Plato has described for us how democracy, after a time, degenerates into tyranny, and that the group most numerous and powerful is “the mass of the people . . . and possess very little. They come to the assembly to get their share of the loot: “their leaders deprive the rich of their property, give some to the masses, keeping most of it for themselves.”
James Madison held views typical of the American founders, writing that “democracies have even been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
“The place to start a description of Athenian democracy is with a definition of the term. Developments in the modern world, however, make that a difficult task, for the word has become debased and almost meaningless.
Few modern states will admit to being anything but democratic. States as different as the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, China, Switzerland, Cuba, South Africa and Nigeria all assert they are democracies. That is confusing enough, but there are further complications.
Many people today would insist that to qualify as a democracy a state must offer full constitutional and political protections and opportunities to all who have legal permanent residence within its borders and desire citizenship.
But the Athenians limited the right to vote, hold office, and serve on juries to adult males who were citizens. Slaves, resident aliens, women, and male citizens under the age of twenty were denied these privileges. It is useful to remember that what has been called Jacksonian democracy in America co-existed with slavery, that women everywhere were denied the right to vote until this century, and that we continue to limit political participation to those of a specified age.
[No] contemporary Greek doubted that Athens was a democracy . . . The Athenians, on the other hand, would have been astonished at the claims of modern states to that title, even such states as the United States and Great Britain, for to them an essential feature of democracy was the direct and full sovereignty of the majority of citizens.
Government by elected representatives, checks and balances, separation of powers, appointment to important offices, unelected bureaucracies, terms for elective office of more than one year – all these would have seemed clear and deadly enemies of what reasonable people might understand as democracy.”
(Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy: The Triumph of Vision in Leadership, Donald Kagan, Touchstone Books, 1991, excerpts pp. 48-49)