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The Theory of the American Founding, Part Two: Why Government by Consent?

Americans today take for granted the idea that government ought to rule only with the consent of the governed. Sometimes we forget how radical this idea was at the time of the American Founding, and still is today. Prior to the American Founding, a government of majority rule and minority rights -- that is, a government in which those who live under the laws have a share in making the laws they live under -- had never been attempted. The principle of government by consent is set forth with unrivaled clarity and eloquence in the Declaration of Independence, and is elaborated in many other documents from the American Founding. We turn to such documents not simply to study history, but because it is in our interest as citizens to understand the principles and conditions necessary for the preservation of free government.

Throughout human history, most governments have operated without the consent of the governed. Kings, Emperors, and Pharaohs have claimed special dispensation from God that supposedly authorized them to rule over other men without their consent. But in America, such traditions were rejected.

America is based on a radical, yet simple, idea: human equality. As the Declaration of Independence begins, "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." Human beings are unequal, or different, in many ways: some are tall, some short; some beautiful, some ugly; some smart, some ignorant; some virtuous, some vicious. But in their possession of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others, all human beings are equal.

From this fact of human equality, a fact rooted in nature -- or a self evident truth as it is described in the Declaration of Independence -- spring key moral and political implications. As the Declaration goes on to state, "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...." If all men are equal with respect to their natural rights, then no man can legitimately or justly rule over another without the other's consent. Tyrannical rule, or rule without consent, is "unnatural" in this sense -- it violates nature as a moral standard of how men ought to live and treat one another. Tyranny in all its forms, including human slavery, violates the principle of equality of natural rights shared by all men.

In the Preamble of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 the idea of government by consent is expressed in these terms: "The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good." Good government is government that is founded on a "social compact," where each citizen agrees with the whole, and the whole agrees with each citizen, to be governed by laws directed toward the common good of the people.

Thus, government by consent is first and foremost a moral principle. That is, just as no person who does not wish to be a slave should enslave another, so governments should not rule without the consent of the governed. The moral justification for individual freedom and the moral justification of government by consent stem from the same moral source: the principle of natural human equality. This is what George Washington meant in his First Inaugural Address when he said that, "the foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." The principles of private morality are immutable because they are derived from human nature, which never changes, and which provides the eternal standard of the rightness of government by consent.

Frequently a government or a particular ruler attempts to rule over people without their consent. The Declaration says that "...whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends (protecting rights and operating by consent), 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." This "Right of the People" is the right of revolution, which underlies all other rights. The right of revolution exists because it is a necessary safeguard against tyranny.

But no government is perfect because all governments are run by imperfect human beings. A people can invoke the right of revolution legitimately only when the government under which they live consistently violates their rights. As the Declaration says, revolutions should not be started for "light and transient causes." But when a government engages in a "long train of abuses and usurpations," and demonstrates "a design to reduce (the people) under absolute despotism," then it becomes both the right and the duty of the people to "throw off such government, and provide new guards for their future security."

The only legitimate government is a government that protects the rights of individuals and operates with the consent of the governed. When a government fails to get the consent of the governed, or when it violates the rights of the people, the people are justified in exercising their natural right of revolution and instituting a new government.

Discussion questions:
  1. What had never been attempted before the American Founding?
  2. Why is it important to learn about the idea of government by consent?
  3. How did most governments and rulers operate prior to America?
  4. What is the basis of the American idea of government by consent?
  5. Name three ways in which human beings are unequal, or different. Can you think of other ways people are different?
  6. In what way are all human beings equal?
  7. What does equality tell us with regard to how government should rule?
  8. What term is used in the Massachusetts Constitution to describe government by consent?
  9. What right can be invoked if a government fails to get the consent of the governed, or violates the rights of the people?
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