi
Word Count: 581 (29 words from quote)
- Spodek, Chapter 5, Section 4, Page 152 (sourced from provided reading material)