The founding fathers, particularly the writers of the Federalist Papers, were well versed in the classics, Greek literature, historical records of successes and failures of governments, and the political theorists of their era. The Founders’ views of human nature are the basis upon which they created a democratic republic such as they did in America. This paper will examine elements of the how the Founders’ viewed human nature, and how that view influenced the resulting mechanisms placed within the Constitutional government of the United States. This examination will focus on James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers Numbers 6, 10, and 51, and other writings of Madison. In addition, the theories and writings of the era that influenced both Madison and other founding members of the federal government will be reviewed.
At the core of theorizing on governmental practices in the era that followed the Protestant Reformation was an increased emphasis, even respect, for the individual (Baradat 69). Thinkers and proponents of political theories, such as Locke, Hobbes, and Reasseau looked to the ancient Greeks and history for guidance on the nature of man and how government should be instituted to reflect that very nature. John Locke was particularly influential on the Founders and his ideas can be directly viewed in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. It was Lockes’ struggle with the duality of man’s nature (though he was optimistic about it) that the Founders, particularly the nationalists Madison, Hamilton, and Jay who penned the Federalist Papers, focused.
Locke’s discussion of this issue is evident in his Second Treatise of Government. “Thus we are born free, as we are born rational; not that we have to exercise either.” (34). Locke continues, “The freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by…to turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free” (34). Later in the treatise upon discussion of the act and role of government, Locke states, “For he that thinks absolute power purifies men’s blood, and correct the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary” (49). In addition to this recognition of the two seemingly opposite natures of man held at once, Locke illustrated this appeal to the Almighty when discussing men in the legislature: “Their power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society.…Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others….to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it” (71). Thus, Locke is exposing the dangers that the ill side of human nature has in encroaching on the natural law and the consent of the governed—all of which is bestowed upon humanity by God.
Democracy, for the Founders, seemed to be the logical and desired conclusion on how to utilize the consent of the governed, the social contract, and the notion of popular sovereignty. However, past historical failures of democracy let the writers of the Federalist Papers, and other nationalists and confederates, to seek to devise remedies for these failures while still maintaining the ideals of the social contract and popular sovereignty. In order to construct these remedies contained in the experiment of a federal, Constitutional America, the Founders assimilated the nature of man to expose, address, and attempt to solve the ills that plagued democracy. As well, they attempted to exalt or exploit the blessings humanity has received from its Creator.
The nature of man contained several components as revealed by our Founders’ writings:
1. God created humanity and is subject to Him. All men are equal in value.
2. Man was born into a natural state, but being a social creature, strived to better his condition and thus formed alliances with others.
3. Man was born with certain God-given rights. Rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (property). Those rights are not an allowance to infringe on another’s rights. Nor is the government allowed to separate one from his rights without a just cause.
4. Man can be selfish—even violent—in motives, but rational to solve problems with reason.
5. The most rational man can be overcome with passion or self-interest, and, either individually or collectively, oppress the rights of others.
6. Rational men can overcome passions and seek the greater good.
Entering the social contract, the consent to be governed is the compromise a free man makes to ensure and secure his God-given rights. Man always maintains the right to change or abolish the government when it no longer continues to serve said purpose.
Amy Zewe is a professor of English and the Humanities, completing graduate work at The George Washington University and Tiffin University. She is also a freelance writer and editor as a business communication specialist and offers commentary on political and social issues to various media outlets. Amy resides in Northern Virginia.
Baradat, Leon, P. Political Ideologies. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Barron, Robert C. eds. Jefferson The Man in His Own Words. Golden CO: Fulcrum Publishers. 1998
Greene, Jack P. eds. Colonies to Nation 1763-1789 A Documentary History of the American Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1967.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Macpherson, C.B. eds. USA: Hackett, 1980.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford Press. 1982
Rossiter, Clinton, ed. The Federalist Papers. New York, NY: Signet, 1999.
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