The Founding Fathers
George Washington relinquished near-absolute political power when equally ambitious but less principled men would have reached for more. He was the epitome of gravity, propriety, patriotism, and patient virtue. President Washington was morally tough, unyieldingly firm, and believed practical judgment to be of vast import for political action. Americans wanted to make him King, another Caesar or Napoleon. He abhorred this idea and said, "Banish these thoughts from your mind."
The Founding Fathers synthesized the Liberalism of John Locke, republicanism of antiquity, English common law, and Protestant Christianity. George Washington wrote that individual rights and liberty must be distinguished from license, that real liberty is ordered liberty. Washington believed that the keys to success for the American Experiment were adherence to the Constitution, the subordination of the military to civil authority, statesmanship, and overall moderation. He emphasized religious faith, sacred honor, civility, prudence, character, and service to your country. He hoped a "national character" would unify all states and regions. He never shifted his principles according to public opinion.
George Washington wrote: "Above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation has had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society." He believed in duty, decency, and Providence. Washington emphasized prosperity and property, tempered by Christian aims, charity, honorable and just conduct. He said to the American citizens: "I now make my earnest prayer, that God would have you and the state over which you preside in holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another; to love mercy, charity, and humility—which are characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation." George Washington absolutely believed in "fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."
Washington said that the foundations of America were the principles of private morality. The government must abide by "the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained. There is no truth more thoroughly established than indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."
President Washington stressed the importance of responsible public finances; the need for education; and the importance of the rule of law over the passions. He wrote that religion and morality were necessary for a self-governing citizenry. He insisted on the need for moral and intellectual virtue, and the cultivation of manners, among the citizenry. Sound judgment, integrity, modesty, and dignity are required for the American Experiment to be a success. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
John Adams focused on setting up a Constitution and set of laws that would last as long as the American Republic. "No man will contend that a nation can be free that is not governed by fixed laws. All other government than that of permanent known laws, is the government of mere will and pleasure." Permanent law had to be above the control of men who held office under it. Adams quoted Cicero, "As laws are founded on eternal morals, they are emanations of the Divine mind." The people should submit to the authority not of some imperfect human legislator but to the eternal Legislator of the universe. Law is bound up with virtue, wisdom, religion, and morality. Adams said God made men for liberty.
John Adams was a strong believer in education, so men could intelligently choose their course in life. He wrote that the way anyone chooses to think about the world we perceive with our senses is itself a moral choice. Adams accepted on faith that there was one God who created and ordered the world.
Adams reasoned that a properly constructed society respected the right of individuals to think, speak, and act, but with rights came duties.
President Adams said, "Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty. If property is not as sacred as the laws of God, anarchy and tyranny commence." Men have the right to the fruits of one's own labors.
John Adams and the other Founding Fathers took an enormous responsibility on themselves when they set out to create republican self-government in America. Adams wrote: "The people of America have now the best opportunity and the greatest trust in their hands, that Providence ever committed to so small a number." If they succeeded, they would vindicate the honor of man in the court of history.
Adams emphatically endorsed the notion that Americans were to be not subjects but citizens. The principle of self-government includes duty to others, and to God. "The happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue." Liberty was the foundation principle of American government. The power was given to the legislature to write laws, the executive branch to enact them, the courts to judge under them.
John Adams knew it was inevitable that men would have contention. Men have imperfect knowledge, they exaggerate their own claims, they clash. Certain men have more true, useful, and persuasive ideas than others. Inequalities exist in human societies because of human diversity and human passions. But all men are made in God's image, and thus all should enjoy equal rights. Adams wrote: "What are we to understand about equality? Are the citizens to be all of the same age, sex, size, strength, stature, activity, courage, hardiness, industry, patience, ingenuity, wealth, knowledge, fame , wit, temperance, constancy, and wisdom? Was there, or will there ever be, a nation whose individuals are all equal in natural and acquired qualities, in virtues, talents, and riches?"
The things which helped men rise were "talents, such as education, wealth, strength, beauty, stature, birth, marriage, graceful attitudes and motions, gait, air, complexion, physiognomy, as well as genius, science, and learning." Talents help one man advance over another. They do not make any man better than another in the absolute sense.
Adams knew that men valued their material possessions, but more importantly wanted to be loved by his fellow men. "Who will love me? is a key to the human heart; to the history of human life and manners; and to the rise and fall of empires." Men have a passion for distinction, a desire to be seen in action, to place himself on stage and outshine his neighbors, to gain the notice of others. By this they hope to draw affection. Man's desire to be loved can cause political strife, because the desire for distinction rams up against the unequal distribution of talents that make certain men more useful to society than others.
Adams, and the other Founding Fathers, believed government to be by nature a moral affair. The challenge is to draw men toward the good in their natures, helping reason to guide the passions, rather than allowing the opposite to be the case. The key is for the common man to be brave, enterprising, sober, industrious, and frugal.
John Adams did not want the American idea of liberty to be associated with the French Revolution, lest the world conclude that liberty leads to violence, terror, bloodshed, and dictatorship. Adams did not believe there would ever be a universal order of peace, justice and brotherhood. In fact, he believed this idea to be dangerous, as it would hamper the ability of a society to manage natural inequalities, and give people false hope that the good life is easily obtained. Of the French Revolution he said: "Government of nations may fall into the hands of men who teach the most disconsolate of all creeds, that men are but fireflies, and that all this [the world] is without a Father." Adams feared that such doctrines were not only false, but that it would lead men to behave as beasts, for it gave them no reason to think that they were superior to animals. Adams held that men were equal only because they had exalted souls.
Thomas Jefferson declared the American Declaration of Independence as the chief accomplishment of his life. And what an accomplishment it was. Jefferson put into words the political premise of a new nation with incredible concision and eloquence. It is the authoritative statement of the American political creed—the document that best articulates the prevailing views of the American People. The Declaration of Independence does not present the personal views of Jefferson, but a consensus he gathered from the collection of Founding Fathers. This revolutionary document intends to present "eternal truth, applicable to all men and all times" (Abraham Lincoln).
The Declaration owes a debt to the political thought of John Locke. It takes account of the natural state of human beings—that all men are created equal by their Creator, which means that prior to their consent to be governed men are not naturally under the authority of other men—and articulates the purpose and limits of government. Legitimate government is based on a true understanding of nature. Legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed and the will of the majority. Governments are instituted by men to secure their otherwise vulnerable natural rights. The source of these rights is God—a standard not of human making.
Thomas Jefferson believed the heart to be the locus of morality and the seat of the natural moral sense. He did not believe that the moral capacities of human beings are equal, any more than their intellectual capacities. Only some of those who are deficient in these capacities can even be improved through education.
Thomas Jefferson believed that individual states had the right to declare a state religion, as long as the United States Congress did not impose a national religion. The latter would cause conflict because the folks in Maryland were largely Catholics, in Pennsylvania mostly Quakers, in New England generally Puritans, in Virginia chiefly Anglicans, and so on. Jefferson said: "Almighty God hath created the mind free." Since individuals are compelled to affirm different religious opinions, religious freedom—not freedom from religion—becomes a fundamental moral necessity for society. Governments are mandated to secure the natural right of religious liberty. What Thomas Jefferson was strongly opposed to was the use of civil authority to interfere in religious matters. As for Jefferson himself, he proclaimed: "I am a Christian."
Jefferson maintained: "The only secure basis for preserving liberty was a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God. Religion fosters habits of mind and heart conducive to the blessings and security of self-government."
Thomas Jefferson envisioned a system of public education with the goal of discovering and cultivating talent and virtue for positions in public leadership, and educating the general populace to where they would have the intellect and knowledge necessary to select representatives for government who would best serve the common good.
The people would also receive a civic education through participation in local affairs, such as caring for the poor, building roads, running elections, selecting jurors, and attending to small cases of justice. Local communities must have charge over local issues in order to bring public affairs within the grasp of ordinary citizens, which will keep alive the civic spirit necessary for self-government to succeed. The local people must have direct political participation in those decisions that fall within their competence. Jefferson defined a republic as: "A government by its citizens in mass, acting directly and personally, according to rules established by the majority."
James Madison wrote: "All power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people." The people delegate power to their rulers. This was a shocking and revolutionary idea in the 18th century, and was certainly not based on past experience. It is the American idea.
To James Madison, government was created as the security of pre-existing rights—"the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property; and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." The Founding Fathers of America introduced into the world an idea that became one of the most important principles of modern politics—only a democratic government is legitimate. Americans were the first people to commit themselves to this idea.
Madison said, "A just government impartially secures to every man whatever is his own. It must not seize the property which a man has. Men must not be denied the free use of their faculties and the free choice of their occupations." All equally have rights, and all have an equal right to have their property secured. This is just governance. Some have more (sometimes much more) of the external things of the world than others. All do not have equal property.
Madison, influenced by Montesquieu, set up the modern idea of the separation of powers, with checks and balances. Legislation involves the making of laws—general rules which are applied impartially across society. The executive branch has the power of coercion at its disposal but only to apply those rules enacted by the legislature. The judiciary was set up as the weakest part of the government, as a guarantor that the executive branch does not apply coercion outside the laws enacted by the legislature.
The lower house of the legislature, the House of Representatives, guarantees that the personal rights of the common man will not be overrun by the upper classes. The upper house, the Senate, protects the property of those who have it, from populist whims of the regular folks. The President is supposed to stand above this fray and remain independent of partisan politics, to provide impartial leadership and foster compromise.
All people in positions of authority are not to be to be trusted with large powers and independent range of action. Political service is not to be made into a career. After serving the country in elected office, people are to return to the life they led before being elected—before they develop an attachment to their authority and sense themselves as somehow different from those who elected them. This helps to maintain a certain level of social homogeneity.
While people are entitled to equal rights under the law, they are not entitled to equal property. Men are only entitled to the property which they have earned or inherited. The right of all men's property to be secure is fundamental to a self-governing society. The loss of this vital liberty would discourage the exercise of the unequal faculties of individuals on which a flourishing community ultimately depends. "Efforts to prevent the emergence of social differentiation through engineered homogeneity would not work, and in any case, it would require a suppression of the forces that produced differentiation—the free use of human faculties."
James Madison wrote: "Wherever there is an interest and power to do wrong, wrong will generally be done." "The less elevated but more reliable self-interested passions, if properly channeled, produce not only more reliable but on the whole better results than behavior better motivated." "Much of politics involves a struggle among competing groups for the differential benefits of social and political life. So fierce can this struggle become that the genuine common good is frequently lost sight of and endangered because of it."
History of American Political Thought by Bryan-Paul Frost and Jeffrey Sikkenga