America's Founding Ideals
Until quite recently, the singular blessing of citizenship in history's freest and most prosperous republic was obvious to Americans of all political inclinations, and one could declaim upon that blessing without provoking controversy. However, as America descends into multiculturalism, public recognition of the superiority of America's heritage is considered uncivil -- and possibly even illegal.
This state of affairs was brought to the public's attention in the recent controversy over the "America First" curriculum guidelines approved by the Lake County, Florida school board. Concerned about the impact of multicultural indoctrination upon public school students, the board established a requirement that instructors "instill in our students an appreciation of our American heritage and culture, such as: our republican form of government, capitalism, a free enterprise system, patriotism, strong family values, freedom of religion and other basic values that are superior to other foreign or historic cultures." Nothing in this requirement would strike the typical American as unusual or inappropriate; however, the Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit against the school board, contending that the patriotic instruction mandated by the board is "illegal" under state and federal law.
Liberal activists and commentators resoundingly denounced the Lake County policy. Deanna Duby, education director for the leftist pressure group People for the American Way, denounced the policy as "racist," "divisive," and "basically a hate campaign for kids." Liberal commentator Michael Kinsley dismissed the curriculum requirement as "garbage." Although Kinsley allowed that America is "a great country in many ways," he candidly stated, "I think it's idiotic to say it's the best."
Many critics of the policy have objected that by teaching schoolchildren that America's institutions are superior to those of other nations, the Lake County curriculum would infect the youngsters with arrogance and complacency. However, as Pat Hart, the chairwoman of the Lake County school board, has written: "It's not who we are that is superior; it's what we stand for." By acquainting students with the essentials of the American patrimony, the "America First" policy emphasizes (in Hart's words) "the great unifying Western ideals of freedom." When people are properly instructed about the labors and wisdom of America's Founders, the result is not arrogance, but grateful humility. The ideals of America's Founders are accessible to all who will understand them and commit themselves to preserve them.
By the standards of contemporary muiticulturalists, America's Founding Fathers would qualify as "fundamentalists." When the Founders announced to the world their intention to secede from the British Empire, they did not swaddle their intentions in euphemism or agonize over questions of politically correct etiquette. Rather, they brazenly announced their intention to wage war in the name of "self-evident" truths that had been revealed in "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God." In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson unabashedly stated the American premise that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...."
The first -- and most important -proof of the superiority of America's heritage is found in the fact that no other nation, either ancient or modern, was founded upon the premise of divinely appointed individual rights. Furthermore, no other government was created for the purpose of protecting individual rights, rather than preserving the perquisites of political power. But although the United States of America was the first nation founded upon these ideals, they did not spring into existence ex nihilo; rather, those ideas are the distillate of European Judeo-Christian thought and political experience.
The concept of man as a moral agent accountable to God is as old as the book of Genesis, which describes how God created Adam and Eve, gave them commandments, and punished their disobedience. The ethical framework intended to govern mankind was codified in the Decalogue and the moral laws given to the ancient Hebrews through Moses. It was within that framework that the Founders constructed America's civic institutions, a fact acknowledged by James Madison: "We have staked the whole of our political institutions on the capacity of mankind to govern themselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."
However, freedom is a problematic proposition for fallen man -- a fact amply illustrated in the teachings of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As Madison famously observed, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But man, who was created just below the angels, must create governments for the purpose of protecting his rights. And government, which Madison described as "the greatest of all reflections on human nature," will serve to magnify and focus the defects of the humans who administer it. As Madison farther observed, "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to govern itself."
The objective of the Founders was to create a government strong enough to protect individual liberties and provide stability without creating a despotic state which would destroy the liberties it was intended to preserve. Reflecting upon the dilemma of 1787, Fisher Ames, a noted patriot and federalist leader of the founding generation, recalled: "Liberty we had, but we dreaded its abuse almost as much as its loss; and the wise, who deplored the one, clearly foresaw the other." It became obvious that the Articles of Confederation, under which the United States had been governed during the War for Independence, required modification. The convention of 1787 went well beyond that modest original intention, but the product was providential.
At the Convention, the representatives of the 13 constitutional republics which composed the United States devised a central government and authorized it to perform specific, limited functions -- coining money, regulating commerce with foreign nations, declaring war, etc. The functions of the central government were divided among three contending branches, each of which was to exercise a check upon the actions of the other two.
It was clearly understood by the statesmen who framed the Constitution that the central government's influence upon the affairs of the several states would be minimal. As Madison wrote in Federalist Paper #45:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce .... The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.
Thus the government created by the Constitution was truly federal, rather than unitary; it was a decentralized government of separate but harmonious jurisdictions. In this arrangement, the states were to attend to most of the necessary tasks of government and serve as an impediment to the central government's ambitions. Speaking at the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788, Fisher Ames explained this concept to skeptics of the new Constitution:
The state governments represent the wishes, and feelings, and local interests of the people. They are the safeguard and ornament of the Constitution; they will protect the period of our liberties; they will afford a shelter against the abuse of power, and will be the natural avengers of our violated rights.
In all of their efforts, the Founders focused upon the preservation of God-given individual rights. This concern lead to the creation of the Bill of Rights, which specified some of the rights of citizens without limiting them. That same concern was shared by some, like George Mason, who felt that by enumerating some rights, the Bill of Rights would be perceived as limiting the liberties of Americans. Through the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, the framers protected the unenumerated rights of Americans and the powers of the individual states and the people to protect those unspecified liberties against the ambitions of the central government.
Our nation's founding generation was rich in statesmen who studied and understood what history teaches about human nature and the art of government. During the Convention of 1787, South Carolina delegate Pierce Butler explained, "We must follow the example of Solon, who gave the Athenians not the best government they could devise, but the best they would receive." The Founders rejected the temptation to use Americans as raw material for political experiments, choosing instead to frame a government compatible with human nature and drawing upon the accumulated wisdom of the Western experience.
America's Founders profited from the example of the British barons who signed the Magna Carta in Runnymede in 1215, compelling King John to accept limits upon his power. That document was intended to preserve the "ancient liberties and free customs" of Englishmen. As historian Clarence Carson points out, the Magna Carta was significant in that "it [made] it clear that the king was limited in what he could rightfully do, and it was one of the benchmarks on the way to establishing constitutional government...."
Another ancestor of the American premise was born amid the strife and bloodshed that raged in medieval Scotland. On April 6, 1320, Scottish noblemen who sought to establish the independence of their country from England issued the "Declaration of Arbroath." That document reviewed the legendary origins of the Scottish people and their conversion to Christianity. The proclamation designated Robert Bruce as "king and deliverer" of Scotland and imposed limits upon his royal authority:
The divine providence, the right of succession by the laws and customs of the kingdom ... and the due and lawful consent of all the people, made him [Bruce] our king and prince. To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both upon account of his right and his own merit, as being the person who hath restored the people's safety in defence of their liberties. But, after all, if this prince shall leave these principles he hath so nobly pursued ... we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter both of his own and our rights, and will make another king who will defend our liberties.
The limits of royal authority and the moral agency of man were also addressed by John Milton. In his pamphlet Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Milton wrote: "The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else, but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people, to the common good of them all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them without a violation of their natural birthright." In his essay Areopagitica, Milton championed the concepts of free speech and the free press that were later given permanency in the First Amendment.
It was English philosopher John Locke, who was roughly a contemporary of Milton, who gave form to the still-inchoate concepts of individual liberties and limited government. In his Second Treatise on Government (1694), Locke wrote that "the end of the law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom." He declared that "every man [is] naturally free, and nothing [is] able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent." Each individual is "absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest and subject to nobody" -- but he must make his own actions "conformable to the law of Nature -- i.e., to the will of God...."
Locke taught that a vigilant skepticism regarding the virtue of rulers is necessary to protect liberty: "... he that thinks absolute power purifies men's blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced to the contrary." Quoting the maxim that "the reigns of good princes have been always the most dangerous to the liberties of their people," Locke explained that the presumptuous acts of benevolent rulers become especially dangerous "when their successors, managing the government with different thoughts, would draw the actions of those good rulers into precedent and make them the standard of their prerogative -- as if what had been done only for the good of the people was a right in them to do for the harm of the people, if they so pleased...."
The necessity of diffusing power by establishing institutional checks and balances was addressed by French jurist Charles De Montesquieu in his essay The Spirit of Laws (1748). Montesquieu observed that critics of despotism frequently fall into the error of focusing on personalities rather than principles. Recalling the experience of Rome as it descended into dictatorship, Montesquieu observed, "Instead of being roused from her lethargy by Caesar, Tiberius, Gaius Claudius, Nero, and Domitian, she riveted every day her chains." This was because, "If she struck some blows, her aim was at the tyrant, not at the tyranny."
Montesquieu's most valuable insight concerns the necessity of diffusing power by institutionalizing checks and balances in government: "When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body ... there can be no liberty .... Were the executive power to determine the raising of public money ... liberty would be at an end...." Montesquieu anticipated the American innovation of separating the executive, legislative, and judicial branches and empowering each to check the excesses of the others.
Guided by their understanding of history, and aided by the in sights of Locke, Montesquieu, and other students of politics, America's Founders understood that liberty cannot depend upon the magnanimity of rulers. Thus Jefferson's admonition, "In questions of power let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the constitution."
George Washington appreciated the wisdom of the constitutional separation of powers. In his Farewell Address, Washington advised Americans that "the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those intrusted with its administration to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism."
Above all the Founders never forgot that liberty cannot endure unless both the government and the citizenry submit to God's law. Although Montesquieu praised the value of checks and balances and intermediate institutions as safeguards of liberty, he acknowledged that ultimately religion provides "the only barrier against the incursions of arbitrary power...." Wrote Montesquieu, "It is not enough to have intermediate powers ... there must be also a depositary of the law." Religion or religious custom, in Montesquieu's estimation, "forms a kind of permanent depositary" of the law.
William Blackstone, a renowned British jurist whose Commentaries had a tremendous influence upon the Founders, wrote: "Upon these two foundations, the law of Nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws." According to Blackstone, the "law of Nature" is "co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himself" and "no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, from this original." Like Locke, Blackstone taught that "Natural liberty" consists of acting in harmony with "natural law" -- that is, with divinely established moral principles.
Accordingly, the sediment of Judeo-Christian principle provided the topsoil in which America's free institutions took root. A polity thus grounded and rooted is a free republic -- a regime in which both the government and the governed are ruled by law. However, a polity in which fundamental rights can be uprooted at the whim of the simple majority is called a democracy. Although the two terms are used interchangeably in modern conversation, it is difficult to imagine two more nearly antithetical concepts of government. While it is true that the representative functions in our republic operate democratically, our system was never intended to be or become a democracy.
Madison warned Americans that democracies "have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property .... " Alexis de Tocqueville, the perceptive French author who chronicled America's republican youth, observed that "democratic nations love change for its own sake...." In a democratic society, noted Tocqueville, the "tie which unites one generation with another is relaxed or broken; every man readily loses the trace of the ideas of his forefathers or does not care about them." Before long, "Men are no longer bound by ideas but by interests; and it would seem as if human opinions were reduced to a sort of intellectual dust, scattered on every side, unable to collect, unable to cohere."
Once a society's patrimony has been strip-mined by democracy, social control can only be achieved through force; in this fashion, the dust of a democratic society is fused into the dull concrete of despotism. This danger has constantly confronted America, even in its infancy. In 1801, Fisher Ames warned, "Every step ... towards a more complete, unmixed democracy is an advance towards destruction; it is treading where the ground is treacherous and excavated for an explosion. Liberty has never yet lasted long in a democracy; nor has it ever ended in anything better than despotism." Like Tocqueville, Ames understood the kinship between democracy and moral relativism, noting that democracy presupposes "that the people can do no wrong when they respect no right, and that the authority of their doings, whether they act for good cause or no cause at all but their own arbitrary pleasure, is a new foundation of right, the more sacred for being new."
In 1805, Ames renewed his warning to his countrymen: "We are sliding down into the mire of a democracy, which pollutes the morals of the citizens before it swallows up their liberties." Ames reminded Americans that "our sages in the great Convention devised the best distribution of power into separate departments .... They intended our government should be a republic, which differs more widely from a democracy than a democracy [differs] from a despotism." Echoing Madison, Ames pointed out that "we know from history, and we might know if we would learn from a scrutiny into the human heart, that every democracy, in the very infancy of its vicious and troubled life, is delivered bound hand and foot into the keeping of ambitious demagogues."
In a republic, the power of government is limited by law; in a democracy, the power of government is illimitable -- it expands to meet the desires of the multitude and serve the ingenuity of ambitious rulers. Under the American concept, the rights of the individual are protected by the law against the transgressions of other individuals, as well as impositions by the state -- including a state acting in the name of the majority. This is the primary value of a written Constitution -- a binding, immutable standard intended to govern the government.
Montesquieu wrote that "if there be only the momentary and capricious will of a single person to govern the state, nothing can be fixed, and of course there is no fundamental law." The liberties of the people would thus be abridged -- or abolished -- at the whim of the ruler. Locke taught that slavery consists of being "subject to the incessant, uncertain, arbitrary will of another man" and that "absolute arbitrary power" is the practice of "governing without settled standing laws." As the purpose of law, according to Locke, is to "preserve and enlarge freedom," it must protect the freedom of the individual against all criminal acts, including those of the government. As Locke observed, when an individual's rights are injured, "the injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the crown or some petty villain." Nor can the criminal acts by a government be sanctioned by a majority, as "nobody can transfer to another more power than he has in himself."
The American Founders understood that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed" and that the only legitimate uses of state authority are those intended to protect the "unalienable rights" of individuals. Therefore, they created a government of limited, delegated powers whose functions are governed by a Constitution.
The Founders also understood the intimate relationship between the maintenance of private virtue and the preservation of liberty. According to Washington, "there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity...." It was Washington's conviction that "the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained...."
A nation inured to "eternal rules of order and right" will enjoy the blessings of good government -- that type of government described by Jefferson as one which will "restrain men from injuring one another, [and which] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."
Just such an order prevailed in the antebellum American republic, and its progress, prosperity, and freedom did not go unnoticed by thoughtful analysts overseas.
In the mid-19th century, as Europe was convulsed by socialist agitation, the French philosopher Frederic Bastiat commended the American republic as the world's most successful experiment in ordered liberty. Wrote Bastiat, "Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: The protection of every person's liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation."
Bastiat's essay The Law, which was published in 1850, offers a remarkably concise and lucid description of the American philosophy. The essay is essentially an elaboration upon a rhetorical question posed by Augustine in City of God: "Absent justice, what are kingdoms but great robberies?" Bastiat studied and understood the teachings of America's Founders, as well as those writers who inspired the Founders.
According to Bastiat, the Law is "the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense," and, "It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve -- slowly, no doubt, but certainly -- God's design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity." In an echo of Washington, Bastiat warned, "We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond functions of force." Bastiat concurred with Locke that the same moral principles which apply to individual force apply to collective action: "Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?"
When government exceeds its proper role, the law becomes perverted and justice is frustrated. Bastiat identified two sources of the perversion of the law: "stupid greed and false philanthropy." The former leads individuals and groups to seek material enrichment through "legal plunder"; the latter is employed to justify the despotic use of power by political and intellectual elites, who seek coercively to "improve" the lives of supposedly lesser people. When the Law (meaning the coercive power of the state) becomes perverted through either of these means, or by both acting in concert, politics become a zero-sum game, as political defeat means oppression, expropriation -and possible extermination -- for one side. Bastiat noted that it is the "tragic perversion of the law" which "gives an exaggerated importance to political passions and conflicts, and to politics in general." As long as politics remains a contest for the power to coerce and regiment others, "political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing."
By way of contrast, observed Bastiat, "If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest in the law would be the same." This is not to say that uniformity would prevail, but rather that politics would be consigned to its properly secondary station, allowing human efforts to be directed toward more ennobling and creative pursuits. Wrote Bastiat: "... thanks to the non-intervention of the state in our private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in a logical manner.... If everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing."
Bastiat also shared with the Founding Fathers an aversion to the idea that man was an inert mass, capable of fraternity, progress, and greatness only under the tutelage of elites:
Oh, sublime writers! Please remember ... that this clay ... which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves!
Like Washington, Bastiat understood the mutual dependence that exists between liberty and morality: "Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most moral, and the happiest people? Those people are found in the countries where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt, where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable; where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently, where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly improving ... where the inventions of men are most nearly in harmony with the laws of God; in short, the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most nearly follow this principle: Although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice."
The Founders labored diligently to "confine the Law to its proper realm"; they made the state subordinate to society, and politics subordinate to culture. They understood the truth expressed by Samuel Johnson: "How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure!" In both their acts of public statesmanship and the conduct of their private affairs, the Founders anticipated and rejected the modern heresy that politics is the measure of all things.
The federal republic was designed to be a government of modest means and minimal powers. This was not because the early republic was an "agrarian society" which lacked the sophistication of modern unitary states; rather, it reflected an understanding of unchanging human nature. No innovation of the past two centuries has rendered the wisdom of the Founders obsolete.
Washington, the noblest of the founding generation, accepted political power with great reluctance and encouraged his fellow citizens to exercise a "distrustful scrutiny into [my] qualifications" to exercise the powers of the Presidency. In his First Inaugural Address, Washington described how he "was summoned by my country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat I had chosen with the fondest predilection, and, in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years...." Washington's service to his country was an act of self-renunciation; his willingness -- indeed, his eagerness -- to relinquish the powers of his office upon the completion of his term testified not only of his integrity, but of the preference for private life which is an unmistakable token of a republican disposition.
As Washington's Secretary of State, Jefferson also expressed republican sentiments in a letter to James Madison:
I have now been in the public service four and twenty years ... the motion of my blood no longer keeps time with the tumult of the world. It leads me to seek for happiness in the lap and love of my family, in the society of my neighbors and my books, in the wholesome occupations of my farm and my affairs, in an interest or affection in every bud that opens, in every breath that blows around me, in an entire freedom of rest or motion ... owing account to myself alone of my hours and actions.
Washington, Jefferson, and many of the other statesmen of the founding generation understood that political labors, although important, generally represent a net subtraction from the task of selfimprovement. This understanding offers a blessed contrast with the attitude of the incumbent Chief Executive, whose Oval Office wall is adorned with a framed quotation from one of his own speeches: "The only way you can save your soul is through public service." The Founders understood that "public service" does not consist of regimenting the lives of citizens -- and they were aware that salvation comes from a source higher than government.
As he humbly accepted the office of the Presidency, Washington reminded Americans of their debt to "the Great Author of every public and private good": "No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency...."
At the end of his public career, Washington reminded his fellow citizens, "With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together. The independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint councils and joint efforts, of common dangers, sufferings and success." This was not a celebration of the dull monotony produced by tyranny, but rather of the social harmony created by an acceptance of sound principles.
It is in the restoration of those principles that America will find relief from its afflictions. As Montesquieu observed, "When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils, but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles; every other correction is either useless or a new evil."
Like the founding generation, contemporary Americans confront the necessity of reclaiming their ancient liberties from a government that has grown arrogant and avaricious. But in this task we have one advantage that was denied to the Founders: The strength and inspiration of their own example.
|The Truth Shall Set You Free!