When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were creating the University of Virginia, they decided that the three American documents that would best illuminate the meaning of the Constitution when teaching future statesmen were the Declaration of Independence (along with the ideas of John Locke and Algernon Sidney), George Washington’s Farewell Address, and the Federalist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence expressed the universal principle that all men were endowed by a Creator with natural, unalienable rights. Influenced by the ideas of John Locke’s social compact theory, the purpose of government was to protect those natural rights.
If any government became tyrannical, or destructive of the ends for which it was created, the people had a right to overthrow that government and to institute a government that would protect their rights.
In Abraham Lincoln’s estimation, the Declaration of Independence was an “apple of gold” in the “picture of silver” of the Constitution. The Constitution established a limited government that would provide for the rule of law and good governance based upon just laws that would provide for the happiness of the people, namely that their rights and liberties would be safely secured. Thus, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were inextricably linked in the American natural rights republic.
In his Farewell Address, President George Washington upheld the Constitution and Union as the basis for wise laws, the happiness of the American people, and the preservation of liberty. Washington prayed that:
Your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its Administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and Virtue; that, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.
In 1787 and 1788, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote Federalist essays in defense of the new Constitution. Thomas Jefferson would call them “the best commentary on the principles of government which ever was written.” Their genius was most obvious in their explanation of the principles on which the new government was founded.
In Federalist #51, Madison assumed a classical and Christian understanding of the flawed nature of man. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But, since men are not angels, government is necessary and even good as it secures their natural rights and provides a rule of law for civil society. In Federalist #55, Madison believes that humans are capable of goodness and virtue that allows them to govern themselves in a republic: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature that justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”
In Federalist #39, Madison describes the nature of republican form of government. He defines a republic as a “government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” This basic principle of popular sovereignty is most clearly evidenced in the Constitution in the Preamble, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union.”
Tying the Constitution back to the social compact of the Declaration of Independence in Federalist #51, Madison posits that a “dependence on the people, is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” Nevertheless, social order and constitutionalism would best be preserved by a limited government with enumerated powers and a good framework rather than a frequent recurrence to the right of rebellion. Therefore, Madison wrote that, “Experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
In the same essay, Madison explains the auxiliary precautions that limited the government and protected the inalienable rights of the American people. The constant aim, Madison writes, is to divide power because of human nature in a government administered by men over men. First, the Constitution divided the national government into three distinct and separate branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. In a republic, Madison states, the “legislative authority necessarily predominates” because it writes the laws with majority rule and represents the sovereign people. Therefore, the bicameral Congress would be divided into a House of Representatives and a Senate. Second, those branches then have checks and balances over each other such as the presidential veto over legislation or the power of impeachment. Third, in the compound, or federal, republic of the United States, power is divided among different levels of government: local, state, and national. “Hence,” Madison writes, “a double security arises to the rights of the people.” All of these devices were placed in the Constitution to create a durable and lasting republic that would fulfill the purposes of government under the Declaration of Independence.
In Federalist #51, James Madison stated the simple truth that, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.” This is the essential purpose of the American Constitution. As Jefferson would later say of the Declaration of Independence, it was a truth that could be found in the “elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” The same is no less true of the Constitution.
Read The Constitution of The United States of America here: http://constitutingamerica.org/?p=3347
Tony Williams is the Program Director of the Washington-Jefferson-Madison Institute in Charlottesville, VA. He has written four books and teaches history in Williamsburg, VA.