Most of all, we’re indebted to Greece for the most precious of gifts — the truth, the understanding that as individuals of free will, we have the right and the capacity to govern ourselves. (Applause.) For it was here, 25 centuries ago, in the rocky hills of this city, that a new idea emerged. Demokratia. (Applause.) Kratos — the power, the right to rule — comes from demos — the people. The notion that we are citizens — not servants, but stewards of our society. The concept of citizenship — that we have both rights and responsibilities. The belief in equality before the law — not just for a few, but for the many; not just for the majority, but also the minority. These are all concepts that grew out of this rocky soil.
Of course, the earliest forms of democracy here in Athens were far from perfect — just as the early forms of democracy in the United States were far from perfect. The rights of ancient Athens were not extended to women or to slaves. But Pericles explained, “our constitution favors the many instead of the few…this is why it is called a democracy.”
Athenians also knew that, however noble, ideas alone were not enough. To have meaning, principles must be enshrined in laws and protected by institutions, and advanced through civic participation. And so they gathered in a great assembly to debate and decide affairs of state, each citizen with the right to speak, casting their vote with a show of hands, or choosing a pebble — white for yes, black for no. Laws were etched in stone for all to see and abide by. Courts, with citizen jurors, upheld that rule of law.
Politicians weren’t always happy because sometimes the stones could be used to ostracize, banish those who did not behave themselves.