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The Theory of the American Founding, Part One: Why Government?

In the summer of 1787, 55 delegates from the various states (except Rhode Island) met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. These delegates included some of the brightest and most talented men of the day, such as Ben Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and, of course, George Washington, who was chosen by his fellow delegates to preside over the meetings. Confronted with the abject failure of the Articles of Confederation, the primary concern for these delegates was to design a new Constitution, which in turn would give rise to a new form of government in America. But, at first sight, there seems to be something of a contradiction between the attempt to form any kind of government and the ideas of the Revolution as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: For, if all men are born equally free, then why should not each man exercise his freedom however he chooses? Why should there be any government at all -- with laws and punishments for breaking the law -- that restricts man’s natural freedom? If man is free by nature, should not he be allowed to make his own rules, instead of following the rules of others? In short, if the principles of the Declaration are true, why does man need government?

The first place to begin is to examine what the Founders meant, and did not mean, by the terms “liberty” and “freedom.”

America was the first nation in human history founded upon an idea, the idea of political freedom. This idea is rooted in the fact that by nature, every human being possesses equal rights, and, by nature, every human being is born equally free. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 – which expressed a view commonly held during the American Founding period – begins with a “declaration of rights,” which states, “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”

By nature, then, there is no social hierarchy among humans—no principle of who rules and who gets ruled—as there is among the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the simple meaning of the proposition that “all men are created equal.” But for the Founders, freedom did not mean the freedom to do whatever one pleases. Humans are free because, unlike the lower animals that possess only instinct or passion, humans possess reason as well. Our freedom stems from the fact that we can use our reason and think freely, and by doing so we demonstrate that we are not enslaved to our passions. Man acts freely when he acts according to his reason and does what is right. But when man acts licentiously – when he does things he knows to be wrong, such as violating the rights of others, or acting irresponsibly and not taking care of one’s self and one’s family – he is no longer acting freely, he is rather acting as a slave to his passions and instincts. As Samuel West, a Revolutionary-era preacher, explained, “where licentiousness begins, liberty ends.” Or as Jefferson once wrote, man is free “from all but the moral law.”

Freedom or liberty, then, was never understood by the Founders to mean licentiousness, or immorality. Freedom was always understood in the light of the moral obligations imposed by the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” referred to in the Declaration. But the fact that some men believe freedom means they can do whatever they choose, even if they choose to follow their greedy and selfish passions and violate the rights of others, indicates the needs for government.

The Founders explained this problem by reference to the idea of the “state of nature,” which was central to the political teaching of the American Founding. The state of nature is how men live prior to the formation of government: the state of nature is men living among other men without government and without the protection of laws. The problem with the state of nature is that while every man possesses the same rights and liberties by nature, those rights are insecure without government. The stronger always tend to violate the rights of the weaker. In the state of nature there is nothing to prevent the stronger from taking the property of the weaker, or enslaving the weaker. But even the stronger are not always protected, as sometimes the weaker might band together and destroy the stronger. So it is in the interest of all citizens to leave the state of nature, and form a government that will protect the rights of each.

In Federalist 51, James Madison explained the relationship between the state of nature and government by raising the following question: “But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” If men were angels – that is, if men were wholly good and wholly reasonable – there would be no need for government, because every man would behave morally and would respect the rights of others without government or law. But men are not angels. In addition to his reason, man possesses selfish passions, and sometimes men will follow their passions and hurt other men. Thus there is a need for some way to restrain those selfish passions. The answer is government. The need for government stems from human nature itself, by the fact that humans by nature are not wholly good, but capable of both good and evil. The purpose of government is to encourage the good tendencies of human nature, and discourage or regulate the bad. As Madison wrote in Federalist 49, “the reason of the public alone ought to control and regulate the government,” but in turn the government ought to control and regulate “the passions” of the people.

Thus we see the need for and purpose of government: to protect the rights which all men possess by nature, and to encourage men to act rationally and good.

Discussion questions:

What was the primary concern for the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787?
What is the apparent contradiction between the idea of natural freedom and the idea of government?
According to the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, men are born ________ and ________. What are some of the unalienable rights they are born with?
From the point of view of the Founders, does freedom mean doing whatever one pleases?
What is the “state of nature?” What is the problem with the state of nature?
Why is government necessary for human beings?

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