Two hundred thirty-seven years ago, a select group of men in Philadelphia mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to a cause unmatched in all the annals of human history – a revolutionary act, declaring themselves and the people of the United States wholly independent, not just from the crown of Great Britain, but from all despotism, and from one another. In so doing, they initiated a revolution of ideas as much as one of politics. They challenged not only the legitimacy of the British crown, but of all crowns. While other political rebellions had occurred in centuries past, the rebellion of the Continental Congress distinguished itself through its recognition of and dedication to Enlightenment principles of individualism and unalienable individual rights.
The signing of the Declaration of Independence was but the first step in our fledgling nation’s quest to secure the rights that the Founders saw as theirs and ours to claim. Towards that end, the United States would be governed under two different founding documents at the federal level (first the Articles of Confederation, then the Constitution), fight a Civil War, and ultimately bind the governments of its constituent states to the civil rights principles that it had itself established through the Civil War amendments (i.e., equal protection of the law, due process of the law, and all the “privileges and immunities” already granted by the federal government in its Constitution). For the early generations of American statesmen, governance was an experiment, a process of reconsideration, correction, and revision. So it remains today, as the mission of our Founders to see all men free from the abuses of arbitrary and abusive practices of governance remains incomplete.
The legacy of our nation’s founding is, and has always been, contested. Modern interpretations are often a bit too daring in their efforts to craft a vision of the Founders’ actions that would align them with any and every cause and effort that a politician, editorialist, judge, or justice cares to support. Given the Founding Fathers’ own inconsistent adherence to and incomplete understanding of their own professed principles, aberrations from those principles have become perilously woven into popular understandings and interpretations of the Constitution of the United States, plaguing American politics to the modern day. Therefore, an examination — however brief — into morally righteous principles on which our Founding Fathers built a nation is a beneficial endeavor, allowing us to cast aside historical misrepresentations of those principles so as to better understand the structure of our government and to improve upon it.
To begin, it is necessary to acknowledge where the Founders fell short. The government they created, however admirable, has its flaws. The permanent Constitution they eventually created includes a number of errors, allotting to the government powers that ultimately abridge rather than protect individual rights. These errors stemmed from the Framers misunderstanding the nature of their own principles, and it was not until the work of Ayn Rand that the consistent meaning of man’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” was brought into full focus. Even so, the Founding Fathers’ limited understanding of their own principles does not impinge upon the unassailable moral nature of those principles. All men are created equal, they do possess unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and it is the sole purpose of government to secure those rights, regardless of if the Founding Generation and their successors failed to implement those principles fully into political policy.
Given the decrepit state of history education in the United States, a demonstration of the principles of the Founders’ is necessary. Where the personal shortcomings of the men themselves are amplified – Washington, Jefferson, and Madison’s ownership of slaves, Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts, Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, etc. – the gravity of their more venerable ideas is lost. And while unquestionably true that the flaws of the Founding Fathers ought to be discussed so as to exemplify our nation’s struggle to actualize its principles, the discussion should take place in the context of the principles themselves – of the ideological battles that shaped our nation’s early and contemporary history, identifying those ideas fundamental to our system of government and those inconsistent with said fundamentals. Voltaire – that revolutionary historian and philosopher who was more interested in recording trends in ideas than the acts of kings – declares, “History should be written as philosophy.” As a student of history, I have yet to encounter a reasonable objection to this maxim.
There are a plethora of sources from which to draw information regarding the fundamental principles of our Founding Generation. They were, men and women alike, members of the Republic of Letters with extensive collections of correspondence that provide valuable insight into their reasoning behind their professed public sentiments. More than that, the Revolutionary Era was one of mass printing – pamphlets and newspapers from the era, a number of them written or edited by some of the most notable Founding Fathers, are numerous. And of course, there are our nation’s earliest and most influential public documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, early treaties, and early acts of Congress.
But as far as readily available source material providing insights into the political and philosophical reasoning behind the structure of our government goes, no historical sources match the scope and depth of The Federalist Papers.
The Federalist Papers are perhaps the greatest treatise of political theory in the history of mankind. As such, they are seldom taught in schools and universities. Penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay jointly under the pseudonym Publius, The Federalist Papers were a series of newspaper publications written to convince the state of New York to ratify the proposed Constitution. They dissected every aspect of the proposed Constitution, answering anticipated objections, explaining why the clauses were written as they are, and justifying the Framers’ decision to overturn the Articles of Confederation. The Federalist Papers are the single greatest source explaining why the Constitution took the shape that it did, allowing modern readers to extrapolate the implicit – though often remarkably explicit – principles of our Founding Fathers.
Needless to say, the principles one finds in The Federalist Papers are the same outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Less than fifteen years pass between the Declaration and the ratification of the Constitution, and the disarray caused by the loose confederation under the Articles was obvious enough to the Founding Fathers that the need for a new solution – one better suited to fulfill the goals set forth in the Declaration – was clear.
First and foremost, The Federalist Papers demonstrates the Founders’ desire to prevent all forms of despotism over the life of man. One of the ingenious solutions that the Framers borrowed from other Enlightenment writers in order to achieve this end was a political theory known as the “separation of powers.” As James Madison writes in The Federalist, No. 47:
“The accumulation of all powers legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
He continues in The Federalist, No. 48 to explain how the separated branches of government were designed such that they operated within a system of checks and balances:
“An elective despotism, was not the government we fought for; but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others. For this reason that Convention which passed the ordinance of government, laid its foundation on this basis, that the legislative, executive and judiciary departments should be separate and distinct, so that no person should exercise the powers of more than one of them at the same time.”
Most Americans are familiar with these theories, and as important as those theories are to the nature of our government, there are deeper, even more significant principles accompanying them. Those last two sentences from Madison are laden with immense philosophic weight, shedding light on the Framers’ opposition to democracy in favor of republicanism – that is, opposition to elective mob rule in favor of government based on a set of “free principles.” In fact, this theme pervades throughout The Federalist Papers and, indeed, throughout the Constitution. Despite the ironically-named Progressive Era’s attempts to fulfill the “Founders’ vision” for democratic rule (in cases where so-called “Progressives” bothered appealing to the Founders), democracy was decidedly not the goal of the authors of our government. As Madison warns in The Federalist, No. 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Madison elaborates on this point throughout The Federalist, No. 10. He argues that political measures “are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” He warns of the “mischiefs of faction” in which a certain portion of the population strives to abridge the rights of some other portion, declaring that “a pure democracy… can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction.” And lastly, he argues that a republic, or “a government in which the scheme of representation takes place… promises the cure for which we are seeking.” In particular, Madison argues that the federal republic proposed by the Constitution best prevents against democratic spirits of faction through a careful balance between independence and responsiveness on the part of the people’s representatives (a function of the number of representatives in the government in proportion to the number of constituents they represent) and through the sheer diversity of interests a republican empire such as the United States would encompass, thus limiting the risk of successful schemes to establish religion and religious law from any sect, for “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project” as they would not likely acquire the requisite majorities in a large, diverse, properly structured republic.
Even more remarkable is Madison’s statement in the same editorial that the “first object of government” is to protect the “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property” – or, more simply, man’s right to act on his own judgment in pursuit of his own self-interests. If only the intellectual culture of the twenty-first century were such that the protection of man’s right to pursue his self-interests, his wealth, his property were considered the “first object of government” – how many government regulations would be rolled back overnight, or else never have come to pass!
Additionally, the Framers’ desire for justice and equal protection before the law is abundantly clear. In The Federalist, No. 51, it is again James Madison who states that reasonable governments “protect all parties, the weaker as well as the stronger.” After all:
“Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”
Speaking again of equality before the law, Madison continues in The Federalist, No. 57:
“Who are to be the electors of the Foederal Representatives? Not the rich more than the poor; not the learned more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States.”
I would be remiss to only speak of Madison as if he were the only great mind behind The Federalist Papers. Indeed, he did not even write the majority of them (though what he did write, he wrote brilliantly). Alexander Hamilton speaks passionately of the same equality before the law as Madison in The Federalist, No. 36:
“There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation, and will command the tribute due to their merit, not only from the classes to which they particularly belong, but from the society in general. The door ought to be equally open to all;…”
Hamilton, a New Yorker himself, went so far in his writings as to make a limited, yet nonetheless remarkable, case for free markets – at least between the states. As he argues in The Federalist, No. 11:
“An unrestrained intercourse between the States themselves will advance the trade of each, by an interchange of their respective productions, not only for the supply of reciprocal wants at home, but for exportation to foreign markets.”
Even that damnable Commerce Clause, long corrupted through its own ambiguity to permit any number of perverse government projects, originally had its origins in the desire for free trade among the states. As the states under the Articles of Confederation were erecting trade barriers against one another, the Founders found it sensible to take that power away from the states – and it was, though unfortunately the manner in which they did so only led to abuses by the federal government. Regardless, just observe the desire for unrestricted commerce between the states exhibited by Hamilton in The Federalist, No. 22:
“The interfering and unneighbourly regulations of some States contrary to the true spirit of the Union, have in different instances given just cause of umbrage and complaint to others; and it is to be feared that examples of this nature, if not restrained by national controul, would be multiplied and extended till they became not less serious sources of animosity and discord, than injurious impediments to the intercourse between the different parts of the confederacy.”
Madison himself argued in The Federalist, No. 42 that the federal government’s power in the Commerce Clause over interstate commerce arose from the “necessity of a superintending authority over the reciprocal trade of the confederated States.” Taken in the context of Madison’s aforementioned belief that the government should protect man’s right to pursue and obtain property, and even the Commerce Clause seems far less inimical individual rights than it evolved to be over two centuries.
Though The Federalist Papers as a collection contain inestimable amounts of political wisdom on vital issues including the dangers of voluminous, incoherent laws (Madison, No. 62), the dangers of hasty legislative decisions (Hamilton, No. 70), the dangers of frequent changes to public laws and regulations (Madison, No. 62), the value of an independent judiciary (Hamilton, No. 78), war (Jay, No. 3), and constitutional supremacy, these excerpt alone are sufficient to paint a vivid picture of our Founders’ essential political principles.
Is there any surprise that they so closely mirror the principles outlined in that most famous sentence in all the English language? What we see in The Federalist Papers is the design of a Constitution striving to implement, however imperfectly, the values adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The actions of the Founders in pursuing those principles were imperfect and incomplete; the principles themselves are unimpeachable.
So this Independence Day, let us continue the pursuit of those principles. Let us pursue them more consistently than even did that “assembly of demigods” responsible for our government, but no less earnestly. Let us identify their errors, let us correct them – as well as the errors of their successors – and let us construct a government that “will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed,” that frees man from men, and that completes its mission for “liberty and justice for all.”