Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett
Thomas Paine, a painting by Laurent Dabos, c. 1792.

Thomas Paine, in The American Crisis, December 19, 1776, Pamphlet 1, in his speech on “These are the times that try men’s souls” – not quitting in their fight for independence, writing how tyranny is not easily conquered, “Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever.”

The same principles that breathed life into Thomas Paine’s resistance to tyranny and justified the American Revolution also formed the basis of the American sense of justice in foreign policy after 1776. The American founders believed that the guides derived from the principles of the Declaration of Independence would better enable them to formulate policies that would satisfy the demands of interest and justice – that is, that would do justice to our own citizens by securing their rights, but would also do justice to foreign people by respecting their independence. In essays #17 and #18 we saw that, according to the principles of the American Founding, the American people have a right to domestic sovereignty and political independence; and because government has a moral obligation to secure the rights of its citizens, the government of the United States has a duty to preserve the nation’s political independence. These same principles provided further guides that would help American statesmen do a better job of securing justice for our nation and doing justice to others as well.

American statesmen believed, first of all, that when possible, peaceful means to resolve conflicts with other nations should be preferred. The founders practiced the doctrine of “peaceful appeals when possible” in the American Revolution itself, by making every possible appeal to the King for a peaceful resolution to the conflict before resigning themselves to an appeal to heaven. The manner in which Americans came to declare the British to be not only a foreign people but enemies was a long process involving many attempts to reconcile differences peacefully. After the “long train of abuses” detailed in the list of grievances against the British, for example, the Declaration of Independence emphasized that “in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” In 1775 the Continental Congress had issued the “Olive Branch Petition” to King George III in 1775 in a last effort to persuade him to come to his senses, stop further bloodshed, and prevent the escalation of hostilities.[1] The appeal to the King was unanswered, and so the Americans were forced to make the “Appeal to Heaven” through a resort to arms and, eventually, by declaring independence.

Second, Founding-era statesmen believed that the United States should respect the equal right of other nations to political independence as much as possible. The right to political independence, derived from the fundamental “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” is a universal right, not an exclusive right of the people of the United States. This right to political independence, therefore, also means that the United States should respect the political independence and domestic sovereignty of all other nations as much as our own security will permit. Just as we expect other nations to respect the independence and domestic sovereignty of the United States as much as their sense of security will allow, we are also obligated to respect the independence of all peoples and their right to consent to their own choice of government, laws, and policies as much as our own sense of security will allow. We see this axiom expressed very clearly in James Kent’s Commentaries on American Law in 1826:

Nations are equal in respect to each other. . . . [T]his perfect equality, and entire independence of all distinct states, is a fundamental principle of public law. It is a necessary consequence of this equality, that each nation has a right to govern itself as it may think proper, and no one nation is entitled to dictate a form of government, or religion, or a course of internal policy, to another.[2]

The American founders believed that by following these two fundamental principles – preferring peaceful measures and respecting the independence and sovereignty of other nations, as much as possible – the United States would avoid giving just cause for war to other nations. This end would also be promoted by performing our engagements, fulfilling treaty obligations, paying debts, and showing little or no favoritism toward particular nations.

We can see these basic principles of American foreign policy thought displayed in many symbolic images. For example, the Gadsden flags popular during the American Revolution portrayed a rattlesnake with the words “Don’t tread on me” on them. This signified America’s willingness, like the rattlesnake, to leave others alone when not threatened; but it also showed the willingness of the United States to strike powerfully and quickly when “meddled with.” This also reflects the claim in the Declaration of Independence that “we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


[1] Continental Congress, “The Last Address of the People of America to the King,” 5-8 July 1775.

[2] James Kent, Commentaries on American Law, 1826.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Robert Brescia
George Washington, presided over the first Continental Congress; Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War; first President of the United States; painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1796.

“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” —George Washington

“It is a principle incorporated into the settled policy of America, that as peace is better than war, war is better than tribute.” —James Madison

“We know only too well that war comes not when the forces of freedom are strong, but when they are weak. It is then that tyrants are tempted.” —Ronald Reagan


Peace through strength (PTS) – this is a recurring theme throughout the history of our great nation. It’s as old as ancient civilizations such as China’s Sun Tzu (author of The Art of War), and as new as today. I’ve heard people assert that the United States should only increase its military capabilities if it is attacked somewhere in the world. Others say that we shouldn’t augment our defensive or offensive strengths unless we are attacked on our homeland. That’s a relatively shortsighted strategy – the world is way too small for that to be effective. While some believe that you should only focus on military strength upon being attacked, either on the world stage or on our own turf, it is too late at that time to assemble and employ a suitable riposte.

Enter the strategy of peace through strength. It has been supported by several of our Founding Fathers and our U.S. Presidents from 1789 to today. The basic premise of PTS is that if the United States builds a military capability so great, with an extraordinary over-match ratio to potential attackers, that no nation on earth would dare to attack us because they know it would bring their swift and complete destruction.

By virtue of our PTS strategy, peace in our homeland would be achieved and maintained. If one accepts such a premise, then the next logical question might be, “to what extent do we need to arm ourselves to be that deterrent that we seek?” That would entail a constant comparative exercise, accomplished by thinktanks and large consultancies who monitor the military capacities of world nations.

A second, related question could be, “does this strategy only include conventional armaments or would it also include nuclear?” A third question might also be, “have we any empirical evidence that a PTS strategy was or is successful?” I might add a fourth question, but it has no matter-of-fact answer and that would be, “would super-arming our nation constitute a temptation for present or future political leaders to use that power for much the same reason that President Clinton claimed during his impeachment – “because I could.”

Historical Tie-in of Peace Through Strength

PTS is sometimes confused or interleaved with RealPolitik. RealPolitik is the result of a collision between Enlightenment ideas that our Founders espoused and the fast development of nation-states in the second half of the 19th century. On the one hand, we had political leaders who espoused ideologies and liberal type policies while, on the other hand, countries began the empirical quests for more power and domination, seeking colonies to aggrandize their positions on the word stage.

RealPolitik is a result of that strategic conflict and it is occasionally very tempting to associate PTS within it. The next evolution of these ideas extended RealPolitik and PTS into political realism. This happened when world nations began practicing international relations to try and justify their actions. We saw two generally oppositional ideas emerge: 1) policy actions and international relations are primarily concerned with the extension and growth of power and, 2) policy actions and international relations are the manifestation of a desire for national survival.

Summary and Conclusion

While not a subtle hint or a visible charge by our Founding Fathers for us today, PTS captures the American spirit of wanting to be protected against the bad will and actions of other nations. However, the reality of politics and national priorities in our times is such that we may not have the luxury of arming ourselves to the teeth, not to mention continuously updating our military arsenals with the latest technologies. We have nondiscretionary social entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security that must be paid up front. We also have a massive national debt that our politicians can’t seem to get a hold of. American politicians seem to have difficulty fending off involvement in foreign struggles. Consider President Bush’s war waged in Iraq because of his desire to reestablish U.S. world leadership after September 11, 2001. One close adviser revealed that the thinking behind the war was to show: “We are able and willing to strike at someone. That sends a very powerful message.” Consider President Obama’s co-invasion as well with NATO of Libya in 2011 – the stated rationale was to support Libyan rebels but then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “Publicly, ‘the fiction was maintained’ that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Qaddafi’s command and control. Given that decapitation strikes against Qaddafi were employed early and often, there almost certainly was a decision by the civilian heads of government of the NATO coalition to “take him out” from the very beginning of the intervention.”

My own conclusion is that the Founding Fathers had a period-appropriate notion of PTS, contextually supportive of the big ideas behind it, and resplendent with hope and faith for future peace. There are other strengths, however, that the United States possesses and nurtures which are undeniably elements of national prowess. These include our homeland values of courage, benevolence, individualism, economic opportunity, and generosity. These and other American values continue to attract many to our shores. Along with military superiority, they make us strong and resilient. That’s a certain broadening of the word strength in the term peace through strength.

Bob Brescia, Ed.D. of Odessa is a Teacher of Record for Ector County Independent School District, and an adjunct professor for Wilmington University. He previously served as the Executive Director for The John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute and served as the Head of School for Saint Joseph Academy in Brownsville. He is a board member at Constituting America in Dallas, a member of the Odessa Information & Discussion Group, and an Advisory Board member for Odessa’s Southwest Heritage Credit Union. He is the former chairman of Basin PBS television and the American Red Cross of the Permian Basin and former president of Rotary International – Greater Odessa. He is also a monthly columnist for the American Society for Public Administration in Washington, DC. Brescia has twenty-seven years of military service as a highly decorated Airborne Ranger Cavalry soldier, NCO, and commissioned officer in the United States Army. He received a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude) in Civil Government from Norwich University, a Master of Science in Computer Information Systems and a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University – European Division, and a Doctor of Education in Executive Leadership with distinction from The George Washington University.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett
Declaration of Independence Signer James Wilson, a Framer of the U.S. Constitution, Supreme Court Justice appointed by George Washington, and author of Lectures on Law.

The previous essay, #17, showed that, according to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the people of the United States of America have a right, from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to establish their independence and thereby their national sovereignty. Those same principles, however, that establish the right of a people to independence and sovereignty, also impose a duty upon government to protect and maintain that independence and sovereignty once established. This essay will focus further on the principle of America’s national sovereignty upon preventing loss of independence to foreign or global governments acting as with binding authority in attempts to undermine the United States.

The duty of government to maintain national sovereignty and political independence arises from two arguments of the Declaration of Independence regarding the very nature and purpose of government. First, the Declaration of Independence asserts that it is the equal right of every people, sharing the same political principles, to form through consent a government laid on such foundations “as to them shall seem most likely to affect their safety and happiness.” The Declaration of Independence also asserts that “governments are established among men” for the purpose of protecting the natural rights of its citizens. These principles therefore impose a duty upon our government, because independence is necessary in order for us as a people to determine what must be done for national security, which is, in turn, necessary in order for our citizens to peacefully enjoy their natural rights in the pursuit of happiness. A nation must maintain its independence, therefore, free from the political control of any other nation, in order to remain master of its own fortunes. Only when it has such liberty can a nation freely and prudently determine for itself what is necessary for the preservation, security, and happiness of its own people.

The importance of maintaining political independence can also be seen in the writings of American Founder James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the United States Constitution, and one of the original Supreme Court Justices appointed by President Washington. In his important work Lectures on Law, Wilson clearly echoed the Declaration of Independence on the right and duty of maintaining independence:

The law of nations, properly so called, is the law of states and sovereigns, obligatory upon them in the same manner, and for the same reasons, as the law of nature is obligatory upon individuals . . . The same principles, which evince the right of a nation to do everything, which it lawfully may, for the preservation of itself and of its members, evince its right, also, to avoid and prevent, as much as it lawfully may, everything which would load it with injuries, or threaten it with danger.[1]

The right and duty of the United States to defend its national sovereignty was also articulated by American courts well into the nineteenth century. In Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon (1812), for example, Chief Justice Marshall wrote that “[t]he world [is] composed of distinct sovereignties, possessing equal rights and equal independence.” In light of those equal rights, Marshall continued:

The jurisdiction of the nation within its own territory is necessarily exclusive and absolute. It is susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself. Any restriction upon it, deriving validity from an external source, would imply a diminution of its sovereignty to the extent of the restriction, and an investment of that sovereignty to the same extent in that power which could impose such restriction. All exceptions, therefore, to the full and complete power of a nation within its own territories, must be traced up to the consent of the nation itself. They can flow from no other legitimate source. [2]

In its larger sense, political independence especially means the liberty that a people or nation has by right to decide when to engage in war or continue in peace. George Washington understood well that to have full freedom regarding such decisions, the United States should have as little political connection with other nations as possible, by which they might have an undue influence in determining what actions we might – or must – take. This especially meant that we should avoid as much as possible engaging in permanent political or military alliances with other nations – a lesson the United States learned through the controversy over the French Treaties during the French Revolution in the 1790s. During this time, Americans were passionately divided over whether the treaties with the French (agreed to by Congress during the American Revolution) obliged the United States to assist France in its wars against other European nations during the French Revolution. The issue nearly embroiled the United States in the French Revolution against its will and contrary to the desire of Congress.

Reflecting on this challenge to American political independence in his Farewell Address, Washington wrote, “The Nation which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” The peace and sometimes the liberty of nations, Washington wrote, had frequently been the victims of such foreign attachments. This is especially so when “the policy and will of one country, are subjected to the policy and will of another” through permanent alliances. Washington understood, therefore, that having “command of one’s own fortunes” could hardly apply to a slave any more than to a people who “interweave [their] destiny with that of any part of Europe, [or] entangle [their] peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour or Caprice.” Only when a people remains politically independent can it be free to select the means most conducive to its own safety and happiness; or, as Washington wrote, free to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”[3]

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.

[1] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, in Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, Volume I (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), 529 and 536.

[2] Schooner Exchange v. McFaddon (7 Cranch 116 1812), The Founders’ Constitution, (accessed January 5, 2010)(emphasis added).

[3] Washington, Farewell Address, 1796.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.


Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett
2nd Continental Congress Vote on Declaration of Independence by Robert Edge Pine


Essay Read By Constituting America Founder Actress Janine Turner


“That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate: Let those flatter who fear; it is not an American art. To give praise which is not due might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature. They know, and will therefore say, that kings are the servants, not the proprietors of the people.” – Thomas Jefferson in his pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” July 1774, Williamsburg, Virginia.

This essay by Thomas Jefferson, written two years before Congress would declare American independence, contains many of the same arguments that would eventually justify the separation of Great Britain in 1776. Here Jefferson speaks of the natural rights of “a free people,” and calls the King a “servant” rather than the “proprietor” (or owner) of the people. As essay #9 of this study showed, Americans had been developing the idea that those who govern must do so for the good of the people, rather than use their subjects for their own good, and Jefferson’s argument in “A Summary View” echoes that sentiment.

It is also important to note that the quote from Thomas Jefferson’s “Summary View of the Rights of British America” reveals that the American Revolution involved more than the legal separation of the United States from Great Britain. It was at its core an ideological movement that was motivated by a political philosophy shared in common not only by the prominent movers of events but by Americans in general. This philosophy, commonly referred to as social compact theory, led to and supported the principles contained in the Declaration of Independence, which in turn expressed the principles upon which American national sovereignty and independence are justified.

The Declaration of Independence begins and ends with statements regarding the right of a people to establish and maintain their national sovereignty. The Declaration asserts that “one people” are entitled to assume a “separate” station from all others, and they derive this right – a right that is shared equally by all peoples – from “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” It begins with the claim that the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” entitle “one people,” when necessary, to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” and “to assume among the powers of the earth” a “separate and equal station.” It ends with the claim that as “free and independent” states, the United States have dissolved “all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain,” and therefore “have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which Independent States may of right do.”

The opening and closing paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, therefore, have this principle in common – for a people or nation to be “free and independent,” it must totally dissolve “all political connection between them” and other nations. The immediate purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to formalize our separation from Great Britain; but it also expressed a fundamental principle – to be truly free and independent (i.e., sovereign over its own affairs) the United States ought to have no political connection with any other nation.

Like individual liberty, national independence is necessary to allow one people, through their government, to decide for themselves how best to secure and exercise their individual liberty. The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence therefore transposed the principle of individual liberty to apply to whole peoples and nations. Nations are described as having the right, by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to an equal station as “free and independent” states. And individuals are described as having the equal unalienable or natural right to liberty. The Declaration of Independence teaches us, therefore, that there is an inseparable connection between individual liberty and political independence – or what one might call “national liberty” – and it establishes this fundamental relationship in its very first paragraph.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Tom Hand
During the War of 1812, the American Flag over Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write what eventually became America’s National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner. The flag hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


Citizenship goes well beyond being a citizen. According to the Fourteenth Amendment, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” But it does not require citizens to do anything to maintain it. It confers a right but does not demand a responsibility.

Practicing good citizenship, doing things such as voting, serving your country, following the law of the land, and getting involved in your local community is that unstated, corresponding responsibility. It is that one overarching shared responsibility that gives people common ground and brings them and binds them together and makes cities and towns, rich and poor, men and women, and all races one nation.

So how does a nation inspire its citizens to voluntarily practice good citizenship? How does a nation get its people to do something that takes effort but is not required? What does it take to move citizens beyond “self” and towards the “whole,” beyond “me” and towards “us?”

It is really quite simple; it is love of country. It is human nature for one to treat better and care for more thoughtfully that which they love. It is no different with citizenship. For citizens of the United States, those that love the country best will serve it best. It was certainly the case during our founding era.

Amor patriae is Latin for love of country. It is a noble concept, but what does it mean and how is it manifested? Is it done by flying a flag from your front porch on Independence Day or singing a heartfelt Star Spangled Banner at a ballgame or cheering as America wins yet another gold medal at the Olympics? It is all that but so much more.

Men more eloquent than I have discussed it through the ages. Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, stated “Men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.” Seneca is correct. In many facets of life, we justly love that which is ours, including and even especially, our country. This love of country is not determined by an individual’s wealth but runs deeper than that and transcends material property and wages.

Love of country requires an unselfishness that drives men to reach for a higher place and to love something greater than oneself as Katharine Lee Bates described in America the Beautiful.

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved,

And mercy more than life!

Love of country amongst a people leads to a unity of purpose that is critical to a nation’s success. As George Washington noted in his Farewell Address, “The Unity of Government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main Pillar in the Edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.” Washington continues that we must be ever on our guard and “watching its preservation with jealous anxiety…and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest.”

Love of country is inspirational and creates pride deep within the soul for one’s homeland and those without this feeling are to be pitied. As Walter Scott lamented for such a man in The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,

Who never to himself has said,

This is my own, my native land!

Love of country is a beautiful thing, but it can be a terrible beauty for it compels us forward down a path we may otherwise lack the courage to take as described in the sad Irish ballad The Patriot Game.

For the love of one’s country is a terrible thing.

It banishes fear with the speed of a flame,

And makes us all part of the Patriot Game.

Love of country can fade from the forefront of our minds and the United States, and its countless blessings, can be taken for granted. But sad is the man who would lose his country as Edward Everrett revealed in his short story The Man Without a Country. This poignant tale tells of Philip Nolan, a young American officer turned traitor who wishes to be rid of his country and is granted his wish.

Near the end of his life, Nolan, who has yearned for his wish to be reversed, scolds a young sailor for expressing disgust with the United States: “Remember boy, that behind all these men…behind officer and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country and that you belong to her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by her boy as you would stand by your mother.”

Love of country was the single greatest influence upon our Founding Fathers as they formed our nation and our Constitution. But their love of country was not something they sought, it developed freely within each Patriot and love of country inspired each in his own way.

Love of country propelled George Rogers Clark down the Ohio to Kaskaskia and then across the frozen wilderness to capture Fort Sackville and Vincennes in 1779, securing the Ohio Valley for America.

Love of country led Daniel Morgan to gather a company of stalwart Virginia riflemen and lead them to Boston soon after the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord and continue on to his memorable victory at Cowpens.

Love of country caused Nathanael Greene to leave his successful merchant business and Caty and the children and take up arms for a righteous cause and drive Cornwallis from Georgia and the Carolinas.

Love of country influenced John Adams, the Puritan Patriot from Boston, to forego his prosperous law practice and travel to Philadelphia and the First Continental Congress in 1774 to start the march towards nationhood, stating “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I am with my country…You may depend upon it.”

And it was love of country that inspired George Washington, one of the wealthiest men in the colonies and arguably the man with the most to lose, to risk it all to lead a fledgling army in a war that seemed unwinnable. Later, when the nation he had helped bring forth was struggling under the Articles of Confederation, Washington again came to her aid to lead the Constitutional Convention and guide us as we learned how to govern in a Constitutional republic. The Indispensable Man did all this for love of country.

So why should love of country matter to us today? We must recognize that it birthed our country, it grew our country, and, without it, we could lose our country.

Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner
Two Treatises of Government by John Locke, first edition published in 1689, title page dated 1690.

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?” – Patrick Henry, in a speech delivered at St. Johns Church, Richmond, Virginia, March 23, 1775

When and how should citizens confront abuses of power by their government?

This is a fundamental question that has shaped political discourse for centuries.

Patrick Henry, and the other colonial leaders who galvanized opposition to the predations of George III, drew upon English legal precedents and Enlightenment philosophy. They built their rebellion against tyrannical overreach on foundations laid by their English ancestors.

There has always been conflict between those who desire unbridled power and those they govern. Often this conflict was settled through force of arms. On June 15, 1215, it was settled by force of law.

Rebelling English nobles forced King John to sign a “Great Charter of Freedoms,” now known as the Magna Carta. The Charter became the basis for English Common Law and the laws of most English-speaking nations, particularly the United States.

While the Magna Carta focused on individual rights and the legal system (such as trial by jury), Clause 61 empowered citizens to rein in overreaching government. It created a Council of 25 barons to monitor and enforce King John’s compliance with the Magna Carta. This included controlling feudal payments to the Crown, and by implication how the Crown spent “public” funds and governed. Clause 61 included real sanctions: If John did not comply with the provisions of the Magna Carta, “the 25 barons were empowered to seize the King’s castles and lands until, in their judgement, amends had been made.

King John colluded with the Pope to undermine the Magna Carta, but his successors reissued it and it became a formal part of English law.

During the 13th through 15th centuries, Magna Carta was reconfirmed at least 32 times. The first item of parliamentary business was a public reading and reaffirmation of the Magna Carta.

The Stuart line of kings challenged the four-hundred-year Magna Carta balance of power to their peril. King Charles I asserted he would not be reined in by Parliament. This led to civil war and his beheading in 1649. During the post-Civil War Restoration, Charles II adopted a more passive approach to governing. However, James II ignored his elder brother’s compliance with Parliamentary restrictions which led to his being overthrown during the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

Parliamentary ascendancy, and ultimate permanent dominance under a “Constitutional Monarchy,” was buttressed by philosophical publications. These writings gave broader context to how power must be reined in and how it should be done under law.

In 1680, Henry Care published English Liberties. It established individual rights as bestowed at birth, not by government. Care formally asserts,

“each man having a fixed Fundamental Right born with him as to the Freedom of his Person and Property in his Estate, which he cannot be deprived of, but either by his consent, or some Crime for which the Law has Imposed such a Penalty as Forfeiture.”

He describes the balance of a reined-in government, “qualified Monarchy, where the King is vested with prerogatives sufficient to support Majesty; and restrained from power of doing himself and his people harm.”

Care supported his philosophical doctrine with a compendium of foundational political documents. He made the Magna Carta central to history and to the contemporary legitimacy of individual freedom and control of government overreach. English Liberties became very popular in British reform (Whig) circles and widely read among leaders in the American colonies.

Even more popular among colonial thinkers and activists was John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government published in 1689.

Locke’s Second Treatise describes the importance of a civilized society based on natural, God given, rights. It supports the social contract theory of the governed consenting to limited government in exchange for a secure and stable environment in which individual activity and commerce can thrive. It became the primary conceptual work defining traditional 18th and 19th Century Liberalism.

Locke’s Second Treatise was frequently cited in Colonial debates about George III’s taxes and other punitive measures that comprised the King’s overreach and over reaction to colonial freedom.

Locke describes the balance of power between an executive (or monarchy) which is a “Power always in being that must perpetually execute the law” and the legislature which is the “supreme power of the Common wealth…governments are charged by the consent of the individual, i.e. the consent of the majority, giving it either by themselves, or their representatives chosen by them.”

Locke promotes the proposition that a full economic system could exist within the “state of nature.” Property predates the existence of government. Society should be dedicated to the protection of property. He expanded on Care’s “social contract” theory and explains how the “consent of the governed” may be withdrawn when power is abused, thus serving to rein-in government overreach.

The philosophy of Two Treatises is echoed throughout the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Bacon, Locke, and Newton – I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences.”

The foundations of the Magna Carta, English Common Law, and the writings of Care and Locke birthed our nation. They guide and inspire citizen oversight and empowerment to this day.

Scot Faulkner is Vice President of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics at Shepherd University. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier, he served on the White House staff. Faulkner provides political commentary for ABC News Australia, Newsmax, and CitizenOversight. He earned a Master’s in Public Administration from American University, and a BA in Government & History from Lawrence University, with studies in comparative government at the London School of Economics and Georgetown University.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom… to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – United States Constitution, Amendment 1

A key element in America’s quest for independence was the ire that certain colonists felt at being taxed without representation (an overly simplified view of decades of frustration at a variety of policies imposed by the British Crown on Colonial America without the consent of the citizens of the colonies). Part and parcel of this was the difficulty the citizens had in presenting those grievances to the crown (or parliament), and the perception that those who did voice concerns or opposition were singled out for punishment by the government.

So as the Constitution was being drafted, and further constraints were being placed on the power of government via the Bill of Rights, the founders included language in the First Amendment ensuring that citizens would retain a right to so petition the government when they were aggrieved—with a corresponding assurance found in the Fifth Amendment, that when such substantive petitioning is made, “due process” is accorded to the petitioner i.e., that a fair and just process is made available to the person or persons petitioning.

When most people consider this, they think about the right of individuals to advocate or otherwise speak their minds before legislators, i.e., to offer their opinions on legislation. But in an era in which policy is increasingly being delegated to the Executive Branch, it is important to examine how this right, or civic duty, is protected within the context of the “administrative” state.

When Congress passes a law, it is then up to the Executive Branch to interpret and enforce that law, to “administer” it, in other words, and thus the “administrative” state. The more vague that law might be (and sometimes not so vague), the greater leeway an agency has to interpret that law.

For example, Congress passes the Clean Water Act in 1972. In that law, they make it illegal to pollute a navigable water of the United States.  Because Congress failed to define words or phrases like “pollute” or “navigable” or “water of the United States,” they left it up to the Executive Branch to define them.

The right to petition then plays a singular role in this. The agency presents its proposal for how to define terms or, more broadly, how they plan on interpreting and enforcing any piece of legislation, and it then opens a process whereby the public can comment on their proposals.

This process is government by a law known as the “Administrative Procedure Act” (APA). The APA was passed by Congress in 1946 in order to standardize the petitioning/commenting process across the federal executive branch. Prior to that point, each agency had the discretion to create its own process, something that could make overly complicated the ability of citizens to exercise their right to petition for redress.

Now, with few exceptions, the process by which someone can “comment” on a “rulemaking” is the same regardless of whether someone is filing that comment with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) or the Department of the Interior. A “rulemaking” is the standard term whereby an agency goes through the process or creating or amending the regulations that have been created out of congressional legislation. A “comment” is just that, the opinion filed by a person or group regarding that regulatory proposal.

At its most basic level, the process works this way: either Congress passes a new law, or amends a law, or the agency wants to make changes to existing policies, and they announce this in a daily publication called The Federal Register. They offer their proposal in something called a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” or, less frequently, an even earlier step called an “Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” and tells the public how they can comment on those proposals.

Anyone can file a comment—and it has never been easier to do so.  Most agencies utilize an online portal called Regulations.Gov to both announce proposals and solicit for comments, and comments can be submitted online with a matter of clicks.

It is a system that the founding fathers would have enthusiastically applauded. Though many would have been horrified at the concentration of power in the Executive Branch, the idea that any citizen could, with the touch of a button, voice their substantive concern about a policy proposal would have heartened them at the same time. They just would have been concerned that not more people were aware of this.

As part of the APA, agencies are required to answer such “petitions” (when they are substantive) in the publication of their “final rule” i.e., the finalized regulatory policy—either demonstrating where they have made changes to the proposal in accordance with those substantive comments, or explaining why they didn’t make such changes. Failure to do so opens the regulation to court challenges, on the grounds that the new rule is “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”

Even better, the APA doesn’t require that the citizenry wait until the agency makes a regulatory proposal in order to have changes to a rule made. Another aspect of the manifestation of the right to petition for the redress of grievances within the APA is the right to petition a regulatory agency to open up a rulemaking—again, with the agency being required to respond if they decide to not go through a new rulemaking process.

While the APA’s rulemaking process applies to nearly all agencies, agencies within the national security and defense spheres are generally recognized to be exempt, though some will engage in this “notice and comment” process when they have policy changes that they know will be controversial or otherwise of tremendous interest to the public.  Likewise, transactional decisionmaking and contracting are not open to this APA’s process (though citizens always have the right to comment on such issues with those agencies).

What is worth noting is that the deliberative process of the APA can be frustrating, especially to policymakers, and the citizenry needs to be on guard for when agencies attempt to sidestep the APA. Increasingly, agencies are turning to what they claim are quasi-rulemakings—smaller proceedings that these agencies claim are not subject to the full APA notice-and-comment process. These agencies create guidance documents and interpretation letters purporting to carry the full force of regulatory law, but aren’t subject to the full vetting that a rulemaking allows.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute refers to such activity as “regulatory dark matter”—and while in January of 2017 the President created an executive order to substantially rein in regulatory dark matter, the following administration undid that executive order almost immediately upon taking office in 2021.

Thankfully, Congress is becoming ever more aware of the problem of regulatory dark matter, and is working to hold the executive branch accountable.

In the end, given the size and scope of the modern administrative state in the U.S., the notice and comment process under the APA is of vital importance, and emblematic of the enduring importance of the right, or civic duty, to petition our government for a redress of grievances.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.

A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.

Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


The New England Primer
was an educational book, first published in the colonies in the 1690s. For over 100 years, it was used by parents to teach their children to read. Even more than that, the selections of readings – which included plays and poetry – in the primer were meant to give lessons that taught children the importance of morality and virtue. The book was especially popular in New England colonies, where Americans had been enjoying a large degree of political independence from Great Britain and personal freedom in their individual lives. The importance of civic virtue in a republic, as taught by the lessons in the primer, were described by several prominent New Englanders at the time of the American Founding.

Samuel Williams, a professor at Harvard College, wrote about the importance of education in The Natural and Civil History of Vermont in 1794. “Among the customs which are universal among the people, in all parts of the state,” Williams wrote, “one that seems worthy of remark, is, the attention that is paid to the education of children.”[1] Williams continued:

“The aim of the parent, is not so much to have his children acquainted with the liberal arts and sciences; but to have them all taught to read with ease and propriety; to write a plain and legible hand; and to have them acquainted with the rules of arithmetic, so far as shall be necessary to carry on any of the most common and necessary occupations of life.”

In addition to be useful in their daily lives, this education was also meant to shape them into being good citizens.

“All the children are trained up to this kind of knowledge: They are accustomed from their earliest years to read the Holy Scriptures, the periodical publications, newspapers, and political pamphlets; to form some general acquaintance with the laws of their country, the proceedings of the courts of justice, of the general assembly of the state, and of the Congress, &c. Such a kind of education is common and universal in every part of the state.”

This education produces “plain common good sense” as well as “virtue, utility, freedom, and public happiness,” all of which are especially important among citizens in a free society. This view of the purpose of education was also expressed by an anonymous author in a Boston essay titled The Worcester Speculator No. VI in 1787. “If America would flourish as a republic,” he wrote, “she need only attend to the education of her youth. Learning is the palladium of her rights—as this flourishes her greatness will increase.”[2] The author continued:

“[I]n a republican government, learning ought to be universally diffused. Here every citizen has an equal right of election to the chief offices of state. … [E]very one, whether in office or not, ought to become acquainted with the principles of

civil liberty, the constitution of his country, and the rights of mankind in general. Where learning prevails in a community, liberality of sentiment, and zeal for the public good, are the grand characteristics of the people.”

As proven by the effectiveness of The New England Primer, the Worcester Speculator especially emphasized the usefulness of literature for inculcating virtue and morality in students. “If we would maintain our dear bought rights inviolate,” he wrote, “let us diffuse the spirit of literature: Then will self-interest, the governing principle of a savage heart, expand and be transferred into patriotism: Then will each member of the community consider himself as belonging to one common family, whose happiness he will ever be zealous to promote.”

Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania also wrote about the purpose of education in ways very similar to that of New England. In his A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania, Rush described the “influence and advantages of learning upon mankind.”[3]

I. It is friendly to religion, inasmuch as it assists in removing prejudice, superstition, and enthusiasm, in promoting just notions of the Deity, and in enlarging our knowledge of his works.

II. It is favorable to liberty. A free government can only exist in an equal diffusion of literature. Without learning, men become savages or barbarians, and where learning is confined to a fewpeople, we always find monarchy, aristocracy, and slavery.

III. It promotes just ideas of laws and government.

Rush was particularly concerned with the effect education – especially through the teaching of history – should have on the citizen in a free republic. “He must watch for the state as if its liberties depended upon his vigilance alone,” Rush wrote, “but he must do this in such a manner as not to defraud his creditors or neglect his family.” Rush continued:

“He must love private life, but he must decline no station, however public or responsible it may be, when called to it by the suffrages of his fellow citizens. … He must love character and have a due sense of injuries, but he must be taught to appeal only to the laws of the state, to defend the one and punish the other. He must love family honor, but he must be taught that neither the rank nor antiquity of his ancestors can command respect without personal merit. … He must be taught to love his fellow creatures in every part of the world, but he must cherish with a more intense and peculiar affection the citizens of Pennsylvania and of the United States.”

The lessons in morality and civic virtue these authors found most important in a free republic were promoted well by the fundamental education students received through The New England Primer well into the eighteenth century.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


[1] Samuel Williams, The Natural and Civil History of Vermont, 1794, available at

[2] The Worcester Speculator, No. VI, 1787, available at

[3] Benjamin Rush, A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania, 1786, available at

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath
John Adams, author of “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” and principal drafter, Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



The direct and essential connection among education, civic virtue, and good republican government was a self-evident truth for many late-18th-century American political and religious leaders. There was far less agreement, however, as to what exactly constituted virtue, to what extent “the people” were capable of exercising civic virtue, and if one could count on virtue to restrain political leaders, either because the leaders themselves would possess a sufficient measure or because the people would use theirs to keep the leaders in check. During the debates in 1787 and 1788 over the adoption of the new federal constitution, civic, or public, virtue was a frequent topic of discussion. To opponents of the proposed government, it was axiomatic that, however virtuous the people might be, they would not be able to control corrupt factional leaders in a far-away central government. Supporters, in turn, scaled heights of flattering rhetoric to extol the strength of republican virtue among the American people.

Virtue might be the coin of the realm for good government in the minds of American republicans of the time, but there was no consensus about its proper alloy. To New Englanders, such as Adams, their Puritan heritage saw virtue in private frugality and sobriety, and public virtue in service and sacrifice for the common good. Moreover, public virtue necessarily arose from private virtue. “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics,” John Adams wrote to the historian Mercy Otis Warren in April, 1776. Moreover, republican government was essential to “true Liberty.”

However, man, being fallen, lacked virtue by nature. Virtue had to be taught, but that was a difficult project. Education, though necessary, was not sufficient. Coercion must always be kept near at hand. As John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in October, 1787, “I have long been settled in my own opinion that neither Philosophy, nor Religion, nor Morality, nor Wisdom, nor Interest, will ever govern nations or Parties, against their vanity, their Pride, their Resentment, or Revenge, or their Avarice, or Ambition. Nothing but Force and Power and Strength can restrain them.”

It should be noted that Adams, like many others of the founding generation of American republicans, distrusted pure democracy. In a letter in April, 1814, to the Southern agrarian philosopher John Taylor of Caroline, he wrote, echoing classical political thought,

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.”

There were limits to the degree to which all people could be trained to civic virtue, limits which inhered in man’s corruption through the passions and in the frailty of the human mind to control them.

For Southern agrarian republicans, private virtue, even if successfully inculcated in the people, could not guarantee civic virtue in the halls of government. Adams’s assertion, “Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics,” might well be true as far as it went. However, as John Taylor of Caroline wrote, “By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices.” The New England solution of using the strong hand of an intrusive government to control private vices was unpalatable to the Southern agrarian class. Instead, they agreed with James Madison in The Federalist No. 51, that there was a “need for auxiliary precautions.”

Those auxiliary precautions included a structure of divided powers where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Good republican government could be fostered by relying not on the public virtue of either political leaders or a civically militant people, but on embracing the reality of conniving and power-hungry politicians whose mutual jealousies would check each other. In similar manner, political factions, that bane of good republican government, being driven by self-interest, would jockey for influence in constantly changing coalitions. Among factions, none would become entrenched, as there were no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, to borrow from Lord Palmerston’s policy description of 19th-century British international relations.

National republicans, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, rejected a fundamental premise that underlay other conceptions of civic virtue. Rather than treat virtue and passions or self-interest as antithetical, and fusing public virtue to private virtue, national republicans simply redefined that relationship. Some private vices were rooted in self-interest, such as the desire for fame, honor, or even wealth, but they could be harnessed to produce great public benefit and, therefore, should be considered civic virtues. Government could create incentives for persons to engage in such “good” passions to produce great public benefit.

Nor were all members of the American elite without doubt about the scope of virtue among the American people or about their capacity to attain a sufficient measure of it. John Adams, as prolific a writer on the connection between virtue and good republican government as lived at the time, warned in a letter in June, 1776,

“The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty.—They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”

Whatever their differences about the meaning of virtue and about the capacity of private virtue to produce sufficient public virtue, the expositors of virtue politics generally agreed with Aristotle that education and training in private virtue were necessary to its practice. For most of them, only the broad distribution of land ownership rivaled virtue in promoting and protecting liberty and republican government. Thus, education to virtue was an essential task, even if the outcome was uncertain and incomplete. Education had to be grounded in religion and morality, as those were the sources of virtue. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, perhaps the greatest peacetime achievement of the Confederation Congress, codified this premise:

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

President George Washington in his lengthy Farewell Address, published in September, 1796, gave a succinct rhetorical overview of the connection among religion, morality, virtue, and good republican government:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality     are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens….And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government….

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.”

There was cause for optimism, as the American population had a high rate of literacy compared to that even of European countries. “Ours are the only farmers who can read Homer,” a self-satisfied Thomas Jefferson boasted in a letter to St. John de Crèvecoeur in January, 1787. Jefferson is well-known for his efforts in the founding of the University of Virginia in 1819, for the design of which he also developed architectural plans. His educational activism was not limited to creating a university. As early as 1785, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson laid out a plan to educate younger children of both sexes for three years at public expense, with higher grades open to the boys of parents who could afford the tuition and to a limited number of other boys selected on the basis of their intellectual capabilities. In Jefferson’s somewhat indelicate language to modern ears, “By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go.” His ambitious plan was not realized in any form in Virginia until after the Civil War.

Along with the general goals of imparting knowledge for its own sake and for practical pursuits, Jefferson saw education as a necessary process for republican government. Perhaps his best-known aphorism regarding the importance of education appeared in a letter he wrote to Colonel Charles Yancey in January, 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The antidote to such a doomed expectation was education. “The qualifications for self government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training,” Jefferson wrote to Edward Everett in March, 1824.

Other famous Americans echoed these sentiments. As supposedly worldly and skeptical as he was, Benjamin Franklin nevertheless advised, “A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district—all studied and appreciated as they merit—are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.” James Madison declared that the Constitution required “sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” Otherwise, “nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.” The old Son of Liberty, Samuel Adams, opined in a letter to James Warren in 1779, “If Virtue & Knowledge are diffused among the People, they will never be enslav’d. This will be their great Security.”

None of the founding generation appear as convinced of the importance of education and religion to virtue and of virtue to liberty preserved through republican government as Samuel’s cousin John Adams. Despite his occasional doubts and pessimism, Adams was a staunch virtue republican. His writings are filled with quotable passages about the subject. A few will give the essence of his thoughts. Perhaps his best known, expressed in a letter in October, 1798, to officers in the Massachusetts militia, is “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This sentiment, embraced the then-common belief that the American experiment in self-government, more than aristocratic or monarchic systems, relied on virtue widely diffused among the general population, or at least among those who would have the privilege to vote or to hold public office.

In the same letter in 1776 in which Adams expressed concern about the state of virtue among his fellow Americans, he also wrote,

“Statesmen my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

To complete the causal chain, one may point to his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, where he asserted, “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”

These quotations are not merely a string of disjointed musings. The writers put practical efforts behind their firm and constant beliefs, beliefs shared by Americans generally. Jefferson’s contributions to education have already been noted. Adams was the principal drafter of the historically important Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. That charter declared that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality ….” Article V formally encouraged the development of publicly-funded primary and grammar (secondary) schools. To justify that effort, the section began, “WISDOM and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, [are] necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties ….”

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Andrew Langer
United States Constitution showing the first page with Article I, with the Bill of Rights and American Flag

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner



Since the earliest days of the American founding, a bedrock principle of our republic has been the concept that government is an essential element in protecting and preserving individual rights. In the Declaration of Independence, principal author Thomas Jefferson wrote, “to secure… rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Building on this precept, in Federalist 51, James Madison talked about the tension between the necessity of government in protecting individual rights, but the need for the governed to work to constrain the powers of government:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Our republic is built on a simple, yet powerful, concept: we are endowed by our creator with certain “unalienable” rights.  We cede small measures of those rights to government in the form of powers, in order for the full-measure of our rights to be protected.

This leads to a fundamental axiom: whenever government is enlarged, individual rights are diminished. You cannot reconcile liberty with anti-liberty.

This gives us not only the basic structure of the federal constitution, but most state-based constitutions as well. The Articles of the United States Constitution lay out the powers of government—i.e., what measure of rights we have ceded to the government in the form of powers. The first eight amendments within the Bill of Rights represent further constraints on those powers in order to protect individual rights.

But then the last two amendments in the Bill of Rights, Amendments 9 and 10, make further declarations regarding the balancing of rights versus the powers of government.

The Ninth Amendment makes it clear that the rights of citizens aren’t limited to what is “enumerated” in the Bill of Rights, that their rights are essentially infinite, while the Tenth Amendment underscores this idea that the powers of government are created by the people giving up some measure of their rights—and anything not “delegated” to government is “reserved” by the people.

Further, while a New Deal-era Supreme Court dismissed limitations on federal power in cases like US v. Darby, even that court had to admit that when it comes to the Tenth Amendment, it states, “a truism that all is retained which has not been surrendered.” US v. Darby, 312 US 100, 124 (1941)

This tension underscores the fundamental beauty of our system—we are not a pure democracy (something our founders were rightly skeptical of).  As the saying goes, “democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for supper.”

We recognize that while the people can vote to make particular laws, those laws can only exist within the powers the people have delegated to government and they cannot be violative of the rights retained by the people. So while one group of people, even a majority of the people, might demand that government impose restrictions on certain kinds of unpopular speech, the First Amendment makes it clear that such restrictions would be unconstitutional (and one can say that the entire purpose of the First Amendment is to protect “unpopular” speech. “Popular” speech requires no such protection!).

How, then, do we assess this balance between the rights of people and the powers of government?

It starts with a basic inquiry.  All “just” law is born out of the intersection of the exercise of individual rights. One’s right to wave their hands around in a wild interpretative dance (the right to free expression) is limited the moment those hands cross the bridge of someone else’s nose, and violate their right to be secure in their person, free from harm. And when those rights come into conflict, it is the party that is more-aggrieved that the law is supposed to protect (and the law is supposed be more weighted on behalf of those less-able to advocate for themselves).

This presents our society with the need for “balancing tests” to determine where that line ought to be drawn: how is the right to free speech balanced against someone’s right to now be lied about (a harm to their reputation)? Or how is someone’s right not to be harmed by government’s force balanced against the rights of people in a community to not be harmed by that person’s violent actions?

When the public, either through legislation or via the courts, calls for a new law, a new balancing test, the Supreme Court has made it clear that such laws, such decisions, need to be made in a way to be the “least restrictive” way of achieving the government’s goals. This way the rights of the individual are still protected to the maximum extent possible.

While there remains considerable debate as to whether such balancing tests are a good thing, or whether there is harm in the long run from a series of ad hoc inquiries into that balance, in the end it is important to remember that the Constitution sets out essential bedrock principles in that regard. All that is not surrendered is retained, and we should remain vigilant each and every time we look to enlarge the power of government.

Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty, as well as Chairman and Founder of the Institute for Regulatory Analysis and Engagement. IFL is a non-profit advocacy organization focused on advancing free-market and limited government principles into public policy at all levels. IRAE is a non-profit academic and activist organization whose mission is to examine regulations and regulatory proposals, assess their economic and societal impacts, and offer expert commentary in order to create better public policies. Andrew has been involved in free-market and limited-government causes for more than 25 years, has testified before Congress nearly two dozen times, spoken to audiences across the United States, and has taught at the collegiate level.

A globally-recognized expert on the impact of regulation on business, Andrew is regularly called on to offer innovative solutions to the challenges of squaring public policy priorities with the impact and efficacy of those policies, as well as their unintended consequences. Prior to becoming President of IFL and founding IRAE, he was the principal regulatory affairs lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, the nation’s largest small business association. As President of the Institute for Liberty, he became recognized as an expert on the Constitution, especially issues surrounding private property rights, free speech, abuse of power, and the concentration of power in the federal executive branch.

Andrew has had an extensive career in media—having appeared on television programs around the world. From 2017 to 2021, he hosted a highly-rated weekly program on WBAL NewsRadio 1090 in Baltimore (as well as serving as their principal fill-in host from 2011 until 2021), and has filled in for both nationally-syndicated and satellite radio programs. He also created and hosted several different podcasts—currently hosting Andrew and Jerry Save The World, with long-time colleague, Jerry Rogers.

He holds a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Troy University and his degree from William & Mary is in International Relations.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett
Signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, displayed in the United States Capitol Rotunda.

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner



August 1, 1776, Samuel Adams said in his Speech on American Independence,

“When the law is the will of the people, it will be uniform and coherent: but fluctuation, contradiction, and inconsistency of councils must be expected under those governments where every revolution in the ministry of a court produces one in the state. Such being the folly and pride of all ministers, that they ever pursue measures directly opposite to those of their predecessors…We shall neither be exposed to the necessary convulsions of elective monarchies, nor to the want of wisdom, fortitude, and virtue, to which hereditary succession is liable. In your hands it will be to perpetuate a prudent, active and just legislature, and which will never expire until you yourselves lose the virtues which give it existence…Our Union is now complete; our constitution composed, established, and approved. You are now the guardians of your own liberties.”

These words of Samuel Adams justifying the pursuit of American independence represent a view among patriots in Boston that rejected hereditary monarchy in favor of representative or republican government. Adams founded his arguments upon a belief that the legitimate purposes and limitations of civil government could be discerned from an understanding of the laws of nature and natural rights. This view of government, however, had been developing and spreading in the public mind – especially in Boston – for well over a decade prior to the Declaration of Independence.

Bostonians heard these arguments with growing frequency in sermons at their places of worship after the British began to impose oppressive taxes and regulations in the 1760s. Abraham Williams, for example, a Congregationalist pastor in Sandwich, Massachusetts, incorporated a teaching on the laws of nature in his Election Sermon in 1762.[1] Mankind needs government, Williams preached, in order to secure the blessings that God has bestowed upon them. “[W]hen Men enter into civil Societies, and agree upon rational Forms of Government,” Williams said, “they act right, conformable to the Will of God, by the Concurrence of whose Providence, Rulers are appointed…The End and Design of civil Society and Government, from this View of its Origin, must be to secure the Rights and Properties of its Members, and promote their Welfare.” Williams taught that rulers, therefore, must do good, not harm to their subjects. “ In all Governments, Magistrates are God’s Ministers, designed for Good to the People. The End of their Institution, is to be Instruments of Divine Providence, to secure and promote the Happiness of Society.”

The truth of this view, Williams argued, was conclusively demonstrated by the laws of nature. “The Law of Nature (or, those Rules of Behaviour, which the Nature God has given Men, the Relations they bear to one another, and the Circumstances they are placed in, render fit and necessary to the Welfare of Mankind),” Williams continued, “is the Law and Will of the God of Nature, which all Men are obliged to obey.”

Pastor John Tucker of Newbury, Massachusetts, continued to build on this argument in an election sermon in 1771, adding that according to the Laws of Nature, governors rule by the consent of the people. “All men are naturally in a state of freedom,” said Tucker, “and have an equal claim to liberty. No one, by nature, nor by any special grant from the great Lord of all, has any authority over another. All right therefore in any to rule over others, must originate from those they rule over, and be granted by them.” The idea of rule by consent through a social compact also implied that are just limits to what government may do, and also obligations that government must perform.

“Whatever authority therefore the supreme power has, to make laws, to appoint officers, etc. for the regulation and government of the state, being an authority derived from the community, and granted by them,” Tucker concluded, “can be justly exercised, only within certain limits, and to a certain extent, according to agreement.”

In his 1776 sermon titled “On the Right to Rebel against Governors” – another election day sermon in Boston – Samuel West argued that, according to the Laws of Nature, rulers who act contrary to God’s will that the rights of the people be secured from harm may be – and in fact should be – justly resisted and opposed by citizens. “[T]yranny and arbitrary power are utterly inconsistent with and subversive of the very end and design of civil government,” West preached, “and directly contrary to natural law, which is the true foundation of civil government and all politic law. West continued:

Consequently, the authority of a tyrant is of itself null and void; for as no man can have a right to act contrary to the law of nature, it is impossible that any individual, or even the greatest number of men, can confer a right upon another of which they themselves are not possessed; i.e., no body of men can justly and lawfully authorize any person to tyrannize over and enslave his fellow-creatures, or do anything contrary to equity and goodness. As magistrates have no authority but what they derive from the people, whenever they act contrary to the public good, and pursue measures destructive of the peace and safety of the community, they forfeit their right to govern the people.”

West’s argument that rulers who act without consent and contrary to the good of society are illegitimate aligns with many of the same arguments Samuel Adams made in his speech on independence. Adams’ message was widely agreed to in part because it was an argument Bostonians had been hearing and working toward putting into practice for well over a decade. It was a view that would be carried beyond Massachusetts as Americans in other states fought to win an then maintain American independence from British rule.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


[1] This and the following sermons are available from

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Chris Burkett
Benjamin Franklin’s editorial cartoon entitled “Join or Die” depicting protection and unity of the colonies, May 9, 1754, Pennsylvania Gazette

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner



One of the purposes of the Constitution of the United States, according to its Preamble, is “to form a more perfect Union.” It was a long road, however, for that Union to be more perfectly established as under the Constitution in 1787. Before the Constitution, the thirteen original states had agreed to a “firm league of friendship” through a compact known as the “articles of Confederation and perpetual Union.”

In July of 1776, the thirteen states engaged in an act of unity by unanimously declaring themselves “free and independent states” no longer under the political authority of Great Britain. Prior to that, in 1774, the thirteen American colonies took the first official steps toward becoming a formal Union through the Articles of Association, which established the Continental Congress and put them on the path to independence.

The pace at which the states moved from being colonies under the authority of the British Crown, to “free and independent states,” and then to the United States of America seemed to quicken and intensify under the pressure of events during the American Revolution and Revolutionary War. But for decades prior, many Americans had been attempting to establish a formal union between the British Colonies in America, primarily for purposes of mutual defense and the protection of British economic interests among the American colonies. These early efforts ultimately made it possible for the states to formally unite as the United States of America. It was not an easy road, however, as many colonies saw their habits, manners, and economic interests as quite different from those of the other colonies. Pulling these vastly different peoples together as one would be a long, arduous task.

One man who made great strides in uniting the colonies for purposes of mutual defense was Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, Franklin writes of a plan of Union he had proposed in 1754. Anticipating an approaching war with France (which did eventually become the French and Indian War of 1754-1763), the British authorized a congress of commissioners from the colonies to convene in Albany, New York to discuss defensive preparations. Franklin took the opportunity to draw up a more extensive plan by which the colonial defenses would be administered by a general government of the Union.

“I projected and drew a plan,” Franklin wrote, “for the union of all the colonies under one government, so far as might be necessary for defense, and other important general purposes. … By this plan the general government was to be administered by a president-general, appointed and supported by the crown, and a grand council was to be chosen by the representatives of the people of the several colonies, met in their respective assemblies.”

Ultimately Franklin’s plan was rejected by the colonial assemblies, because under it the British retained too much political authority over the colonies, and by the British, because it seemed to grant too much independence and self-government to the colonies. Later, in 1788, Franklin would write,

“I am still of opinion it would have been happy for both sides of the water if it had been adopted. The colonies, so united, would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would then have been no need of troops from England; of course, the subsequent pretense for taxing America, and the bloody contest it occasioned, would have been avoided.”

Despite the failure of Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union in 1754, it had an important impact on the public mind of American colonials. Franklin, as a well-known and highly respected public figure, was now identified as the leading advocate of colonial unity, inspiring others to consider the possibility of formal union in the future. Furthermore, to promote the Albany Plan, Franklin introduced one of the most important symbols of the American Revolutionary period in his famous “Join, or Die” slogan under the image of a snake cut into thirteen pieces.

Franklin designed the image and published it in his widely read newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. Almost two decades later, as the Acts of the British Parliament became more unjust and oppressive in the eyes of American colonists in the 1770s, Franklin’s “Join, or Die” image was revived and inspired many people to join with the patriots, thus making possible the Union that eventually emerged from the American Revolution.

Christopher C. Burkett is Associate Professor of History and Political Science, and Director of the Ashbrook Scholar Program at Ashland University.


Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Jay McConville

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner



Republic or Democracy?

A distinction with a difference to the American Revolution.

People often use the term “democracy” when referring to the United States. The distinction between a republic, which is technically what we are, and a democracy seems lost on those who intermingle the terms as if they were synonyms. If you note that we are not a democracy, but a republic, you risk being mocked as strict constructionists overly wedded to technical definitions and unwilling to acknowledge the importance of popular sovereignty and the will of the people in our system.

This is unfortunate, as the question of whether we are a democracy or a republic is an important one, complex, and reliant on clear definitions of words and their use. Strictly speaking, the United States is a representative Republic, not a democracy. The distinction has a difference. It greatly influenced the American Revolution, and arguably saved the future Republic from ruin in its darkest days.

First, some definitions. Merriam-Webster (MW) defines democracy, a noun, as “a government by the people” characterized by “rule of the majority,” and as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”[1] This, of course, does a pretty good job of describing what most of us believe our government is. We the People are sovereign, and we exercise that power through elections. So far so good.

As for “republic” the definition is similar, but with several important additional elements. Republic is also a noun, meaning (according to MW), “a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president,” and “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”[2]

From these definitions it is clear why there might be some confusion. A representative republic uses “democratic means” to manifest the consent of the governed. We vote for representatives, who vote on measures. Voting is democracy in action, but that does not make the United States a democracy. The measures that our representatives vote on are constrained by law and the Constitution. We do not have pure democracy or “rule by the majority” because we have constitutionally protected rights that cannot be voted away, operate under rule of law, and have, till recently, limited government with limited powers. We also have, however, an expanded voting population that is not limited by aristocracy, wealth, property ownership, or gender. Any citizen, over 18 years of age, can vote. One could say, therefore, that the United States is a democratic representative Republic.

While some might wish to believe so, the founders did not invent the concept of consent of the governed, nor was America the first democracy or republic. Discussion of such concepts had been going on for centuries and republics existed prior to the American Revolution. What the American founders did do was expand the definition of a republic so that it gave more power to the popular will of the people. They were merging, more completely, the idea of a law-based government with the concept of consent of the governed. While in retrospect we see their efforts as woefully incomplete, for the time it was a revolutionary step towards popular sovereignty. Many doubted such an expansion of representation could work over such a large population or territory.

The original text of the United States Constitution never mentions the word democracy, and only mentions republic as a form of government once in Article IV, Section 4 (“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…”). Interestingly, that clause refers to the states, and not the federal government itself. Throughout the text the founders refer to the United States as the “union” or as the “United States” but never a republic or a democracy. The Declaration of Independence does not use either term at all.

That said, the structure laid down in the Constitution contains the elements that MW described, including a “chief of state,” and that power lies with a body of “elected officers and representatives” who vote on the laws that govern the nation. All these officials govern according to law.

That is a Republic, no doubt.

When asked by “Mrs. Powel” upon the passage of the Constitution in 1787 what we had created, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, “a Republic, if you can keep it.”[3]

It is in the phrase “if you can keep it,” however, where we find the true impact of the distinction between republic and democracy. As Richard R. Beeman, Ph.D. writes “we find ample evidence that democratic revolutions do not inevitably lead to national harmony.…We see that the expression of the ‘popular will’ can create a cacophony of discordant voices…In far too many places around the world today, the expression of the ‘popular will’ is nothing more than the unleashing of primordial forces of tribal and religious identity which further confound the goal of building stable and consensual governments.”[4]

What Franklin was concerned about, what he was so prescient about, was the difficulty in preserving the union. That concern was not an idle one, as the Revolution had proven. To keep the union together required a structure that limited conflict and cooled the passions of the mob yet provided ample enough rights and liberties to both the citizen and the to the former colonies to make them support and adhere to the union. Again, quoting Beeman, “the question that has plagued all nations aspiring to democratic government ever since: how to implement principles of popular majority rule while at the same time preserving stable governments that protect the rights and liberties of all citizens.”

In 1776 a stable union did not exist. What did exist was a loose confederation of militia forces and citizens from the thirteen colonies, operating under an ill-defined structure to which their commitment continually wavered. Support for the revolution was not, by any means, universal within these colonies, and the debate between revolution and compromise with Britain raged. To preserve the effort, the founders knew they had to promise both protections from mob rule and protections for popular sovereignty. That was not a trivial endeavor.

Alexander Hamilton wrote of the challenge in a letter to John Jay in November 1775. In that letter he addressed the “passions of men” which provided for a “great danger of fatal extremes.” Hamilton wrote:

When the minds of these are loosened from their attachment to ancient establishments and courses, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more or less to run into anarchy…. In such tempestuous times, it requires the greatest skill in the political pilots to keep men steady and within proper bounds…[5]

Hamilton was concerned about conflict between New York and New England, which threatened a united stance vis-à-vis England. To control intra-colonial conflict, he argued against too much popular sovereignty, i.e., too much democracy. He recognized the need to hold the passions of men at bay, and the skill needed to do that while continuing to keep the support of the colonies.

As the American Revolutionary War against Britain intensified, George Washington was plagued by irregular support from both the colonies and the Continental Congress. His ability to avoid catastrophic defeat is legendary. What perhaps was his greater brilliance was the ability to hold the forces together, keep the states from fighting each other, and channeling the passions of his fighting forces away from each other and towards the enemy. As his letter to the colonies from Valley Forge attests, the distributed nature of the revolutionary coalition put the future of the war in great jeopardy. “In a word, the United and respective exertions of the States cannot be too great, too vigorous in this interesting work, and we shall never have a fair and just prospect for success till our Troops (Officers & Men) are better appointed and provided than they are or have been.”[6]

Washington knew very well that a citizen force of volunteer militiamen, responding only to popular will, while appealing to the revolutionary impulse, was no substitute for a centrally commanded, resourced, trained, and managed force of professional soldiers. Once launched, support to the war had to be controlled by a chief executive and protected by a Congress of representatives whose laws mattered and lasted. Counter to popular legend, it was not the minutemen who won the war. Washington could never have achieved victory had he remained subject to the democratic vagaries of thirteen colonial assemblies guided only by majority rule. “Military necessity required American leaders to change their perceptions of standing armies and challenged their republican ideals of volunteer, part-time military service…ultimately it was the Continental soldiers that would secure victory…”[7]

That the colonies agreed to the creation of the Continental Army is a critical component of the success of the revolution. It is also remarkable given the antipathy they held against standing armies. James Madison, years later during the debates over the Constitution, exposed that antipathy, stating that a “standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty,” and that the “means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home…. armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.”[8] Yet, despite that view, such a force was authorized by the fledgling republic, saving the effort and leading to victory.

Today, when a riot or mass protest occurs, people in the crowd can often be heard chanting, “this is what democracy looks like.” In a way they are correct, which is why we are a representative Republic.

John Adams famously wrote, in a letter to John Taylor in 1814, “…Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.” In that same letter, he wrote, “the Athenians grew more and more Warlike in proportion as the Commonwealth became more democratic.”[9] The founders, students of history and great thinkers including those of ancient and classical history, knew the distinction. That they did, saved the new nation.

Our founding was saved by the skill of our “political pilots” to craft a compromise between popular will and the rule of law. We are democratic, but we are not a democracy. We the People are those whose consent is required, but the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land.

We would have never made it otherwise.

Jay McConville is a military veteran, management professional, and active civic volunteer currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, Virginia Commonwealth University. His studies focus on improving health outcomes through food assistance policy. Prior to beginning his doctoral studies, he held multiple key technology and management positions within the Aerospace and Defense industry, including twice as President and CEO. He now works as a personal trainer and works to improve health and fitness through both his work and study. Jay served in the U.S. Army as an Intelligence Officer, and has also been active in civic and industry volunteer associations, including running for elected office, serving as a political party chairman, and serving multiple terms as President of both his industry association’s Washington DC Chapter and his local youth sports association. Today he serves on the Operating Board of Directors of Constituting America. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from George Mason University, and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College. Jay lives in Richmond with his wife Susan Ulsamer McConville. They have three children and four grandchildren.



[3] Mrs. Powel was not just a random woman on the street. She was an influential and important member of society, close in association with George Washington. Read more of her interesting story here:







Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Winfield Rose

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



Other impacts of the Protestant Reformation derive directly from the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564), a Frenchman by birth who spent most of his life in Geneva, Switzerland. The distinguishing characteristic of Calvinist Protestantism, as presented in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1535), is the doctrine of predestination, meaning that God has predestined or foreordained some people (called the “elect”) for salvation and others for damnation. This is part of eternal law and, as such, there is nothing anyone can do about it. It is an unchangeable decision made by God, not a matter of the potential believer’s free will. Knowing if one is among the elect is a problem, however. The psychological insecurity this caused was severe.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1905. Written as a response to Karl Marx’s theory of economic determinism, Weber wanted to show that history could have a prime mover other than economics, namely religion, and argued that Calvinists searched for certainty of salvation in a God-given calling (a job or career), unceasing hard work, and the suppression of physical pleasure. In other words, one could know one was among the elect by working hard and saving and investing rather than spending one’s money and enjoying one’s self. This has come to be known as the Protestant or Puritan work ethic.

The argument continues that the Puritans brought this work ethic with them to North America and that it permeated the entire culture.[i]

Prof. Davis calls the Protestant or Puritan ethic “the beginning of the American dream,” saying

Political, social, and economic life in the late twentieth century bears scant resemblance to the Puritan way. Yet the religious doctrine of the Puritans had a profound influence on a central characteristic of our tradition – the American dream. For modern Americans, that dream is typically one that involves success measured in terms of material wealth. . . . To all appearances that dream of success has no connection with the religious views, values, and aspirations of the Puritans. It is possible, nevertheless, to uncover the seeds of the modern individual’s pursuit of private wealth in the seventeenth-century Puritan’s quest for salvation.”[ii]

Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the ideas of the covenant or social contract (government based on consent of the governed), natural rights, and resistance to unjust authority (which itself was a natural right). Before they disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620 the Pilgrims wrote and signed the Mayflower Compact, thereby creating the first written social contract in history. It was first published in London in 1622 and reads as follows in modern English:

In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord, King James, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, e&.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In Witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord, King James of England, France and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini, 1620.”

Twenty-one years later our Puritan forefathers saw the need for a delineation of rights and adopted the Massachusetts Body of Liberties in 1641. This “was the first attempt in the colonies to restrain the power of the elected representatives by appealing to a fundamental document that lists the rights and duties of the people. The document . . . combined the early American covenanting tradition of the Mayflower Compact with an appeal to the common law tradition that crossed the Atlantic from Britain. The Massachusetts Body of Liberties contains ninety-eight sections. . . The most enduring part . . . is the preamble and the first seventeen sections . . .” The preamble reads as follows:

The free fruition of such liberties, immunities and privileges as humanity, civility, and Christianity call for as due to every man in his place and proportion without impeachment and infringement hath ever been and ever will be the tranquility and stability of churches and commonwealths. And the denial or deprival thereof, the disturbance if not the ruin of both.

We hold it therefore our duty and safety whilst we are about the further establishing of this government to collect and express all such freedoms as for present we foresee may concern us, and our posterity after us, and to ratify them with our solemn consent.

We do therefore this day religiously and unanimously decree and confirm these following rights, liberties and privileges concerning our churches, and civil state to be respectively impartially and inviolably enjoyed and observed throughout our jurisdiction forever.

Space limitations preclude including the 17 sections here but they can be accessed at

It is interesting to see how these ideas made their way back across the Atlantic to England. In 1644 a Scottish Presbyterian by the name of Samuel Rutherford published a book in London titled Lex Rex which contained all these ideas. The Puritan Revolution or English Civil War led by Cromwell lasted from 1640 to 1649  and gave birth to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, first published in 1651, which was based on the natural right to life and created a powerful state whose legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed to protect it.

This was followed by John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government which were published  in 1689 at the time of the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights. Locke proposed that government emerges from the consent of the governed to protect the natural rights of life, liberty and property.

These ideas were picked up by the authors and signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

“The American Revolution might thus be said to have started, in a sense, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It received a substantial part of its theological and philosophical underpinnings from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and much of its social theory from the Puritan Revolution of 1640-1660, and, perhaps less obviously, from the Glorious Revolution of 1689. Put another way, the American Revolution is inconceivable in the absence of the context of ideas which have constituted Christianity. The leaders of the Revolution in every colony were imbued with the precepts of the Reformed faith.[iii]

Winfield H. Rose, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Murray State University.


[i] Sanford Kessler, “Tocqueville’s: Christianity and the American Founding.”  The Journal of Politics, v. 54 #3, August 1992, pp. 776-792.

[ii] Sue Davis, American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies. Prentice Hall, 1996,  p. 22. Emphasis added.

[iii] Page Smith, quoted in Amos and Gardiner, p. 3. Emphasis added.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Winfield Rose

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



Christianity in the Roman Empire was first persecuted, then tolerated, and later adopted as the official religion. The latter development was to the long-term detriment of the faith because, as the Church adopted the structures and procedures of Roman imperial government, it became ever more corrupt, as had the Roman government itself during previous centuries.

The details of this process are beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say at this point that by 1517 a young German monk by the name of Martin Luther (1483-1546) decided change was needed. He, therefore, wrote and tacked his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenburg and launched what came to be the Protestant Reformation, thereby fracturing western Christianity forever.

Professor Sue Davis correctly described this momentous event as follows: “When Martin Luther . . . posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in 1517 he initiated a revolution in politics as well as religion.”[i]

The relevance of the Reformation to the American political system can be understood as follows. First, the Reformation divided a Europe that had followed one central faith for centuries into more than two distinct groups in that there was not one Protestant church/faith/denomination but four, to be followed by more later. These four were the Lutherans, the Calvinists, the Anabaptists and the Anglicans in England.

These four groups not only differed from Catholicism, they differed from each other. It was, therefore, unfortunately inevitable that conflict would break out between them. On the continent this took the form of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) between German Catholics and Lutherans. There were religious civil wars in France between Catholics and Huguenots (French Calvinists). In England it was the Puritan Revolution/English Civil War, 1640-1649, between Anglicans and those called Puritans who wanted to reform the Church of England along Calvinist lines. This resulted in the regicide of King Charles I and the establishment of the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

These wars had two significant impacts on what was to become the United States. First, many Europeans tired of the seemingly endless slaughter and religious persecution and desired to escape, thereby emigrating to North America and populating the English colonies.[ii]

Second, after flirting with bringing their sectarian conflicts with them, our forefathers decided to do otherwise, ultimately making religious freedom a part of the United States Constitution in its First Amendment. The American tradition of separation of church and state can be traced directly back to the conflicts spawned by the Protestant Reformation.

In addition, the Protestant Reformation forced a fundamental change in political philosophy. The Magna Carta and Aquinas’ Treatise on Law were minor tremors but the Reformation was a major earthquake in that it articulated a right of resistance to unjust authority.

Romans 13 had been the basis of governmental authority in both the church and state for centuries. Remember that Jamestown had been founded in 1607 and Plymouth in 1620, and that the King James translation of the Bible was published in 1611. The first seven verses of Romans 13 in that translation read as follows:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

These powerful words formed the basis of the divine right of kings theory and, in part, the basis of the Pope’s authority in the Church. How could Luther resist the Pope and Church without disobeying Romans 13? He could do so when obeying a higher authority (God) required him to.

According to Luther, it is a sin to obey any authority that forces or tries to force people to do that which is ungodly, unjust, unrighteous, unlawful or, in other words, wrong. A Godly person simply cannot do such things without sinning. As Luther said, “Hier stehe ich; ich kann nicht anders.”

About 150 years later this became “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” The British government was violating God’s law and the Americans had not only the right but the duty to resist. And they did.

Winfield H. Rose, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Murray State University.


[i] Sue Davis, American Political Thought: Four Hundred Years of Ideas and Ideologies.  Prentice Hall, 1996, p. 10.

[ii] I acknowledge that some came to the New World for personal and economic reasons rather than for religious and political reasons.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Ron Meier
Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1900

Essay Read By Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



Driving through Connecticut, you’ll see license plates with the words “Constitution State” inscribed at the bottom of the plate. But wait! Wasn’t the Constitution drafted in Pennsylvania, known as the Keystone State? And wasn’t Delaware, known as the First State, the first state to ratify the Constitution? So why is Connecticut called the Constitution State?

Connecticut did play an important role in the drafting of the United States Constitution, proposing the Connecticut Compromise, also known as the Great Compromise, breaking the impasse created by delegates who favored proportional representation by population and opposed by delegates who favored equal representation by state. Certainly a justifiable reason for Connecticut to call itself the Constitution State, for without that important compromise, a Constitution may never have been agreed upon by delegates from both large and small states.

However, that was not the reason for the adoption of the motto “Constitution State.”  John Fiske, a historian born in Hartford in 1842, stated that the Fundamental Orders of 1639, a social compact created among three towns in what later became the colony of Connecticut, was the first Constitution created in the United States.  The preamble to the document states that, to “maintain the peace and union of such a people, an orderly and decent Government should be established according to God.”

Ordered liberty, defined as “freedom limited by the need for order in society,” is a concept well known by our Founding Fathers. The roots of ordered liberty can be traced back thousands of years. Religious liberty was the motivation for the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620; all of them knew their Biblical history of freedom, anarchy, enslavement, totalitarianism, secession, and rejection.

Among other Biblical examples, they may have considered the Book of Nehemiah.  After the fall of Judah in 586 BC, the Israelites were exiled to Babylon. Beginning in 538 BC, groups of Israelites began returning to Jerusalem, which had been destroyed. Over the subsequent 100 years, the city had no effective government, no militia, and the protective walls of the city lay in ruins. In 432 BC, Nehemiah, an Israelite serving the Persian King in Babylon as Cupbearer, had become frustrated hearing from Israelites of the conditions in Jerusalem and received permission from the King to lead a group to Jerusalem to restore order. He had no expertise in construction management, the politics of government, or military tactics, yet, he quickly took command after arriving in Jerusalem and led the citizens to complete the wall of the city, to organize a formal government, and to organize a militia to defend the city.

Recognizing the need for ordered liberty in their new settlement, the Pilgrims, before landing at Plymouth Rock, drafted a compact for the new village they were about to create near current-day Boston; that document, the Mayflower Compact, reflected the Pilgrims’ commitment to God and to the English King.

Soon thereafter, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was chartered by King Charles I in 1629. In 1630, an English lawyer, Roger Ludlow, arrived in Massachusetts and settled in Dorchester. He quickly became involved in Massachusetts political life and helped draft laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, after only five years in Dorchester, he and other Pilgrims, dissatisfied with religious conflicts in Massachusetts, left Massachusetts to establish a new religious community in what later became the Connecticut Colony. Ludlow settled in Windsor and others settled in the villages of Wethersfield and Hartford, all very close to each other. The three villages were self-governing, but had to unite to fight the Pequot Indians.

Recognizing the need to unite more formally, the three towns, led by Ludlow’s legal expertise, drafted the Fundamental Orders, a formal compact to establish the principles for an orderly confederation-style of government for the three towns. In a sermon that encouraged Ludlow to create the text of the Fundamental Orders, the Rev. Thomas Hooker, a founder of Hartford, dynamic preacher, and inspiration for the Fundamental Orders, said that “The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people. As God has given us liberty let us take it.” Hooker is considered by some to be the father of American democracy. His statement regarding the free consent of the people may have been the first expression in the colonies of a key principle that, more than 100 years later, would find its way into our nation’s founding documents.

Unlike many social compacts at the time, the Connecticut document recognized no allegiance on the part of the colonists to England, but in effect set up an independent government. The Fundamental Orders were intended to be a framework of government more permanent than a compact, and in essence, a constitution. Simeon E. Baldwin, a former Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, defended Fiske’s view that the Fundamental Orders of 1639 was the first Constitution created in the United States by stating that

“never had a company of men deliberately met to frame a social compact for immediate use, constituting a new and independent commonwealth, with definite officers, executive and legislative, and prescribed rules and modes of government, until the first planters of Connecticut came together for their great work on January 14th, 1638-9.”

Whereas the Mayflower Compact was designed for a single community, the Fundamental Orders was designed for three communities, further evidence that it was a Constitution, much like the later United States Constitution designed to bring unity among 13 colonies. Also, some features of the Fundamental Orders prefigured the United States Constitution, even if not in exact form. The Orders provided for yearly elections conducted in accordance with Direct Democracy format, appropriate for smaller communities. An annual election was held, during which a Governor and six Magistrates were elected to serve a one-year term of office. Each town also elected two Representatives to a unicameral legislature which met each September in a legislative session. This prefigured the Representative Democracy to be devised in 1787, although the latter resulted in a bicameral legislature. Freemen had a right of petition; and a method was devised to tax each town to raise funds as required for administration of the government. Liberty of speech was emphasized in the Orders and “unseasonable and disorderly speakings” were discouraged. The office of the Secretary of State was officially established in the Fundamental Orders of 1639 and has continued to exist since that time, the oldest Office of the Secretary of State in the United States.

It wasn’t until 100 years later that the Connecticut legislature acted upon Fiske’s opinion about the Fundamental Orders being the first Constitution created in the United States. In 1959, the legislature officially designated Connecticut’s nickname to be The Constitution State. In anticipation of the upcoming bicentennial of the founding of the United States, in 1973 the Connecticut legislature mandated that Connecticut’s license plates should display the state slogan the assembly had adopted 14 years earlier.

Interestingly, Roger Ludlow, the primary architect of the Connecticut Fundamental Orders, grew weary of the challenges of colonial life, and returned to England in 1654, where he died and is buried.

Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.


Neh 1-Neh 7 NABRE – I. The Deeds of Nehemiah Chapter 1 – Bible Gateway

Microsoft Word – DocsOfCTGov.doc

Register and manual – State of Connecticut : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Roger Ludlow – Wikipedia

Are We the Constitution State? – Connecticut Explored (

Why is Connecticut Called the Constitution State? (

History of Connecticut – Wikipedia

Windsor, Connecticut – Wikipedia

Mayflower Compact – Wikipedia

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath
Independence Hall, Philadelphia

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



In The Federalist No. 6, Alexander Hamilton sought to refute the claim that commercial republics, such as the thirteen original united states, do not go to war with each other, and that, therefore, there was no threat of eventual disunion to be feared from the looser structure of the Articles of Confederation. He cited numerous historical examples, from ancient Greece to more modern times, to challenge that comforting assertion. Hamilton urged, “Let experience, the least fallible guide of human opinions, be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.” His approach was characteristic of many discourses and arguments in The Federalist. James Madison frequently referred to the history of ancient Greece, while Hamilton repeatedly looked to the fate of the Roman Republic and to the history of English constitutional practice. Other antagonists engaged in similar mode of argumentation in the debate over the fate of the proposed Constitution of 1787.

Indeed, that tactic was not limited to the debates over the Constitution. For example, John Adams extensively discussed the history of Italian republics in his multi-volume work on contemporary state constitutions, A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, written from 1786 to 1788. After all, history is recorded human experience. The lessons that history might teach are drawn from the often-painful experiences and frequently tragic responses of those who went before us. The need to examine those experiences and debate their lessons was particularly acute when the undertaking was a new political order, Novus ordo seclorum, as the new motto placed on the Great Seal of the United States by the Confederation Congress promised. As Adams wrote to an acquaintance in connection with the publication of Defences, “They [the Italian republics] are the best Models for Americans to Study, in order to show them the horrid precipice that lies before them in order to enable and Stimulate them to avoid it.”

While history is the record of experience which subsequent generations can use as a primer in guiding their affairs, tradition (or custom) is the collective manifestation of that experience. It is “how things are done here.” Tradition sometimes is rejected because it is outdated for modern conditions, or at least appears to be so. But before rejecting tradition, it is wise to remember the precautionary principle captured in G. K. Chesterton’s Fence, an admonition best summarized as, “Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.” Tradition allows us to live in a social community without the chaos and inefficiency of having to learn anew each day how to organize complex human relationships.

The use of tradition to guard against rash, irrational, or oppressive political action has a long heritage. Reliance in ancient Roman republican constitutional practice on the mos maiorum, the tradition of the forefathers, sought to restrain arbitrary actions by ambitious politicians who might threaten the stability of the republic and the well-being of its citizens. Violations of tradition might have disastrous consequences. In Sophocles’s Oedipus Cycle, the Theban princess Antigone attempted to bury her dead traitorous brother in accordance with the ancient tradition rooted in divine commands. In doing so, she defied King Kreon’s decree to let the body be torn apart by animals. The deadly consequences of that decree for Antigone and for Kreon and his family is the stern lesson taught by the dramatist.

Another literary example is in Homer’s Iliad. The downfall of Troy results from the violation of the ancient Greek tradition of hospitality (xenia) by the Trojan prince Paris in running off with Helen, the wife of his host, the Spartan king Menelaus.

A more recent case in point is the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution instigated in the 1960s in Red China by Chairman Mao. He urged radical Red Guards to destroy the “Four Olds,” old ideas, culture, customs, and habits. The disastrous result for the Chinese people was an exemplification of the chaos, misery, and suffering when the bonds of tradition are sundered, and societal fences are torn down irrationally.

American writers of the Founding appealed relentlessly to tradition to justify their actions. Their claims that the British government was violating their ancient rights as Englishmen by enacting statutes, such as the Stamp Act, might have been dubious politically and self-interested economically. Their references to Magna Charta might have been strained as a matter of history. Still, those arguments reflected an attitude Americans maintained throughout the period that theirs was a “conservative” reaction against dangerous constitutional usurpations that went against the very reason for government, namely, to protect human flourishing.

In the same manner, during the debates on the Constitution of 1787, the new charter’s supporters repeatedly rejected the argument that it was a radical anti-republican proposal. Instead, the writers of The Federalist Papers, particularly James Madison, claimed that the new document was built on the Articles of Confederation, with some modifications needed to correct the earlier charter’s most glaring deficiencies. Madison’s claim might have been in tension with the approach adopted early by the Philadelphia Convention of writing a new document rather than proposing amendments to the Articles. It might contradict some of his own positions in that collection of essays. But it was an argument frequently repeated in the state conventions. Indeed, the preamble to the Constitution itself declares that the object was to form a “more perfect Union,” not to create one.

The accumulated wisdom of those who have gone before us, which is reflected in living traditions, plays a particularly prominent role in law. “Law” is associated with constancy, predictability, and knowability. We speak of “laws” of physics, which means that the associated phenomena manifest themselves universally and regularly, that we can predict specific results from their applications, and that we can understand them through observation and reason, often expressed through the language of mathematics. Universal “law” in the context of human action is more speculative, but not entirely so. Discovering such law is predicated on observation and reasoned interpretation primarily of the experiences of people within one’s own culture at different times, but also of those of people in other cultures. Such universal prescriptions of “right” conduct, whether called natural justice, natural law, divine law, or something else, animate not just particular political decrees and legislation but also customs which direct how one should comport oneself more generally.

“Natural law” in that sense is a construct primarily of metaphysics, but also has clear connections to religion. It is an application of tradition to matters of government and politics, but it also has an inherent moral content, rooted in an external source. Consider, for example, the words of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans that the Gentiles, who do not have the Mosaic law, nevertheless can in their nature act in accordance with the law because it has been placed on each person’s heart by God and is exercised through conscience.

Although natural law has an inherent moral content that exists independently of human practice, that content is best gleaned through investigation of how “things are done” over time and consistently, in other words, experience reflected in tradition. As Aristotle declared in Politics, “observation tells us that every state is an association, and that every association is formed with a view to some good purpose.” The manner in which something operates successfully over time is evidence that it acts in accordance with its true nature or essence.

In jurisprudence and juristic practice, the force of tradition is expressed in one form through the doctrine of stare decisis (“to stand by things decided”), the presumptive adherence to precedent in judicial decisions that promotes the stability and predictability which are the attributes of law. For example, a determination by the Supreme Court of what a provision of the Constitution means is binding on the lower courts. But even in matters heard by subsequent panels of the Supreme Court, the earlier Court’s holding is unlikely to be disturbed. Although this is not an invariable rule, the longer and more frequently that earlier precedent has been followed, the less likely the Court is to disregard it in a similar subsequent case. Many are the paeans that various justices have penned to the doctrine of stare decisis, although the cynic might say that the doctrine lasts only as long as it fits the author’s conception of the “right” result in a particular case. Adherence to precedent allows the courts to guard against the “dangerous innovations in the government,” the function to which Alexander Hamilton pointed in The Federalist No. 78 as the core purpose of judicial review of the constitutionality of legislation.

Because the object of the ethical state is to provide the conditions for human flourishing, those political arrangements which are most successful at that endeavor are the best. Human law is useful to provide the order needed for individual flourishing within a community. But not just any law, only law directed towards that end. The philosophic speculations of Aristotle about the limits imposed by natural justice on the human lawgiver, and the intellectually rich and politically significant investigations of “natural law” by philosophers from the classical Cicero to the medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas, to the more modern Francisco Suarez and Hugo Grotius address ways to establish an ethical basis for ordinary human law and a proper balance between liberty and order, individual and community.

“Order” can mean many things. Fundamentally, the word conveys stability, rules, and limits. Tradition, law, and order are essentially bound. The concept of natural law is founded on the idea of an orderly universe governed by stable laws of physics and, regarding human action, universal rules of morality. The preeminent expositors of natural moral law, the European scholastics of the Middle Age, lived and wrote in a highly ordered society, where everyone had a designated place in that feudal order. Moreover, it was understood that human society itself existed in a universal order governed by God.

The advent of modernity rejected the strict structural approach of a universal order of which each person was a part. Instead, the focus became on voluntary association and consent as the basis of society, and on individual natural rights, rather than duties and rights derived from one’s place in the “natural” order of things and persons. The problem with a focus on individual will and consent as the basis for individual action is that it invites atomization, subjectivism, moral relativism, and nihilism, concerns vividly raised many centuries ago by Plato in his discussion of the “democratic man” in The Republic. Unbridled liberty is chaotic and threatens to veer into license, as there exist no external standards that can claim inherent legitimacy based on higher moral authority or the moral force conveyed by tradition. Each person becomes a moral standard only onto himself or herself.

Yet the need remains for structure and stability in an orderly society, lest the relations among people devolve into a competition defined solely by power, resembling a Hobbesian state of nature of a war of all against all. The solution proposed by various “left” writers, from Rousseau to Marxist-Leninists of various stripes, of a government where the rulers embody a stylized “general will” of the collective in place of the expression of individual wills inevitably has led to dictatorship and oppression. To have that necessary stability, yet foster individual flourishing, there must be, as various Supreme Court opinions have pronounced, “ordered liberty” whose fundamental principles are protected under the Constitution. The difficulty, of course, lies in striking that balance, of achieving practically what otherwise is only an aspirational slogan.

The Framers of the Constitution and other Americans of that era understood all of this quite well. John Adams and the New Englanders came to this knowledge and conviction easily, based on their Puritan culture. Hard-headed and practical statesmen, such as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, understood this from life experience in political and military conflict. Even those drawn to more utopian ideas and more naive idealism, such as Thomas Jefferson, were brought down to earth by revulsion at the excesses of the French Revolution set in motion by radical ideologies. Liberty and order, change guarded by tradition, were the guiding principles of the Founders, informed by the lessons of history and by their own experiences.

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Signing of the Constitution - Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, painting by Howard Chandler Christy, on display in the east grand stairway, House wing, United States Capitol.

Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner



Our Founding Fathers did not create a government or craft a constitution to serve government’s interests or even their own narrow interests. They created a government that focused on securing the liberty of the American people and that strictly limited and checked the power of the federal government. They had a great deal of experience with government that existed for the primary purpose of advancing the interests of those who already had tremendous political power.

They had experienced the tyranny of the British Crown. In the Broadway play “Hamilton,” King George sings, “And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love” and “when push comes to shove, I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” While those exact words were not likely uttered by King George, that was what he did in practice. It also reveals the way so many rulers treated their subjects throughout history.

Our Founders specifically rejected this model of abusive and unlimited government. Virtually every government in recorded history either started out, or became first and foremost about increasing and preserving its own power, influence and prestige at the expense of its subjects. Rarely has government been focused on the citizen’s freedom and opportunity. That may be the rhetoric used to obtain or retain power, but it has rarely been the actual focus of government.

Every dictator in history has made promises of using the power that he sought for the benefit of the people. But virtually none of them have actually done it. It has always been a talking point, but not an action point. Whether it was Mao or Lenin, Hitler or  Mussolini, Castro or Chavez, or the Ayatollah, they all promised to create a more equal and just society, and to right past wrongs. But, of course, history records that they magnified and multiplied the wrongs and made society far worse. They created societies of increased brutality, misery, and poverty.

In contrast, America’s Founders wrote a constitution that limited the power of government — even though they knew that they would likely be the early presidents, cabinet secretaries, congressmen and senators. In other words, they wrote a constitution that limited their own power. That proves they were not cut from the same cloth as most of the rulers we read about in history books. They formed a government designed to limit and check governmental power, but keep the people as free as possible from government’s arbitrary edicts and mandates.

Some argue that one of the weaknesses of our Constitution is that it is difficult and sometimes cumbersome to get things done. But that wasn’t by accident. It was by design. Our Founders understood that government’s power to do evil and to compromise and abridge the natural rights of its citizens was far more significant than the likelihood that government power, if left unchecked, would be used to benefit the citizenry or preserve their freedoms.

So our Founders wisely placed limits on their own power. They did this because they wanted to create a society where the freedoms and the opportunities available to the citizenry were virtually unlimited. They did not see themselves as rulers and American citizens as their subjects. They saw themselves as having been temporarily entrusted with limited powers to govern, not rule; and they saw Americans as citizens, not subjects.

George Washington, the president of the constitutional convention where our Constitution was written, debated and passed, and our nation’s first president, refused to be called by the titles that many of the kings and powerful were called in Europe. He said “No” to being called His Highness, His Excellency, His Mightiness, His Elective Majesty, among others. He said his title should be “Mr. President.”

At that time, those of power and wealth had titles — Lord, Duke, His Grace, etc. In contrast, a person of common station, with no real societal power, was referred to simply as Mister. And that is the title that George Washington chose to emphasize that the government they were forming wasn’t there to benefit those who held office, but to guarantee freedom and opportunity to its people.

But it wasn’t merely George Washington who rejected the historical political power model of Europe. The Founders as a group wanted to build a society whose foundation included the principles of self-government, but that also didn’t subject our basic rights to the popular vote. Simply stated, the Bill of Rights makes it clear that even if the vast majority of Americans don’t like what you’re saying or writing, you have the right to say it or write it.

Even if the majority dislikes you, you have the right to due process and a fair trial if you’re accused of a crime. Even if the government wants your property and claims to need it for the public good, it may not take it from you without paying you for its value. The Bill of Rights, properly understood, is not a statement of rights as much as it is a firm prohibition against government and the majority trying to abridge our God-given rights. So our Founders crafted a government designed to empower the people through majoritarian processes, but also protected our rights — placing them beyond the power of a popular vote or the power of government to abridge.

If we think about the type of constitution that most people throughout history who have aspired to power would write, we would see few limits on their power and a great deal of limits on the people and their rights. But our Founders were very different and that made a huge difference in the sort of nation the United States of America became.

It was John Adams, our nation’s second president and a crucial Founder, who said in a letter, “We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form.” [1] And the Founders did precisely that. They thought about what they wanted America to become — a land of freedom and opportunity for its citizens — and carefully crafted a constitution to accomplish that goal. This is proof positive that our Founders were very different from most of history’s politically powerful figures.

Our Founders understood the fundamental importance of limiting the power of government and leaving the people free to govern the details of their own lives. As James Madison said in the Federalist Papers, Number 51,

If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

Throughout history, governments had whatever powers they could get away with exercising — including genocide and murder of the masses. But our Founders designed a government that would be the foundation for a civil society of order and peace, but anywhere beyond that, government was forced to limit itself and its actions.

This has made all the difference and launched America to greatness. This approach made Americans the freest, most prosperous people in the world. People clamor to come to America from all over the globe because they see it as a shining city on a hill and as a land of opportunity. When the power of the government is constitutionally limited, the freedoms and opportunities of the people are maximized and the people thrive rather than merely survive.

Our Founders got it right — they didn’t build a government to benefit themselves or make government all-powerful. They carefully crafted a constitution that made Americans free, protected their rights, and made opportunity a key feature of the nation. That makes our Founders unique in history and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom. Frontiers of Freedom, founded in 1995 by U.S. Senator Malcolm Wallop, is an educational foundation whose mission is to promote the principles of individual freedom, peace through strength, limited government, free enterprise, free markets, and traditional American values as found in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

[1] John Adams, Thoughts on Government, in a letter in reply to William Hooper 1742-1790, North Carolina Continental Congress Delegate and John Penn 1740-1788, North Carolina Continental Congress Delegate, April 1776.

Further reading:

Papers of John Adams, volume 4, III Thoughts on Government, Massachusetts Historical Society

The Works of John Adams, vol. 4. Part of The Works of John Adams, 10 vols. A 10 volume collection of Adams’ most important writings, letters, and state papers, edited by his grandson. Vol. 4 contains Novanglus, Thoughts on Government, and Defence of the Constitution.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Guest Essayist: Adam Carrington

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.

Click here for First Principles of the American Founding 90-Day Study Schedule.
Click here to receive our Daily 90-Day Study Essay emailed directly to your inbox.

Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner


Constituting America first published this message from Founder Janine Turner over Memorial Day Weekend, 2010, the inaugural year of our organization. We are pleased to share it with you again, as we celebrate our 13th birthday!  

Read more