Men, not vast, impersonal forces — economic, technological, class struggle, what have you — make history, and they make it out of the ideals that they cherish in their hearts and the ideas they have in their minds. So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?
The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust.
William Livingston, a signer of the Constitution and longtime governor of New Jersey, had earlier, in the 1750s, run a journal that was key in turning the American mind toward revolution. In one issue he reminded his readers how “the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment,” drove them “to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.” His own Presbyterian grandfather was among those pious predecessors. John Jay, our first chief justice, wrote a gripping account of how his paternal grandfather, a French Protestant, returned home to La Rochelle from a trading voyage abroad to find his parents, siblings, and neighbors gone. Their houses were occupied by soldiers, their church destroyed, their savings confiscated. While he had been away, he learned, France had revoked its toleration of the Huguenots. He was lucky to be able to sneak aboard a ship and sail away to freedom in the New World. Jay’s maternal grandparents similarly had to flee anti-Protestant persecution, one from Paris and one from Bohemia. Jay’s son and biographer tells us this proudly; it was a living family legend.
Long before Emma Lazarus wrote about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, George Washington noted that for “the poor, the needy, & the oppressed of the Earth,” America was already what he called “the second Land of promise.” This Promised Land offered, said James Madison, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”
If you aren’t free to think your own thoughts and believe your own beliefs, fumed Madison, you aren’t free, period.
In fact, for Madison — who studied at Princeton under the radical Scottish-born Presbyterian John Witherspoon — it was red-hot outrage over a remnant of religious oppression in the New World that drove him, until then a sickly and directionless youth, into a political career. Virginia, where Anglicanism was still the official, established religion until the Revolution, had jailed a group of Baptist preachers for their unorthodox religious writings. If you aren’t free to think your own thoughts and believe your own beliefs, fumed Madison, you aren’t free, period, since freedom is seamless. And as a practical matter, there can be no progress without intellectual freedom. So when the 25-year-old revolutionary took part in drafting Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, he rejected its original provision for religious toleration. It’s not government’s business to “tolerate” somebody’s beliefs, he maintained. You are free to think whatever your reason convinces you is true, government or no government; and that’s what the Declaration of Rights ended up saying. Madison would never use Thomas Jefferson’s high-flown language, but he certainly agreed with his close friend’s sentiment that “I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” These men knew what it meant to individuals and to a whole culture to have to parrot an official orthodoxy, or else remain silent — and they knew what physical tyrannies such unfreedom of belief could unleash.
It is a deeply tragic paradox that the Founders also valued liberty so highly because they lived amidst slavery. Even the slave-owners among them knew how obscenely unjust the institution was. “The whole commerce between master and slave,” wrote Jefferson, “is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” I needn’t detail the crushing toil, the sadistic punishments, the sexual exploitation, the break-up of families, the enforced ignorance, and the regulation of every aspect of life comprehended in Jefferson’s decorous statement of the inhumanity of which human nature is capable.
In 1759, more than a century before the Civil War, Richard Henry Lee of Stratford Hall, later president of the Continental Congress (and incidentally a cousin of the Stratford-born Robert E. Lee), made his maiden speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses. His message to his fellow slave-owners: End slavery. How can anyone who calls himself a Christian, he demanded, think that “our fellow-creatures . . . are no longer to be considered as created in the image of God as well as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature?” On a more down-to-earth level, he pointed out that slaves who see their masters living in luxury and freedom, “whilst they and their posterity are subjected for ever to the most abject and mortifying slavery,” must become “natural enemies to society, and their increase consequently dangerous.”
Jefferson, who had written in the Declaration that all men are created equal, wrote in 1786, in words that prefigure Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, “When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not to be left to the guidance of a blind fatality.”
So when the young and pigheaded King George III began meddling in American affairs after decades of an official British policy of “salutary neglect” toward the New World colonies, the Founders had a ready explanation for his intentions. The king, Washington concluded in 1774, aimed “to make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway” — a sentiment whose full implications it took General Washington a lifetime to grasp: He finally freed his slaves on his deathbed. Even earlier, Richard Henry Lee’s brother Arthur, who became one of the Revolution’s foreign agents, declared, “I cannot Conceive of the Necessity of becoming a Slave, while there remains a Ditch in which one may die free.” For such men, liberty wasn’t just a word. They could feel it and taste it. Choosing your beliefs, your thoughts, your job, your officials, your laws, your taxes — being equal citizens before a law that was the same for all — they never took these freedoms for granted.
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The Founders believed that the purpose of government was to protect life, liberty, and property from what they called the depravity of human nature — from man’s innate capacity to do the kinds of violence that slave-owners, to take just one example, did every day. But government, they recognized, is a double-edged sword. You arm officials with the power to protect you; but those officials have the same fallen human nature as everyone else, so who is to say that they won’t use that power to oppress you, as European governments had oppressed the colonists’ forebears? From Pharaoh to Nero to the Stuart kings, history teems with examples of such despotic governments. Even the democratic republic the Founders created had to be run by imperfect men, and thus even it could turn into what Richard Henry Lee called an elective despotism. So the second great Founding idea is this: The mere fact that you elect representatives to govern you is no sure-fire guarantee of liberty. Or, as Madison saw it in Federalist No. 10: Taxation with representation can be tyranny.
This danger worried the Founders constantly, and they struggled to protect their new government from it. Their first experiment was to make that government too weak to oppress them. But it was also, they found, too weak to do its chief job of protecting them against violence. The Revolutionary War proved longer and harder than it need have been, since the central government lacked authority to tax in order to pay soldiers or buy arms. But when the Founders set out to write a new Constitution to give the federal government powers sufficient to its purpose, they did so with their hearts in their mouths. They strictly limited those powers to what they deemed absolutely essential, and they carefully spelled out what those powers were. They divided and subdivided power, and made each branch of government a check on the others, to guard against overreaching. They required frequent elections, gave the president a veto, and in turn made him and other officials subject to impeachment.
Madison, the Constitution’s chief designer, constructed his exquisitely balanced mechanism to work by the power of ambition countering ambition, and interest countering interest. A realist about human nature, like most of the Founders, he devised a government for ordinary men as they really were, not for prodigies of virtue. Even so, he conceded, there had to be at least a smidgen of virtue somewhere. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” he wrote, then only “the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring each other.”
A democratic republic requires a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty.
Washington was even more explicit about this, the third of the great Founding ideas: A democratic republic requires a special kind of culture, one that nurtures self-reliance and a love of liberty. Constitutions are all very well, the Founders often observed, but they are only “parchment barriers,” easily breached if demagogues subvert the “spirit and letter” of the document. They can do this dramatically, in one revolutionary putsch, or they can inflict a death by a thousand cuts, gradually persuading citizens that the Constitution doesn’t mean what it says but should be interpreted to mean something different, or even something opposite.
The ultimate safeguard against such usurpation is the vitality of America’s culture of liberty. In his first State of the Union speech, Washington stressed this point, emphasizing a view universal among the Founders. The “security of a free Constitution,” he said, depends on “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; . . . to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness,” and to unite “a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect for the laws.” If citizens start to take liberty for granted, if their culture — molded by journalists and writers, preachers and teachers — starts to hold other values in higher esteem, then the spirit that gives life to the Constitution will flicker out. Americans, Washington wrote on another occasion, should guard against “listlessness for the preservation of natural and unalienable rights,” for “no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.”
The Founders well understood, as John Adams reminisced in 1818, that it was a change in the “principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections” of Americans that had sparked the Revolution. They considered that new culture of freedom that had arisen among them in the decades before Lexington and Concord, along with the new Constitution they created, to be the most precious inheritance they bequeathed to future generations of their fellow citizens. That vision offers us an instructive standard by which to gauge the present.
— Myron Magnet, editor-at-large of City Journal and a winner of the National Humanities Medal, is the author of The Founders at Home: The Building of America, 1735–1817.