Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. What Are the Central Principles of the American Founding?

 

I’ve been developing a hypothesis about the central founding principles of America. I was inspired by a recent National Review Institute discussion on nationalism between Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg, moderated by Jim Geraghty. (It’s a good discussion, about 30 minutes long, here.) At around 5:10, Goldberg said:

Now, I heard Tucker [Carlson] earlier, or at least bits and pieces of him, love Tucker, been friends with him for 25 years I think he is completely wrong when he said that bit about how “all I’m asking for is a goal, what we want as a nation is a goal, what’s our goal. You can’t solve a problem unless you have a goal.” The goal of the American experiment is frickin’ liberty. [Applause.] And my idea of, the pursuit of happiness is an individual right. Nationalism tends to trample that and define the pursuit of happiness as a collective thing. That’s dangerous.

I found myself in significant disagreement with Goldberg, particularly with his assertion that “the goal of the American experiment is frickin’ liberty.” I think that this is clearly one goal, but not the only one.

Notice that Goldberg based his argument immediately on the Declaration of Independence. This does seem to be sensible, but liberty is not the only thing mentioned in the Declaration, and the Declaration it is not the only relevant document. Perhaps we should look to the Constitution, too.

This was the inspiration for my thought. I’ve identified 11 Founding principles, from the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitution. I rely on parts that I have memorized — and that I expect most of you have memorized, as well:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We can extract eleven principles from these statements:

  1. Faith in God.
  2. Representative government.
  3. Promotion of morality under a system of justice.
  4. Equal application of the law to all people.
  5. Patriotic or nationalist commitment to the country.
  6. Strong law enforcement to secure the peace.
  7. Strong national defense.
  8. Promotion of the general welfare.
  9. An individual right to life.
  10. An individual right to liberty.
  11. An individual right to the pursuit of happiness.

Most of these are obvious in the text. Faith in God is implied by the assertion that our “Creator” is the source of our rights, and that securing such rights is the purpose of the creation of government. Representative government is implied by the assertion that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. Nationalistic or patriotic commitment to the country is implied by the purpose of securing a more perfect Union. Law enforcement is implied by the assertion that the government must ensure domestic tranquility. I think that all of these are quite clear.

“Morality” isn’t specifically mentioned, and is probably the most debatable of my points. I think that it is implicit both in the establishment of justice and the promotion of the general welfare. Justice is essentially about enforcing moral behavior, and the “general welfare” is about more than postal roads, in my view.

I think that this is a pretty good list, derived from the most inspirational portions of our two founding texts.

The objection that I have to libertarian-leaning friends like Goldberg is the elevation of liberty above the other ten Founding values. I have no objection to the inclusion of liberty among these values, and I agree that it is an important one. However, liberty is not the only value, and it sometimes conflicts with others. This is not unique to liberty, as other values are sometimes in conflict. It does seem to me, though, that liberty and the pursuit of happiness are more often in conflict with certain other values.

Increasingly, I’ve been inclined to think that the overemphasis on this single value of liberty, to the exclusion of the ten others, is the cause of many of our current problems.

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  1. Vectorman Thatcher

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…: The objection that I have to libertarian-leaning friends like Goldberg is the elevation of liberty above the other ten Founding values.

    Liberty is meaningless without the other 10. You have the liberty to jump off a cliff. At that point, what have you accomplished?

    Great post, thank you!

    • #1
    • January 4, 2020, at 6:55 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  2. Mark Camp Member

    Jerry, I’m with you on this.

    • #2
    • January 4, 2020, at 7:50 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  3. Stad Thatcher

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…: Nationalism tends to trample that and define the pursuit of happiness as a collective thing. That’s dangerous.

    I think he’s wrong, and that itself is dangerous. Nationalism doesn’t mean one sacrifices everything else in life unless the nationalism is enforced by government. Nationalism made up of individual citizens loving and supporting their country is a good thing, a strong thing, and this is what the left hates.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the left gets all dictionaries to change the definition of nationalism to read as follows:

    Nationalism – a philosophy exclusive to heterosexual white male Christians that they are superior to everyone else.

    • #3
    • January 5, 2020, at 5:51 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  4. Ole Summers Member

    If I had to put it all in one sentence (which one really cant) : goal is to maximize individual liberty while maintaining an ordered civil society based on natural law. natural rights, limited representative government, etc. should fall under this – but there is always a danger in trying over-simplify in order to avoid understanding lol

    • #4
    • January 5, 2020, at 6:05 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  5. Bruce Caward Thatcher
    Bruce Caward Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Sam: That there’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

    Make America Great Again.

    • #5
    • January 5, 2020, at 6:35 AM PST
    • 1 like
  6. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    Concur. And note the order these goals are listed in our founding documents. Liberty, #10 on your list, will disappear from any nation that fails to promote numbers one through nine.

    • #6
    • January 5, 2020, at 6:44 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. philo Member

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio…: …eleven principles from these statements:

    1. Faith in God. 
    2. Representative government.
    3. Promotion of morality under a system of justice.
    4. Equal application of the law to all people.
    5. Patriotic or nationalist commitment to the country.
    6. Strong law enforcement to secure the peace.
    7. Strong national defense.
    8. Promotion of the general welfare.
    9. An individual right to life.
    10. An individual right to liberty.
    11. An individual right to the pursuit of happiness.

    No complaints with the list. Unfortunately, even a generous assessment of the current “health” of all but number 7 is rather depressing. It’s hard to get past the fact that 1 and 2 are on life support (at best). 

    • #7
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:04 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  8. Bob Thompson Member

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    If I had to put it all in one sentence (which one really cant) : goal is to maximize individual liberty while maintaining an ordered civil society based on natural law. natural rights, limited representative government, etc. should fall under this – but there is always a danger in trying over-simplify in order to avoid understanding lol

    Something like this is my thought as well. Individual liberty transcends all the other things on your list we characterize as our civil rights, whether gun rights, freedom of expression or religious freedom, etc.

    • #8
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:09 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Bob Thompson Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry, I’m with you on this.

    I’m also generally ok with Jerry’s list. I looked it through and tested it in two ways, first, is it required that an American actively support each and every item, and second, is one a real American if one works against even one thing on the list. I answered ‘no’ to both.

    • #9
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:19 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    I think this is a very good list and provides the right context today. The only thing to keep in mind is that the Founders were trying to solve a different problem at that time. They were trying to construct a national government for a few limited purposes while preserving and protecting individual and state rights from that government. At that time many of the states had extensive restrictions on individual rights which were not seen as a problem. Today with the 14th Amendment and its application to the states we are in a very different situation.

    • #10
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:20 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  11. Bob Thompson Member

    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… (View Comment):

    I think this is a very good list and provides the right context today. The only thing to keep in mind is that the Founders were trying to solve a different problem at that time. They were trying to construct a national government for a few limited purposes while preserving and protecting individual and state rights from that government. At that time many of the states had extensive restrictions on individual rights which were not seen as a problem. Today with the 14th Amendment and its application to the states we are in a very different situation.

    Where we have wandered with this fits the warning not to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. Yes, your point is correct and the solution was effective for that. But we have at the same time allowed a total abuse of the limited representative government envisioned under federal, not national, government.

    • #11
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:26 AM PST
    • 1 like
  12. I Walton Member

    Faith can’t be a central governing principle. It’s defended by liberty, is a product of liberty, is essential, but it’s not a governing principle. Promotion of the general welfare has been a vague hole in the system that has been massively abused. It was an introductory theme, not a governing principle. 

    • #12
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:39 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  13. Doug Watt Member

    Good post. Perhaps we are reaching a point that a number of citizens in this country are trying to eliminate responsibility in a misguided rationalization of what liberty actually means. They name any number of rights that must be provided them at the expense of their fellow citizens. Libertarians are no more unified than conservatives in defining Liberty. You may as well exclude Progressive’s from this discussion. They are more concerned with collective rights. The problem with the collective view is that all rights become defined by popular opinion.

    Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, the motto of the French Revolutionaries’ were the three things that were never provided to the French people. The State was exalted and seen as the provider of rights. What the State gives one day may be taken away the next day.

    God given rights transcend the state:

    Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

     

    • #13
    • January 5, 2020, at 7:52 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. DonG (skeptic) Coolidge

    I like the phrase “Ordered Liberty”. We work together to create common goods to increase prosperity and protect our freedoms. Since the rest of world does not want that, we have to chose nationalism to meet our goal. I’d be cool with the rest of world wanting to be like Texas, but each nation needs to choose that for themselves.

    • #14
    • January 5, 2020, at 9:53 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Stad (View Comment):
    Nationalism made up of individual citizens loving and supporting their country is a good thing, a strong thing, and this is what the left hates.

    When I was growing up, though, the goodness and strength of “individual citizens loving and supporting their country” was typically called patriotism.

    Nationalism has several perhaps-overlapping but not-identical definitions, and the less-flattering ones aren’t merely a bad-faith strategy to defame the right, but reflect real problems occurring in world history and political science. While it’s possible to qualify “nationalism” and say, oh, no, we mean “American nationalism” or “civic nationalism”, not the other kinds, I don’t quite understand the interest in reviving a word that needs so much qualification in the first place, when patriotism has always been available, going back the Founding split between Patriots and Loyalists.

    • #15
    • January 5, 2020, at 10:23 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  16. Bob Thompson Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):
    I don’t quite understand the interest in reviving a word that needs so much qualification in the first place, when patriotism has always been available, going back the Founding split between Patriots and Loyalists.

    Perhaps patriotism has lost much of its word power since we have moved away from any sense of military service as an important element of American citizenship. Able bodied men within a certain age bracket were once expected as a normal part of being American to serve as needed in the militia or as draftees. Obviously, such a requirement then levied a complementary duty on female Americans to sustain the home front. Nationalism is indeed just a more civic oriented expression of that responsibility.

    • #16
    • January 5, 2020, at 10:41 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Nationalism is indeed just a more civic oriented expression of that responsibility.

    If nationalism were the obviously more civic-oriented expression, why wouldn’t “civic nationalism” be redundant? And yet it’s most certainly not, even if “civic nationalism” never catches on the way proponents of “civic nationalism” hope it does.

    • #17
    • January 5, 2020, at 11:09 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Unsk Member

    “Unfortunately, even a generous assessment of the current “health” of all but number 7 is rather depressing. It’s hard to get past the fact that 1 and 2 are on life support (at best). “

    That unfortunately is the absolute truth. The powers that be in the Democrat party have come out of the closet and have gone full Stalinist Thug Commie Nutcase, with millions following in tow. Far too many today are okay with a Big Brother on steroids Surveillance Police State that yearns to grab all power over the individual and enforce it’s will without mercy. The liberty the Constitution sought to protect is slowly slipping away before our eyes. 

    • #18
    • January 5, 2020, at 11:16 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  19. Bob Thompson Member

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):
    Nationalism is indeed just a more civic oriented expression of that responsibility.

    If nationalism were the obviously more civic-oriented expression, why wouldn’t “civic nationalism” be redundant? And yet it’s most certainly not, even if “civic nationalism” never catches on the way proponents of “civic nationalism” hope it does.

    I’m sorry, I don’t sense a need to go beyond what I said before. 

    • #19
    • January 5, 2020, at 11:20 AM PST
    • Like
  20. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Thanks for the comments and feedback. I have a few thoughts in response.

    I Walton (View Comment):

    Faith can’t be a central governing principle. It’s defended by liberty, is a product of liberty, is essential, but it’s not a governing principle. Promotion of the general welfare has been a vague hole in the system that has been massively abused. It was an introductory theme, not a governing principle.

    I don’t see why faith can’t be a governing principle. I can understand that you might not want it to be. My assertion is that faith in God was one of the founding principles, because it is implicit in the claim that our “Creator” endowed us with unalienable rights. I am making a textualist argument, based on the Declaration on this particular issue.

    I also don’t think that the general welfare principle is a vague hole. I think that it has been deliberately misinterpreted, by confusing individual welfare with general welfare.

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    If I had to put it all in one sentence (which one really cant) : goal is to maximize individual liberty while maintaining an ordered civil society based on natural law. natural rights, limited representative government, etc. should fall under this – but there is always a danger in trying over-simplify in order to avoid understanding lol

    Something like this is my thought as well. Individual liberty transcends all the other things on your list we characterize as our civil rights, whether gun rights, freedom of expression or religious freedom, etc.

    I appreciate your view, which inclines in a Libertarian or Conservatarian direction. I am challenging this view from a textual standpoint. I do not see anything in the Declaration or Constitution that elevates liberty above the other ten Founding principles that I listed.

    DonG (skeptic) (View Comment):

    I like the phrase “Ordered Liberty”. We work together to create common goods to increase prosperity and protect our freedoms. Since the rest of world does not want that, we have to chose nationalism to meet our goal. I’d be cool with the rest of world wanting to be like Texas, but each nation needs to choose that for themselves.

    I don’t mind the phrase “Ordered Liberty,” but it doesn’t give much guidance. It implies some balance between order and individual liberty. I worry that, as a legal principle, it makes it too easy for the judiciary to impose its own polity preferences under the guise of enforcing the Due Process Clause.

    I think that the phrase “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” derives from a 1937 SCOTUS decision (Justice Cardozo), and while it is a nice phrase, I don’t think that it helps in the practical identification of liberty interests that are inviolable (or close to inviolable unless the state interest involved is “compelling”).

     

    • #20
    • January 5, 2020, at 12:57 PM PST
    • 1 like
  21. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Some of you might be interested in my thought process. I think that I formulated the idea of specifically deriving a list of Founding values from the Declaration and the Preamble a few weeks ago. It was in immediate response to hearing Goldberg’s statement referenced in the OP.

    I originally came up with 8 — life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness from the Declaration; more perfect union, justice, domestic tranquility, defense, general welfare, and liberty from the Preamble. That’s 3 from the Declaration and 6 from the Preamble, but the total was only 8 because liberty is listed in both.

    It was writing this post that caused me to add three more. First, faith in God, which I realized was implied by the “Creator” reference in the Declaration (which appears in the same sentence as life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness). Second, representative government, which appears in the “consent of the governed” portion of the very next phrase (again, the same sentence, though after a semicolon).

    This brought the total to 10.

    I took a short break before posting, and it occurred to me that equal protection was not on my list. But — viola — there it is in the same sentence in the Declaration, in the assertion that “all men are created equal.”

     

     

    • #21
    • January 5, 2020, at 1:13 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. Mark Camp Member

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Is there a textual basis for belief in “generally limited government”, or for what is related: subsidiarity?

    I’ve checked to see if it is implicit in any of the eleven, and came up with “no”.

    Here is an explanation of my new term “generally limited government”.

    • The principles identify ends the pursuit of which authorize government action, but apparently do not require it. Public welfare is one.
    • There are specific ends which could, in principle, be sought successfully either by means of the actions of voluntary social institutions (liberal means), or by means of authorized government action (coercive means).
    • The “principle of limited government” states that in such cases, to the extent that government action is not necessary (private action would suffice) government action is forbidden.

    If subsidiarity is taken to refer to the of tasks not just to the closest practical government level to the problem, but to the people as the ultimate level of closeness, then this principle is simply the principal of subsidiarity.

    • #22
    • January 5, 2020, at 1:54 PM PST
    • Like
  23. Bob Thompson Member

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    I appreciate your view, which inclines in a Libertarian or Conservatarian direction. I am challenging this view from a textual standpoint. I do not see anything in the Declaration or Constitution that elevates liberty above the other ten Founding principles that I listed.

     

    From a textual standpoint maybe although you are not able to have any of those founding people expand further. The reason I put individual liberty first is its overall effect and I agree that is why I frequently describe my view as a libertarian leaning Constitutionalist.

    • #23
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:03 PM PST
    • Like
  24. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Is there a textual basis for belief in limited government, or for what is related: subsidiarity?

    No, none at all. Sorry, Libertarians.

    Just kidding.

    The Constitution says: “As government expands, liberty contracts.” Wait, no, that was Ronald Reagan.

    I can’t think of an aspirational statement in the Declaration or Constitution about limited government. It is implicit in the enumerated powers of Congress in Art. I, and in the 10th Amendment, though these do not indicate that the States should be limited.

    • #24
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:20 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  25. Phil Turmel Coolidge

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Is there a textual basis for belief in limited government, or for what is related: subsidiarity?

    No, none at all. Sorry, Libertarians.

    Just kidding.

    The Constitution says: “As government expands, liberty contracts.” Wait, no, that was Ronald Reagan.

    I can’t think of an aspirational statement in the Declaration or Constitution about limited government. It is implicit in the enumerated powers of Congress in Art. I, and in the 10th Amendment, though these do not indicate that the States should be limited.

    Which means we have to argue for it, and convince our fellow citizens to promote it. A political question for our Republican form of Government.

    • #25
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:43 PM PST
    • Like
  26. Mark Camp Member

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Is there a textual basis for belief in limited government, or for what is related: subsidiarity?

    No, none at all. Sorry, Libertarians.

    Just kidding.

    The Constitution says: “As government expands, liberty contracts.” Wait, no, that was Ronald Reagan.

    I can’t think of an aspirational statement in the Declaration or Constitution about limited government. It is implicit in the enumerated powers of Congress in Art. I, and in the 10th Amendment, though these do not indicate that the States should be limited.

    The Constitution limits the powers of the Federal Government to the enumerated powers, but that is distinct from the principle I am referring to. I may not have described it well, let me know.

    • #26
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:46 PM PST
    • 1 like
  27. Mark Camp Member

    Is there textual support for that legal principle that Government may do what it needs to do in order to fulfill its obligations? I forget what it’s called. I think it’s established by very early precedent, at least.

    • #27
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:52 PM PST
    • 1 like
  28. Saint Augustine Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Is there textual support for that legal principle that Government may do what it needs to do in order to fulfill its obligations? I forget what it’s called. I think it’s established by very early precedent, at least.

    See my earlier post “Is a Big Federal Government Constitutional?”

    • #28
    • January 5, 2020, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 1 like
  29. Mark Camp Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Is there textual support for that legal principle that Government may do what it needs to do in order to fulfill its obligations? I forget what it’s called. I think it’s established by very early precedent, at least.

    See my earlier post “Is a Big Federal Government Constitutional?”

    Bingo. “the Necessary and Proper Clause”. Thanks.

    OK, it appears that the necessary and proper clause might need to be added to Jerry’s list.

    • #29
    • January 5, 2020, at 3:03 PM PST
    • 1 like
  30. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):
    It seems that there’s significant consensus regarding my list. Does anyone have anything important to add? Does anyone thing that I included something that doesn’t belong?

    Is there a textual basis for belief in limited government, or for what is related: subsidiarity?

    No, none at all. Sorry, Libertarians.

    Just kidding.

    The Constitution says: “As government expands, liberty contracts.” Wait, no, that was Ronald Reagan.

    I can’t think of an aspirational statement in the Declaration or Constitution about limited government. It is implicit in the enumerated powers of Congress in Art. I, and in the 10th Amendment, though these do not indicate that the States should be limited.

    The Constitution limits the powers of the Federal Government to the enumerated powers, but that is distinct from the principle I am referring to. I may not have described it well, let me know.

    Mark, there’s an argument for limitations on State power as well, but I don’t think that they are addressed in the Declaration or the Constitution, beyond the principles stated on my list.

    There are some specific limitations on the power of States in the Constitution, in Art. I, Sec. 10, but they generally apply to areas in which the federal government is granted exclusive power — things like making treaties, coining money, granting letters of marque, and taxing imports or exports.

    • #30
    • January 5, 2020, at 3:52 PM PST
    • 1 like