When in 1863 Abraham Lincoln began his address at Gettysburg battlefield with the phrase, “Four score and seven years ago,” he reminded his fellow citizens that their cause in the Civil War was also the cause of 1776. In the year of America’s birth, Lincoln stated, “Our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
America’s principles are liberty and equality, and our Founding understanding of their relationship was revolutionary.
The Declaration affirms the idea that all human beings are created equal in their possession of “certain unalienable rights.” These rights include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They are given to human beings by “Nature’s God”—not government.
These natural rights are an individual’s most precious property, America’s Founders argued. Government’s primary purpose is to protect these fundamental rights. The Declaration of Independence is an indictment of a government that had betrayed its purpose. Instead of protecting his subjects’ rights, King George III routinely violated them. Rejecting their status as subjects to a king who had become a “tyrant,” Americans declared to the world that they now stood proudly as citizens of a new nation.
Citizenship requires self-government. Americans, James Madison wrote, “rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” The readings in this series, drawn from Hillsdale College’s The U.S. Constitution: A Reader, are direct or indirect reflections on the American experiment.
The United States Constitution is the written result of America’s early political experiments. Drawing from their own colonial experience and the history of other regimes through the ages, the framers of the Constitution rejected the Articles of Confederation as a failed experiment, and launched a new one that was based upon a “new science of politics.”
That new regime, or form of government, was republican. The people do not rule directly; rather, they are responsible for electing their representatives. These representatives, in turn, are responsible to the Constitution, and to the people. Our government was designed to be limited, but not weak. Its strength is necessary so that the rights of American citizens are protected, and the purposes of the Constitution upheld.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Progressive thinkers challenged the Founders’ experiment in self-government with what they saw as a new-and-improved model of experimentation led by experts. Instead of relying upon popular virtue and the institutional arrangements of separation of powers, federalism, and limited government, Progressives put their faith in the prospect of political perfectibility of mankind.
The U.S. Constitution: A Reader is a dialogue across the ages about the most important political questions. By pointing us back to the classics of political thought that have defined our successful experiment in self-government, this forum will also reveal the major challenges to the Constitution.
We invite your participation in this constitutional conversation, and welcome the contribution you will make to the renewed success of the American experiment in self-government.
Read The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3136