FOUNDING PRINCIPLES OF THE AMERICAN REPUBLIC
By Christopher Flannery
American children are not born understanding the principles of their country, and most American college students if reports can be believed are still largely unfamiliar with them when they graduate. So it is a useful tradition, as the Fourth of July comes around each year, to reflect again and again on the American political principles famously proclaimed on the original Independence Day, which, as many college graduates know, happened sometime in the past, possibly during Summertime. Lest we seem to rest all our political expectations on the capacity of the next generation for self-government, let us admit that the grownups, as well, can benefit from an annual refresher.
As Thomas Jefferson said late in life, when explaining the genesis of the Declaration of Independence, the ideas expressed in it were "the common sense of the subject" in Revolutionary America. In drafting the Declaration, he had not meant to proclaim any "new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of," but merely to express "the American mind." The Declaration contains a stunning summation of the principles of free government; but it was only because the American people had already learned to understand and to embrace these principles that it was possible to establish an American republic. As the Declaration proclaims, the just powers of government are derived from "the consent of the governed." Only a people prepared to consent to a republic is capable of establishing one or capable of keeping it, as Benjamin Franklin later reminded his fellow citizens. Are we still such a people? No one else can answer this question for us. It is up to this generation, as it has been up to each generation that preceded us and will be up to each generation that succeeds us, to demonstrate our capacity for self-government. This we do for our own sake and for the sake of the cause to which our country was dedicated on that Fourth of July long ago.
Through the Declaration of Independence and the long war that followed it, the American people "assume[d] among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle[d] them." The most famous passage of the Declaration explained to the world what Americans regarded as the principled foundations and purposes of their political independence:
The self-evident truth "that all men are created equal" is the most fundamental and far-reaching principle affirmed in the Declaration. This is the central idea of the American political experiment from which all other ideas radiate. It is a philosophical idea about human nature, the natural relation of each human being to all others, and the place of all human beings in the natural or created universe. The revolutionary and founding generation of Americans expressed this idea of human equality in a variety of ways. The language of the Declaration of Independence is "that all men are created equal." To express the same idea, the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776) stated that "all men are by nature equally free and independent." The Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (March 2, 1780) stated that "All men are born free and equal."
All of these phrases are different ways of expressing a doctrine about the "state all men are naturally in," which the American colonists had learned in large part from the English political philosopher John Locke. Locke had written, less than a century before the Declaration of Independence, that all men are naturally in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest declaration of his will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
To say that all men are by nature equal is to say that human beings are not naturally subordinated one to another: No man is by nature a master; no man is by nature a slave. As Thomas Jefferson wrote, in his last extant letter, written just the week before he died: "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." Human beings, then, are naturally free as they are naturally equal. It is from natural human equality and freedom that the Founders derived the idea that government could only justly be founded on consent. Because human beings are not naturally subordinated to one another that is, because they are equal and free their consent must be obtained before any human being may rightfully exercise authority over them. It is the voluntary consent of the people that gives authority to government.
Government among free and equal men is formed, the American Founders would say, by "social compact." In the words of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780:
The American body-politic is a social compact in which each citizen is pledged to the defense of all and all to the defense of each for the sake of the ends set forth in the American Declaration of Independence, through the means established in the United States Constitution. This is the political community begun when, in the last words of the Declaration of Independence, "for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge[d] to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
Because they are equal and free by nature, human beings may not rightfully consent to just any government to a form of tyranny, for example. In the idea of natural human equality and freedom is the recognition of human rationality and of the limits of human rationality. As Locke wrote, "we are born free as we are born rational." Because human beings are by nature rational beings, one man may not rightly rule over another as he may rightly rule over a non-rational being (like a dog or a horse). But also, because no man is all-knowing or all-good that is, because human reason is limited and fallible and subject to human passions one human being may never rightly subject himself to the unrestrained will or unlimited power of another. This is what James Madison meant when he wrote that "government... [is] the greatest of all reflections on human nature[.]"
Human nature or human equality the fact that human beings are neither angels nor mindless brutes gives rise to the idea of constitutional (or limited) government. This is a political constitution that conforms to the natural constitution of man. Because human beings are fallible and because their reason is subject sometimes to their passions, human government must be subject to law. Human beings would only reasonably consent to be ruled by laws made by another if that other agreed to be bound by the same laws. A nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" will if circumstances permit be under a "government of the people, by the people, for the people." In other words, the principle of equality gives rise most naturally to a democratic or republican form of government. James Madison expressed this idea in Federalist 39, where he considered whether the government proposed under the new constitution would be "strictly republican."
This brings us votaries of freedom back to where we began. So let these suffice for our Fourth of July reflections this year, save one final thought. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thought it prudent recently, in the Wall Street Journal, to offer his fellow Americans the following sober reminders:
Even for the heroic Revolutionary generation of Americans, there was much to learn and much to overcome on the way to ensuring that free government would be good government. So let us gather again on Constitution Day, September 17, to continue the conversation. It will do us all good young and old alike.
Christopher Flannery is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute and Associate Editor of the Claremont Review of Books.
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