Introduction: First Principles of the American Founding
Essay Read by Constituting America, Founder Actress Janine Turner
What are principles? We speak of them often in politics, history, philosophy, and other fields of study. We praise those who have them, or at least those with which we agree, and criticize those who lack them altogether.
Simply put, principles articulate a standard. This standard carries a certain authority, providing a measure by which to judge thoughts, words, and deeds.
We need principles to answer questions regarding the thoughts, words, and actions of ourselves and our fellow human beings. We want to know whether they are true or false, just or unjust, advantageous or not. Principles help us to know better what is and what should be.
First principles, then, answer not just any questions. They are first in two ways. One, they come first chronologically. We must address them before we can move on to other subjects dependent upon them. Second, first principles deal with the most important matters. In politics, they address the fundamental concerns of and set the essential standards for a political community.
The American Founding was an exercise in articulating, debating, and implementing political first principles. The Continental Congresses did so in debating with England and declaring independence. The Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia did so in crafting the Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. And state ratifying assemblies all engaged in debate and decision regarding this document, resulting in its ratification.
We should know the underlying questions and resulting principles animating these discussions, documents, and decisions. First, the Founders discussed who should rule: one king, a few aristocrats, or the people. This question itself rested on another, namely whether or not all humans were inherently equal and thus the place of consent in legitimate rule. It consequently touched on the institution of slavery, race, the role of women in society, and more.
Second, the Founders addressed the right ends or goals for rule. Do governments exist for the good of the ruler or of the governed? Should laws merely protect from harm or inculcate virtue? Where do rights ultimately come from, social convention, human statute, or natural law? These matters also required addressing linked issues such as the purposes of human life, the limits of education, and the relationship between religion and politics. It demanded a reckoning on the good and bad of human nature.
Third and finally, the Founders considered how to structure and run government. This point depended heavily on the answers to the first two sets of questions. Who ruled and for what purposes dictated much regarding the institutions and processes a just government involved. But those sets depended for their efficacy on this one. Government must be good at its job and limited only to that job. How the Constitution structured lawmaking and law enforcement mattered immensely to how well America’s governments would realize their intended goals and reflect the country’s ultimate rulers. Should we divide political power among state and national governments, thereby establishing a system of federalism? On what principles would that division be made and maintained? What about within particular governments? Should we have a separation of powers among independent institutions and, if so, based on what functions of political action? Moreover, what should the lawmaking process involve? How should we select judges? These and more the Founders debated and decided on the intellectual and practical road that led to our Constitution’s creation, ratification, and implementation.
In returning to this history and these principles, we must remember none of it started in 1787 or even 1776. The Founders partook of a discussion and a history stretching back throughout recorded human history, from Ancient Greece and Rome to Medieval Christendom and post- Reformation England. They knew this history and reacted to it in their own thoughts as well as deeds. In addition, they did not all perfectly agree with each other, whether about that history or about what should be done in their own time. Their debates helped refine the resulting principles, institutions, and practices that make up our history and continue to add definition to our own time.
Over the course of this series, we will explore the roots, debates, and reasoning of America’s first principles. Thus, we will enter the great discussion in which they made such a lasting and magnificent contribution. We will see something essential about our past and our present. In the process, we will learn better how to take these principles and apply them for our future. Please join us on that journey better to know our Constitution, our country, and ourselves.
Adam M. Carrington is an Associate Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College. There, he teaches on matters of Constitutional law, American political institutions, and separation of powers. His writing has appeared in such popular forums as The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, National Review, and Washington Examiner. His book on the jurisprudence of Justice Stephen Field was published in 2017 by Lexington. Carrington received his B.A. from Ashland University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Baylor University. He lives in Hillsdale with his wife and their two daughters.
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“The Founders partook of a discussion and a history stretching back throughout recorded human history, from Ancient Greece and Rome to Medieval Christendom and post- Reformation England. They knew this history and reacted to it in their own thoughts as well as deeds.”
Love this line — why I tell each of my classes the importance of studying history.
They had a long line of historical references in the successes and failures of governing to help guide their own efforts! I think you call that “wisdom.”
Enjoyed the article and excited to read over these throughout the next 90 days.
I’m very excited to begin this series and hope to be an active participant, our nation was founded and grounded on Judeo Christian principles, with these principles serving as the bedrock of the founding documents, as well as time honored customs and traditions. I can’t wait to get started.