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The American Founding

The Founding is where it all begins. The great men who established this country first articulated the foundational principles that still define America. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on the American Founding. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore the Founding in greater depth.

Questions and Answers

What is<b> the Founding</b> and who are<b> the Founders</b>?

Though the peopling of America began much earlier, the American Founding can be said to begin with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, after which the British began to more actively govern their American colonies. The founding period encompasses two pivotal events in the history of liberty. The American Revolution opens at the Battle of Lexington in 1775 and concludes with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The creation and establishment of the Constitution begins in earnest in 1785 (the Constitutional Convention was held in the summer of 1787) and can be said to conclude with the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, or perhaps at the end of Washington’s formative presidency in 1797. The centerpieces of those events are two monumental documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

The Founders are the generation of statesmen who led America through the Revolutionary War and the creation of the U.S. Constitution. They also established the state and national governments on firm footing following the ratification of the Constitution, through the first few decades of America’s history. The most prominent Founders include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Adams. Their principles and actions still provide us with a guide for thinking about today’s political issues.

For more on the Founders and the Founding see Matthew Spalding’s book We Still Hold These Truths.

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What was the purpose of the <b>Declaration of Independence</b>?

As a practical matter, the Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, publicly announced to the world the unanimous decision of the American colonies to declare themselves free and independent states, absolved from any allegiance to Great Britain.

The Declaration of Independence is also the definitive American statement of the conditions of legitimate political authority, the ends of government, and the sovereignty of the people. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, called it “the fundamental Act of Union of these States.”

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What does the Declaration of Independence mean by<b> equality</b>? How does the contemporary understanding of equality differ?

When the Declaration of Independence proclaims all men to be created equal, it means that all human beings, regardless of religion, sex or skin color, possess the same natural rights. The Founders were well aware that different men and women are unequal in physical and mental capacities. But however noticeable the differences between people may be, they are never so great as to deprive them of their rights. No one, no matter how intelligent or capable he or she may be, can claim the right to rule others. Since all men and women share a common human nature, they are all therefore equally entitled to the same natural rights (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

Today, many people think that equal rights are not enough and demand equality of results. They view any inequalities, whether in income or educational attainment, as a sign of injustice. Such claims are misguided. Because we are all different, inequalities are the natural result of living in a free society. Whether through luck, skill, or determination, some men and women will always succeed more than others. And others will fail. So long as no one’s rights are being denied, inequalities are perfectly normal and desirable expressions of the natural diversity among men and women.

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When the Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men,” are<b> women</b> included? Are <b>blacks</b>?

Absolutely: The Declaration of Independence, like the Constitution, does not classify people according to sex or race. The Declaration of Independence’s central proposition—equality—applies to men and women alike, regardless of skin color (or religion, for that matter). The observed inequalities of individual men and women—in intelligence or strength for example—are insignificant and dramatically underscore the ways in which all human beings, as a species, are equal in their nature. The Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men” and not “all human beings” because the former is a more rhetorically powerful way to describe mankind.

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What does the Declaration of Independence mean by <b>liberty</b>?

Liberty is the rightful exercise of freedom. It balances man’s inherent freedom to pursue happiness with the corresponding duty to respect the rights of others.

On the one hand, liberty means the right to live your life as you see fit. For example, no one can rule you without your consent, or compel you to worship God in a manner that is contrary to your conscience. It is for this reason that the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and the free exercise of religion.

On the other hand, if liberty is not to lead to license and anarchy, it must have limits. Thus, the right to liberty, like all others rights, implies a duty to respect the equal rights of others. Similarly, while the right to liberty means that all Americans are free to hold whatever opinions they choose, those who hold minority views must abide by the lawful will of the majority, just as the majority must respect the rights of the minority.

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What are<b> rights </b>and where do they come from? How is the Founders’ understanding of rights different from contemporary conceptions of rights?

A right is something that justly belongs to someone and creates a claim against those who would deprive one of that right. One person’s right implies an equivalent duty in others not to interfere unjustly with that right. In terms of these fundamental rights (called “natural rights”), we are all equal—no one has more and no one less.

Different Founding-era documents trace the origins of our rights to different sources. The Declaration of Independence says that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” the Massachusetts Constitution asserts that “all men are born free and equal,” and the Virginia Declaration of Rights states that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights.” Whether our rights come from God or nature, the point is the same: They don’t come from government. Government exists to secure our rights.

Today, there is much confusion about rights. A right is not merely something you want or claim. You may, for example, want a better job, but that does not mean that you have a right to that job.

For a more detailed explanation of rights, see Charles Kesler’s First Principles essay “The Nature of Rights in American Politics: A Comparison of Three Revolutions.”

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What does it mean to say that our rights are “<b>unalienable</b>”?

The Declaration of Independence states that the rights we possess are “unalienable,” that is, they can never be taken away from us, nor can we give them up. Our rights are moral claims that we have to our lives, our liberty, and our property. Because these rights are part of our nature, they cannot be forsaken or denied.

It is nevertheless acceptable, for instance, to punish criminals by taking their property, liberty, or life because particular actions violate the law.

It is true that we authorize government to do certain things—like punish criminals and tax citizens—that affect our rights. But when we give powers to government, we never alienate or give up these fundamental rights. Government merely acts as a delegate or an agent of the people and is always accountable to the people. This is why we have the right to alter or abolish government if it infringes upon natural rights consistently over a long period of time.

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What are the “<b>Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God</b>” that the Declaration of Independence appeals to?

The laws of nature are universal standards of right and wrong which apply to all men at all times. They are closely related to man’s natural rights: Murder, for instance, violates the laws of nature because it deprives men of their natural right to life. These laws are natural because they do not owe their existence to any man or government: Murder is always wrong even if the government does not declare it to be illegal.

In justifying their independence before the entire world, the Founders needed to appeal to a standard that all reasonable men could recognize. The Declaration of Independence therefore appeals to the laws of nature’s God, that is, that aspect of theological creation that man grasps by his own reason. By speaking of nature’s God, instead of a specific religious conception of God, the Founders made a universal argument, thereby showing “respect to the opinions of mankind.” At the same time, they pointed to a profound agreement between reason and revelation about man and the proper ground of politics.

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Are<b> human rights </b>the same as natural rights?

At the time of the Founding, people spoke of rights as being natural (or God-given). Beginning in the 20th century, these were replaced by the thoroughly modern idea of “human rights.” Although both natural rights and human rights are universal, there are fundamental differences between the two.

First of all, natural inalienable rights do not come from government. Governments only secure these rights, that is, they create the political conditions that allow one to exercise them. Human rights on the other hand are bestowed by the state and have become a catch-all term for anything we desire and deem important. As a result, whereas natural rights (such as life, liberty, and property) are rights that government protects from infringement by others, human rights (such as “housing” and “leisure”) are often things that government is obligated to provide.

Secondly, natural rights, being natural, do not change over time. All men, at all times, have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Human rights, on the other hand, constantly change. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to advance an array of new “economic and social rights” conceived of, defined by, and promoted by government and international bureaucrats.

For more on the subject, see Kim R. Holmes’s Understanding America booklet “How Should Americans Think About Human Rights?

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What is the difference between natural rights and<b> civil rights</b>?

Natural rights are those inalienable rights which directly result from human nature. Men possess these rights, such as the right to one’s own life and the right to liberty, simply by virtue of being human. Since natural rights automatically belong to all humans, government can neither give them nor take them away. Governments do, however, have an obligation to secure the natural rights of their citizens.

Civil rights—such as the freedom of the press, the right to vote, or the right to a trial by jury—are rights granted by governments to allow citizens the proper enjoyment of their natural rights. For example, you cannot enjoy your natural right to liberty if the government denies you the right to vote. It makes no sense to speak of a natural right to vote—since voting only occurs in a political context—but you could see how your natural rights would be jeopardized if these civil rights were infringed. Because these rights stem from society rather than nature, they are called “civil rights.”

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What is the right to<b> property</b>?

The right to property is the natural right to acquire, own, and use property. Property rights form not only the basis for a free market economy, but also for republican self-government, deeply intertwined as they are with human liberty. To be free is to exert one’s talents in the pursuit of happiness, and property rights are a fundamental requirement for securing the just rewards of one’s labor. According to the Founders, property rights also formed the cornerstone of a commercial republic: When a man has a bit of property—a home, a piece of land, his own source of food and security—he can be independent, and therefore free.

To grasp the full breadth of the concept of property rights, property must be seen less as a static possession and more as the dynamic source of opportunity for all—the engine that allows liberty, prosperity, and civil society to flourish. When property rights are secure and markets operate freely, economics is not a zero-sum game where people make a dollar by taking it from someone else, but rather a formidable way to create wealth and raise the standard of living of all.

For a more detailed discussion of property rights, see Edward J. Erler’s First Principles Essay “ The Decline and Fall of the Right to Property: Government as Universal Landlord.”

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What is <b>religious liberty</b>?

Religious liberty is the natural right of each person to worship God as his conscience dictates. Although often equated with toleration, true religious liberty is rooted in the inherent natural rights of man and can never be justly denied. Toleration, on the other hand, is based on the discretion of the ruler and may be revoked at will.

The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits Congress from interfering with the free exercise of religion by citizens. That said, religious liberty may not be invoked to justify disobeying the laws of the country (so long, of course, as they are general laws made for the common good and not unfair laws that target a religious minority).

For more on the subject, see Jennifer Marshall’s Understanding America booklet “ Why Does Religious Freedom Matter?

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What is the <b>purpose of government</b> according to the Declaration of Independence?

According to the Declaration of Independence, men establish governments to secure their pre-existing natural rights. Where there is no government, rights are easily threatened by others, since the coercive power of the state does not function as a deterrent. The purpose of government is therefore to create the conditions that allow each individual to freely exercise his rights. At the collective level, this amounts to what the Declaration of Independence calls the “safety and happiness” of the people. Legitimate government must not only secure rights but also arise out of the consent of the governed.

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How does government <b>secure our rights</b>?

Government secures rights by protecting citizens from those who might deprive them of their rights. Broadly speaking, there are three different types of threats to our rights: foreign nations, fellow citizens, and the government itself.

First, government has a duty to protect its citizens from any outside threats by providing for the common defense and conducting a foreign policy that dissuades foreign countries from threatening our liberty.

Second, to prevent citizens from harming each other, the government passes laws punishing those who would violate rights, by protecting and enforcing contracts and voluntary exchanges, and by establishing a basic legal system where rules apply equally to all.

Finally, government has an obligation to refrain from violating citizens’ natural rights. Government cannot infringe citizens’ rights to life and liberty by harming or oppressing them, and it must refrain from excessive taxation of citizens in order to protect their right to property. Government power should be checked, divided, and held accountable to the people it is supposed to serve, to prevent government from threatening the rights of citizens.

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When can the people exercise their<b> right to revolution</b> and throw off the government?

Only after a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” according to the Declaration of Independence. While the people retain the right to alter or abolish their governments, “prudence...will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” When a government is long established, we should give it a presumption of legitimacy, until the contrary is clear. Because exercising the right to revolution is likely to undermine civil society and lead to violence, governments should not be changed unless it is necessary to do so.

Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence gives the people two options: alter or abolish. The right to revolution should not be the first option. If there is a long train of abuses, the first option should be to alter the government, working within the established constitutional system. It is only after all of these avenues have been exhausted that the right to revolution becomes a prudent and legitimate option. Also, the right is connected to the obligation to institute a new government—it is not a right to create anarchy.

The right to revolution is a right exercised not by individuals but by the people as a whole. It is not the right of an individual to use force or unjust means outside the legitimate political process.

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How can America’s founding principles be just if the country did not <b>abolish slavery</b>?

The Founders recognized that slavery blatantly contradicted America’s dedication to liberty and equal rights. But they also recognized that if their new county was to survive, they would have to form a strong union and that the Southern states would never ratify a constitution that abolished slavery. The Founders therefore had to refrain from immediately abolishing slavery. This compromise allowed for the immediate survival of the union while setting in motion the eventual eradication of slavery.

In countless writings, both public and private, the Founders made clear that they found slavery abhorrent and wished for it be eradicated. More importantly, they took many actions to curtail its expansion and eliminate it in certain places. The Northwest Ordinance, one of Congress’s very first laws, banned slavery and the slave trade in America’s first territory. President Thomas Jefferson signed a national ban on the slave trade on January 1, 1808—the first day after the Constitution’s twenty-year ban on prohibiting the slave trade expired. The opposition to slavery was not confined to the federal government. By 1821, slavery had been fully abolished by half the states in the union.

For more on the subject, see Matthew Spalding’s paper “ How to Understand Slavery and the American Founding.”

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Did the Founders really think that blacks were worth <b>three-fifths</b> of a white person?

Of course not. For the Founders, blacks and whites were equally human. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence make this clear: neither document classifies people according to race. Although the Constitution compromises with the existence of slavery, the words “slave” or “slavery” are never used in the text. Slaves are referred to as “persons” throughout to emphasize their humanity. It should be remembered that free blacks were voting at the time of the Founding in most of the states.

The Constitution does state that for purposes of representation and taxation unfree persons—not blacks—are to be counted as three-fifths of a free person. The slave-holding states are the ones who wanted to count slaves as full persons in order to inflate proslavery representation in the House. The three-fifths was a compromise aimed at preventing slaveholding interests from magnifying their own political power.

The compromise only applied to enslaved persons: free blacks in the North and South were still counted on par with whites for purposes of apportionment.

For more on the subject, see Matthew Spalding’s paper “How to Understand Slavery and the American Founding.”

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How do you account for the fact that the same Founders who proclaimed the equality of men owned <b>slaves</b>?

First of all, not all of the Founders were slaveholders. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, for example, never owned slaves. Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. And then there is George Washington, who set out provisions in his will to free his slaves.

Some of the Founders, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, never freed their slaves. Their failure to do so is a testimony to the darker side of human nature and the profits derived from slave labor: even those the most dedicated to equality were unable to rid themselves of this wicked institution.

Ultimately, the proper way to address the question of slavery and the Founding is not to focus on the Founders in their private capacity as citizens, but rather on their principles and political deeds as statesmen. In their political capacities, the Founders curtailed the expansion of slavery and aimed to put it on the course to extinction by abolishing the slave trade, restricting the representation of slave states in Congress, and outlawing slavery in the Northwest Territory. They took these steps in defense of the principles of the American founding, which were fundamentally opposed to slavery.

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Weren’t all the Founders <b>deists or atheists</b>?

Contrary to the claims of those who maintain that the Founders were deists and that America therefore should be a fundamentally secular nation, the Founders, as a whole, had a robust faith and encouraged religion in the public square.

While some Founders were more traditional in their beliefs (such as John Jay and John Witherspoon) and some more skeptical of religious institutions and doctrines (such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson), the vast majority were firmly in the mainstream of religious belief, viewing God as having created man with an immortal soul, as actively involved in human affairs, and as “the Supreme Judge of the world,” as the Declaration of Independence proclaims.

Even the deists among them—and it is by no means the case that they were mostly deists, as some have claimed—held that God created the world and determined the rules of human action. “It is a fool only, and not the philosopher, nor even the prudent man, that will live as if there were no God,” wrote Paine. While one can always speculate about the details of each individual’s religious faith, it is undeniable that the majority of Founders took religious beliefs seriously and all understood that religion was a necessary and desirable component of republican government.

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Did America have a <b>Christian founding</b>?

Yes and no.

On the one hand, the Founders were deeply influenced by Christian morals and the biblical worldview. For example, they accepted the Christian belief that men are sinful and that they are not angels. That is why they adopted a constitutional system characterized by separated powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

The Founders also created a regime that made room for religion—including but not limited to Christianity—in the public square. There was no support among them for contemporary visions of a radical separation of religion and politics that would have political leaders avoid religious language and strip public spaces of all religious symbols.

Yet, in the end, the Founders did not create a theocracy where church and state are one. To a person, they all agreed on the importance of protecting religious liberty. They enshrined this right in the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Constitution also forbids any religious oath for federal office. As a result, citizens of all religious backgrounds have prospered and contributed to civic life throughout the country’s history.

The real question is not whether America had a Christian Founding, but whether the Founding created a regime where Christian and non-Christian alike could freely practice their religion. The answer is an unambiguous, resounding yes.

For a more on the subject, see Mark David Hall’s Lecture entitled “Did America Have a Christian Founding?

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Is America an <b>exceptional country</b>? If so, what does that mean?

America is an exceptional nation. It stands out when compared to all other countries in the world. And while it stands out on range of indicators—the U.S. has the biggest economy, its military is unmatched, and Americans give more to charity than anyone else—the true meaning of American exceptionalism is not to be found in the country’s achievements. America is truly exceptional because, unlike all other nations which derive their identity and purpose from some narrow unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history—America is built on the universal ideas of equality and liberty. America is the only nation in the world founded on a creed that is applicable to all men and all times. This is what makes America an exceptional country.

American exceptionalism does not mean that Americans are better than others or that America is the greatest country ever. Nor does it imply that the rules don’t apply to America. American exceptionalism is a verifiable claim about the different principles on which the country stands. And what it implies is that America has a responsibility to stand for liberty both at home and abroad.

For more on American Exceptionalism, see Matthew Spalding’s Understanding America booklet “ Why is America Exceptional?

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Constitutional Government

The Constitution translates the principles of the Founding into a framework of limited republican government that remains central to the American way of life. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on constitutional government. When you're ready for more, dive into the online Heritage Guide to the Constitution, read the primary sources yourself and explore the Constitution in greater depth.

Questions and Answers

What was wrong with the <b>Articles of Confederation</b>? Why did we need the Constitution?

The Articles of Confederation (1777–1789), the first form of government adopted by the United States after the Declaration of Independence, was an ineffective form of government that nearly prevented the Americans from winning the Revolutionary War.

The “great and radical vice” of the Articles of Confederation, according to The Federalist Papers, was the inability of the federal government to make laws that applied directly to citizens. Under the Articles of Confederation, America was a loose confederation of independent sovereign states, rather than a true union. This meant that the laws of the national government were mere recommendations that states (and citizens) were free to ignore.

Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was unable to raise revenue or establish an army for defense, each state had its own currency, there was no effective national administration, states erected barriers to commerce, and it was difficult for the nation to conduct a consistent foreign policy.

Any kind of government which cannot make binding laws is bound to fail, and the Articles of Confederation was no exception. Thus the Constitution with its new understanding of federalism was needed to create “a more perfect Union.”

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What is the<b> rule of law</b>? Why is it important?

The rule of law is the idea, as John Adams elegantly wrote, that we live in a “government of laws, not of men.” Nowhere expressed, yet evident throughout the Constitution, this bedrock concept is the first principle on which the American legal and political system was built. It finds its highest expression in the Constitution’s supremacy clause: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States … shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” In America, the law stands above all.

The rule of law is composed of four key components. First, the laws equally bind those who govern—including legislators, judges, and executive authorities—and those who are governed. No person can ignore the law, and no person is unprotected by the law.

Second, when laws are violated, the rule of law requires a formal, unbiased, and routine process of law enforcement and adjudication.

Third, the principle requires certain standards to which lawmaking must conform. For example, no law can declare an act to be a crime after it occurred. Such a law would subject citizens to the whims of government.

Lastly, the rule of law is based on, and emphasizes the centrality of, lawmaking. This is why, although we have three coequal branches of government, the legislature is first among equals.

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What is the <b>separation of powers</b>? Why is it important?

The principle of separation of powers states that the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers of government should be divided into different branches and not concentrated in one. These departments should be separate and distinct because of the corrupting nature of power. If the body that made the laws also could enforce them and adjudicate disputes, it would likely do so in a preferential manner, undermining the rule of law and basic fairness. Power, in other words, must be checked, or it will be abused. In The Federalist Papers, James Madison calls the combination of legislative, executive, and judicial powers “the very definition of tyranny.”

The Framers did not think that merely separating powers on paper would do the trick. The Constitution gives each branch of government some powers over the others to permit it to resist encroachments. For instance, the veto power gives the President a check on Congress. The Constitution therefore not only divides power but also sets it against itself, thereby creating a dynamism within the workings of government that uses the interests and incentives of those in government to enforce constitutional limits.

The separation of powers doctrine also intends to improve the energy and efficiency of government by allowing each branch to specialize, in effect, in order to fulfill its unique function.

For more on the separation of powers, see Charles Kesler’s First Principles essay “What Separation of Powers Means for Constitutional Government.

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What is<b> federalism</b>? Why is it important?

Federalism is a system of government in which powers are divided between the state and federal governments. The Tenth Amendment—which declares that powers not granted to the national government are reserved “to the states or to the people”—affirms that our Constitution creates a federal system of government.

The principle of federalism has three primary benefits. First, federalism protects local flexibility and autonomy. It ensures that power is exercised at the closest and most accountable level possible, allowing different states to take different approaches to policy problems. It will always be impossible for a centralized authority to make a single policy that will work well in all areas of a large country.

Second, federalism provides a “vertical” separation of powers along with the “horizontal” division of powers between legislative, executive, and judicial departments. Thus federalism is crucial to the checking of power and the preservation of liberty.

Finally, federalism creates competition between different states and therefore disciplines them. If different states have the ability to make different laws, and citizens are free to move from one to another, states have incentives to make better laws. Thus, the competition federalism creates expands citizens’ freedom and encourages states to make good laws.

For more on federalism, see Charles Cooper’s Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay “ The Constitution in One Sentence: Understanding the Tenth Amendment.

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What is the proper way to<b> interpret the Constitution</b>?

The proper way to interpret the Constitution is to discern the original meaning of the text as it was written and publicly understood at the time of ratification, a method commonly referred to as originalism. Originalism is entirely consistent with the traditional analysis of the Constitution, enables vigorous engagement with constitutional text and structure, and draws attention to constitutional purposes and principles. Originalism does not preclude judges from engaging in rigorous analysis and from drawing inferences from the structure of government and the Constitution. It is the only approach that comports with the idea of a written constitution based on unchanging principles of justice.

The two alternatives to originalism are both inadequate. Strict constructionism requires a judge to apply the Constitution as literally as possible. In essence it forsakes the spirit of the law by being too attached to the letter of the law. Advocates of a “living Constitution” ignore both the letter and spirit of the law by empowering judges to go beyond the text and import whatever principles or policies into the Constitution they favor. This fundamentally undermines the principles of the rule of law.

For more on the subject, see Keith E. Whittington’s First Principles essay “ How to Read the Constitution: Self-Government and the Jurisprudence of Originalism.

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Who has the ultimate say in determining <b>what the Constitution means</b>?

No one person or branch of government has the final say in determining what the Constitution means. The Supreme Court has the power to decide the cases and controversies before it; those decisions are binding on the parties involved and lower federal or state courts are bound to follow them. However, it is important to remember that the Constitution is not simply whatever the Supreme Court says it is. The decisions of the Supreme Court never replace the Constitution itself.

Just as the Supreme Court is not the final interpreter, it is not the exclusive interpreter. Everyone who holds an office in the United States—the President, members of Congress, federal judges—takes an oath to uphold the United States Constitution. As the Supreme Court must dutifully and faithfully interpret the Constitution when determining the validity of the laws in the cases before it, so too must the members of Congress when they make laws and the President when he enforces them. Each branch has a responsibility to act in accordance with the Constitution. This coordinate-branch construction of government, when executed properly, provides the proper checks and balances and ensures the faithful execution of the will of the people as embodied in our Constitution.

For more on the subject, see Edwin Meese’s WebMemo “ The Meaning of the Constitution.

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What does the term “<b>living constitution</b>” mean?

The notion of a ”living constitution” is the theory of constitutional interpretation put forward by Progressives and modern liberals to justify their new conception of rights and the resulting expansion of the federal government’s reach. The theory of a “living constitution” aims to transform the Constitution into a pliable document whose meaning readily changes to fit the times. While the Constitution is designed to secure individual rights and limit government, a “living constitution” uproots this system in favor of evolving rights and unlimited government.

This deeply flawed understanding of the role of government remains influential today, particularly in the judiciary. Rather than ensure that the laws passed by Congress adhere to the spirit and letter of the Constitution, some believe that the new role of the judiciary is to deconstruct the Constitution, adjust its meaning to the ideas of the time, and move American society toward what judges deem to be useful change. Under this theory, the Constitution is an empty vessel that means whatever judges say it means.

For more on the subject, see Bradley C. S. Watson’s First Principles essay “ Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence.

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What is judicial review? How is it different from<b> judicial supremacy </b>and<b> judicial activism</b>?

Judicial review is the power of courts to evaluate laws and the actions of government to determine whether they are constitutional. Judicial review is a fundamental component of the judicial power. Although it does not appear by name in the Constitution, it is implicit in the structure and design of a written Constitution meant to limit government. When there is a conflict between ordinary law and the Constitution, courts are obligated to take the side of the Constitution.

Judicial supremacy, on the other hand, arises from the mistaken assumption that judicial review gives the Supreme Court the final say in all constitutional matters and that only it can interpret the Constitution. In reality, no one branch of government has the final say on what the Constitution means and all three branches have a duty to uphold it.

Judicial activism goes beyond judicial supremacy as it involves judges substituting their own preferences for laws enacted by lawmakers. This is also popularly called legislating from the bench. Judicial activism is incompatible with the principle of the rule of law as it allows unelected judges to overrule the will of the people as expressed through law.

For more on the subject, see Christopher Wolfe’s First Principles essay “From Constitutional Interpretation to Judicial Activism: The Transformation of Judicial Review in America.

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Is the Supreme Court obliged to follow its own<b> precedents</b>?

No. The Supreme Court’s foremost duty is to uphold the commands of the Constitution. If the Court determines that one of its prior decisions was incorrect, it must overturn this precedent.

Precedents should not, however, be dismissed lightly. As Alexander Hamilton explains in Federalist 78, it is “the proper and peculiar province” of the Court to address some of the weightiest constitutional questions. The answers it gives are very important to the stability of our law, a feature necessary for good government. Consequently, precedent holds some weight in determining the proper way to interpret the Constitution.

Despite the importance of precedent, the Constitution remains the supreme law of the land, and the Court and its observers may fairly consider whether a particular decision was right or wrong. The Supreme Court may therefore revisit some of its doctrines and try to adjust its pronouncements to the commands of the Constitution.

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What does the <b>general welfare clause</b> in the Constitution mean?

The so-called general welfare clause of Article I, Section 8—also called the spending clause—empowers Congress to raise revenue for two purposes: to pay debts and to provide for the common defense and the general welfare of the United States. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the principal authors of The Federalist, famously disagreed about the meaning of “general welfare” and the limits to Congress’s spending power. Yet even Hamilton, who had the most expansive reading of the clause, believed it restricted federal spending to projects which legitimately benefited the entire (general) nation—not just one region or interest group. Early Congresses too recognized that it was not an unlimited grant of power. The first Congress, for instance, declined to fund most local infrastructure projects, but it did fund the construction of a lighthouse deemed necessary for interstate commerce and, thereby, beneficial for the economy as a whole.

Since the 1930s, Congress and the Courts have adoptedthe view that there are no limitations whatsoever on Congress’s power to spend and that “general welfare” means whatever Congress says it means. Today, no project is deemed too local or too narrow not to fall under the “general welfare” rubric.

For more on this clause, see John C. Eastman’s Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay “Enough Is Enough: Why General Welfare Limits Spending.

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What does the<b> interstate commerce clause </b>in the Constitution mean?

In its original meaning, the Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) gives Congress the power to promote commerce by lifting any artificial barriers that may be placed upon it. It does not grant Congress blanket authority to regulate anything it pleases.

Since the mid-20th century, however, the Supreme Court has interpreted the clause to give the federal government virtually unlimited regulatory power over any activity that impacts two or more states. For example, the Court has ruled that farmers growing food for their own personal consumption affects interstate commerce and may therefore be regulated by Congress (Wickard v. Filburn). This interpretation does not fit with the history of this clause.

After the Revolution, the states imposed competing tariffs that restricted the flow of goods across state lines. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to fix this problem. The Constitution corrected the Articles’ failings by granting Congress the power to lift artificial barriers on interstate commerce. The Founders saw this as a necessary condition for a thriving commercial republic.

For more on this clause, see David Forte’s Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay “ Commerce, Commerce, Everywhere: The Uses and Abuses of the Commerce Clause.

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How is the Constitution<b> amended</b>?

Article V of the Constitution explains the two steps in the amendment process: an amendment must first be proposed and then it must be ratified, thereby making it part of the Constitution.

There are two ways to propose an amendment: two-thirds of both the House and the Senate can vote to propose particular amendments, or two-thirds of the states, through their legislatures, can call for a constitutional convention to propose amendments. Because of extensive unknowns, this latter method has never been used; it has only been suggested in the direst of circumstances.

Once proposed, amendments must then be ratified with a simple majority vote by three fourths of the states (38 of 50), either in their legislatures, or through special ratifying conventions. Congress has the authority to specify which method the states use. Only once, in the case of the Twenty-first Amendment repealing Prohibition, did Congress require ratification by state conventions.

By design, the amendment process requires extensive deliberation and ensures that amendments are the settled opinion of the American people. Of the more than 11,000 proposals to amend the Constitution that have been introduced in Congress, only 33 were sent to the states for ratification, 27 of which became amendments.

For more detailed discussion of the amendment procedure, see the Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay “Article V: Congress, Conventions, and Constitutional Amendments” by Matthew Spalding and Trent England.

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What is the<b> Bill of Rights</b>? Why was it added to the Constitution?

The first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified effective December 15, 1791, comprise the Bill of Rights. These amendments limit the powers of government in order to protect certain fundamental rights, like freedom of the press.

Many Founders, however, believed the inclusion of a bill of rights in the Constitution was unnecessary. In Federalist 84, Hamilton argued a bill of rights was unnecessary because the Constitution is a document of limited, enumerated powers. “We the people” vest each branch of government with specific powers. Congress receives the “powers herein granted”—not legislative power over everything and anything. Nowhere in the Constitution have “we the people” given Congress power to regulate speech or religion, or to police the states generally. Thus limitations on powers Congress does not possess are unnecessary.

Hamilton's larger objection, though, is that a bill of rights “would afford a colorable pretext to claim more [powers] than were granted.” After all, he asks “why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” Nevertheless, Anti-Federalists (opponents of the Constitution) insisted on the inclusion of a Bill of Rights.

The Constitution itself, not the Bill of Rights, establishes the institutions and processes necessary to guard against tyranny and secure individual liberty. The Constitution is the chief guard of our liberties.

For more on the Bill of Rights, see Joseph Postell’s WebMemo “Securing Liberty: The Purpose and Importance of the Bill of Rights.

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Does the First Amendment create a<b> wall of separation between church and state</b>?

No. While the First Amendment mandates the separation of church and state, it does not create an impregnable wall between them. It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The amendment prevents Congress from establishing an official state religion. It does not support the modern view that religion must be excluded entirely from the public square.

The Founders opposed the establishment of a national church (though the federal government did not do away with state establishments): church doctrine would not determine the laws, and laws would not determine church doctrine. The Founders were not, however, hostile to religion and did not view references to God in public laws, official speeches and ceremonies, on public property and in public buildings, and even in public schools as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

For more on the subject, see Daniel Dreisbach’s First Principles essay “The Mythical ‘Wall of Separation’: How a Misused Metaphor Changed Church-State Law, Policy, and Discourse.

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What’s the point of the<b> Tenth Amendment</b>?

The Tenth Amendment—the last of the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights—expresses the principle that undergirds the entire plan of the original Constitution: the national government possesses only those powers specifically delegated to it. The Tenth Amendment grants no powers but is a rule for construction, restating, in a different way, what Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution already had stipulated: Congress only possesses the powers “herein granted” by the Constitution. All other powers, by implication, remain with the states or the sovereign people.

In a few words, the Tenth Amendment concisely articulates the very idea and structure of a government of limited powers. It also reinforces the federal system created by the Constitution and acts as a bulwark against federal intrusion on state authority and individual liberty.

For more on this clause, see Charles Cooper’s Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay “The Constitution in One Sentence: Understanding the Tenth Amendment.

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What did the <b>Seventeenth Amendment </b>do to federalism?

The Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, provided for the direct election of U.S. Senators. This changed the original language of the Constitution, which provided that senators would be chosen by state legislatures. In doing so, it altered the principal mechanism designed to protect federalism. 

While most Americans are aware of the horizontal system of checks and balances that the Founders carefully designed into our government by separating the legislative, judicial, and executive branches, many do not realize that the Founders also installed this important vertical check—the election of senators by state legislators. The Founders understood that giving state legislatures the power to elect senators made it in the self-interest of senators to protect state governments against encroachments on their sovereignty and authority by the federal government. This was balanced by a popularly elected House of Representatives that protected the interests of the American people.

The exponential growth in the size and power of the federal government at the expense of the states in the 20th century, and the imposition of unfunded mandates on the states, can be traced in part to this change. Indeed, this was the intended result of the Progressive-era advocates of the Seventeenth Amendment.

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Could <b>women vote</b> in federal elections before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment?

Yes. The Constitution grants the states—not Congress—the power to determine the qualifications of voters for federal elections. Consequently, the question of women’s suffrage was, until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, determined on a state-by-state basis.

This was by no means an empty formality. At the time of the Founding, women were voting in New Jersey—a first in recorded history! Wyoming, first as a territory and then as a state, has always granted women suffrage. In fact, 15 states allowed women full suffrage before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and another 13 states allowed women to vote in presidential elections. By 1920, only seven states entirely denied women the right to vote. Thus, while universal women’s suffrage was not granted until the ratification of the Nineteenth amendment, women had long since exercised the right to vote.

For more on women’s suffrage, see the 1797 New Jersey law allowing women to vote, in the First Principles Primary Source series.

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Is America a<b> republic or a democracy</b>? What’s the difference?

When Americans pledge allegiance to the “flag of the United States of America,” they uphold “the republic for which it stands.” A republic, as James Madison explains in Federalist 10, is a “government in which the scheme of representation takes place.” Unlike a democracy in which the citizens themselves pass laws, in a republic such as ours, citizens rule through the representatives they elect.

The Framers founded a republic because they recognized that mob rule could be just as great a threat to liberty as the rule of a king. Representation, Madison explains in Federalists 63, is “sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions.” America’s constitutional framework thereby seeks to protect the people from the dangers of unchecked popular democracy. Representatives, who are supposed to be a cut above the rest, are entrusted with the legislative power. They, of course, remain ultimately accountable to the people who can vote them out office as they see fit.

In everyday speech, people praise democracy as the most just form of government. What they mean by “democracy” is a regime in which free elections regularly take place and a government that protects the rights of all. Understood this way, America is a democracy, or to be more precise, a democratic republic.

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What is <b>nullification</b> and is it constitutional?

Nullification is the claim that an individual state legislature has the authority to veto federal laws. In the face of seemingly unstoppable federal overreach, some have been tempted to embrace nullification as a means of challenging unconstitutional actions by the federal government.

Nullification, however, is inherently unconstitutional.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land—not the Supreme Court, the federal government, or an individual state legislature, for that matter. State legislatures can do many things to object to, challenge, and seek the repeal of federal laws they deem unconstitutional. But there is no clause or implied power in either the national or the various state constitutions that enables states to veto federal laws unilaterally. Indeed, James Madison, the father of the Constitution, firmly and repeatedly denounced nullification as unconstitutional.

Rejecting nullification as an option does not mean that the states or the people have no recourse. The Constitution itself lays out the best path to change unconstitutional laws: object to the law and change opinions (and political leadership) in the political process, defund and slow its implementation, change or repeal the law, challenge it in the courts, and, if necessary, amend the Constitution.

For more on the subject, see the Heritage factsheet "Nullification: Unlawful and Unconstitutional" and Christian Fritz’s First Principles Essay "Interposition and the Heresy of Nullification: James Madison and the Exercise of Sovereign Constitutional Powers"

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Lincoln and the Civil War

The Civil War completes the Founding by abolishing the institution of slavery. In this great conflict, Lincoln re-affirmed the principles of the Founding and re-established limited constitutional government. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Lincoln and the Civil War. When you're ready for more, explore Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War in greater depth.

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What was the<b> primary cause of the Civil War</b>?

The proximate cause of the war was the Southern states’ attempt to secede and Lincoln’s refusal to acquiesce to the Union’s destruction. Between Lincoln’s election and his taking office in March 1861, seven southern states had violated the Constitution by seceding. As Lincoln explained in his First Inaugural Address, secession is essentially anarchy, and no republican government can survive if the principle of secession is accepted.

The reason behind secession and the deeper cause of the war was slavery. Every major disagreement between the North and the South was rooted in the issue of slavery. While all agreed that the Constitution did not give the federal government authority over slavery in the states where it already existed, Lincoln and the Republican Party argued that the federal government could prohibit the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. Slave states rejected this exercise of federal power and believed their interests were better served out of the Union than in it.

Contrary to popular belief, the war was not about “states’ rights.” States have no rights—only powers—and there is no right to secede following an election whose results you dispute.

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Can individual states <b>secede</b> from the United States?

No. The United States is a government established under a Constitution ratified by the people of the United States acting through state ratifying conventions. That is, the United States is not a league of sovereign-states but a union of states under a national government. As such, individual states have no constitutional right to leave the union at will.

The Declaration of Independence affirms the right of people to “alter or abolish” their government, and there are two ways that this can happen: The government can be altered through the constitutional process of amendment, or abolished by rebellion and revolution, in extreme cases.

During the Civil War, the Southern states tried to maintain a difference between secession and rebellion to give legitimacy to their decision to leave the Union. But secession is no different than revolution. The only way the Southern states could have left the Union was through rebellion after a long train of abuses, but they had not been oppressed by the North when they chose to leave the Union.

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Why didn’t Lincoln let the <b>Southern states secede</b>, instead of taking the nation into a civil war?

In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln explains that the perpetual nature of government and the oath of office he swore to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States” require him to defend the Union and oppose the unconstitutional principle of secession. To reason otherwise would be to legitimize the principle that those dissatisfied with the result of an election may secede at will, thus denying the rule of law. By opposing secession, Lincoln chose the lesser evil of war over the destruction of the country and its constitutional government.

Under the Constitution, states have no right to secede. The people may invoke their natural right to revolution, but only after “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” as the Declaration of Independence states. Lincoln took pains to reassure Southerners that none of their rights had been violated and that he realized he had no power under the Constitution to unilaterally abolish slavery. The Southern states, having explicitly rejected natural rights by embracing slavery, could not appeal to the right to revolution and therefore claimed a constitutional right to secession.

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Why did Lincoln say that he was opposed to <b>abolishing slavery</b>?

Lincoln abhorred slavery and was not opposed to its abolition, but he did say that he would not interfere with it in the states where it already existed since the Constitution gave him no such power.

Lincoln believed that slavery was evil and absolutely incompatible with the central American truth of equality. However, he also believed that it was wrong for a political official to exceed the constitutional authority granted to him. As President of the United States, Lincoln had only the powers granted to him in the Constitution, and the power to abolish slavery was not one of them.

Lincoln’s unwillingness as President to abolish slavery unilaterally in the states should be contrasted with his eagerness to outlaw slavery in the territories. Since the Constitution gives the national government power to govern territories—but not to govern states’ domestic policies—Lincoln adamantly opposed allowing slavery in the territories.

For more on Lincoln and slavery, see Allen Guelzo’s First Principles essay “Prudence, Politics, and the Proclamation.

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Was Lincoln a <b>tyrant</b>?

No. President Abraham Lincoln was committed to upholding the Constitution and the framework of limited republican government it created. The nation was, however, at war and to preserve the Union, Lincoln had to take certain measures which a President would not normally take in times of peace. As he explained in a letter to the Ohio Democratic Convention in 1863: “the constitution is different, in its application in cases of Rebellion or Invasion, involving the public safety, from what it is in times of profound peace and public security.”

Those who claim that Lincoln was a tyrant rely primarily on his decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus at the beginning of the war. Lincoln defended his decision on constitutional grounds: Since the Constitution does not specify who may suspend habeas corpus “in cases of rebellion or invasion” (Article I, Section 9), he as President did so because Congress was not in session. When Congress did reconvene, Lincoln requested it retroactively approve all the emergency measures he had taken since the commencement of the war, and Congress did.

Critics of Lincoln also omit to mention the most impressive piece of evidence against the tyranny claim: free and competitive elections were held in the midst of the war in 1864 and the Democrats openly campaigned on a pledge to end the war and drop the slavery issue.

For more on the subject, see Frank J. Williams’s lecture “Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties in Wartime.

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Was Lincoln the <b>father of big government</b>?

Absolutely not. If big government means an ever-expanding federal budget and a vast civil service, then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. During his presidency, the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), but it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.

More fundamentally, Lincoln was deeply committed to the framework of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He admitted that he could not do everything he desired—even abolish the evil of slavery. He could only exercise the powers granted to him by the people, through the Constitution. The true legacy of Lincoln is not enlarging government, but ending slavery while preserving the Constitution.

In reality, big government is a Progressive ideal implemented by progressive and liberal Presidents whose ideas opposed the principle of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

For more on the subject, see Allen C. Guelzo’s special report “Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who was the real father of big government?”

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Progressivism and Liberalism

The Progressive assault on the limited constitutionalism of the Founders set the stage for modern liberalism and the rise of big government over the past century. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Progressivism and Liberalism. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore Progressivism and Liberalism in greater depth.

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Who were the <b>Progressives</b>? What did they believe?

The Progressives were reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century who believed that in order to address modern problems, America needed to abandon the old ideas of the Founding in favor of a new expansive conception of the role of government. Progressives paved the way for modern liberalism and politics, and their core ideas are still the mainstay of today’s liberalism.

Some Progressives were prominent journalists such as Herbert Croly (co-founder of The New Republic), some were distinguished professors such as John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson (president of Princeton before he was President of the U.S.), and many were political leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and Robert La Follette. Progressives could be found in both political parties: Wilson was a Democrat, Roosevelt was a Republican.

The Progressives were united in their contempt for what they called the “individualism” of the Founding. Instead of a government that protects natural rights through limited, decentralized powers, they envisioned an expansive government, a “living” and evolving Constitution, and the rule of “experts” in nationally centralized administrative agencies.

For more on the subject, see the First Principles essay by Thomas G. West and William A. Schambra “The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics.

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What were the<b> intellectual origins</b> of the Progressive Movement?

The Progressives derived their political ideas from European thinkers. The seeds of Progressivism were first sown by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born in Geneva, lived in France) who wrote that citizens ought to be “forced to be free” and that the “general will” should govern the individual wills of citizens, placing individuals in the service of the collective will of society.

These ideas made their way to Germany in the early 19th century, and had an important influence on the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel incorporated them into what he called a philosophy of History, in which ideas, society, and humanity itself are evolving toward a higher form of freedom. This progress is achieved, Hegel argued, by abandoning the antiquated ideas and traditions of the past, and embracing a new form of freedom, where individuals give the government unlimited authority over their lives.

Many of the American Progressives studied in Germany, and were taught by students of Hegel. They brought the German model of education and German political ideas back to America with them and established Ph.D. programs in several areas of study, producing a new generation of professors and students who sought to replace the principles of the Founding with the new Progressive teaching on politics. These ideas, mixed with Darwinism and a deep faith in science, form the roots of modern American Liberalism.

For more on the origins of Progressivism, see R. J. Pestritto’s First Principles essay “The Birth of the Administrative State: Where It Came From and What It Means for Limited Government.

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How is the<b> Progressive understanding of government</b> different from that of the Founders?

Whereas the Founders believed the government had a well-defined and limited role to play in the lives of citizens—essentially leaving people alone to lead their lives—the Progressives favored a much more active role for the government in overseeing civil society, regulating the economy, and redistributing wealth.

These two fundamentally different understandings of the role of government grow out of two different understandings of freedom. For the Progressives, freedom is not secured when government protects natural rights and otherwise leaves citizens to rule themselves. True freedom, by this view, demands an active government that provides equal means to self-fulfillment for all. It is not enough to create the conditions that allow people to pursue their own happiness—equal opportunity—since some citizens start with more advantages than others. Government must set out to level the playing field and determine outcomes.

To ensure that all citizens possess all they need to attain happiness, government must create an environment in which all possess the same advantages, despite the fact that this requires government to interfere with the very natural rights the Founders sought to secure. Government must redistribute wealth and grant benefits in order to ensure that everyone has equal means to pursue happiness, and must provide economic and social resources to develop the social character of citizens.

For more on the subject, see the First Principles essay by Thomas G. West and William A. Schambra “The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics.

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What is<b> Liberalism </b>and how is it different from Progressivism?

Liberalism can be understood in two very different ways. Liberalism, or what some call “classical liberalism,” is a political philosophy based on individual liberty and limited government. Over the last century, however, liberalism has come to take on a different meaning. The contemporary understanding of liberalism is based not on individual liberty, but on the use of government to grant benefits and advantages in order to give everyone the ability to achieve a certain standard of living and reduce inequalities. Therefore, modern liberalism encourages an extensive network of interest groups that receive benefits from government and organize in order to preserve those benefits.

Modern liberalism grows out of the Progressive rejection of American constitutionalism and an embrace of a new conception of freedom, anchored in big government. There are however certain significant differences between Progressivism and modern liberalism.

Whereas modern liberalism exalts freedom of self-expression, especially sexual liberation, most Progressives embraced traditional morals. Liberals are also obsessed with equality of outcomes in ways that the Progressives were not. Today, liberalism has lost the faith in progress that characterized Progressivism, mostly because of a loss of confidence in the inevitability of progress and the creeping effects of having embraced relativism from the start of the Progressive movement.

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What’s the difference between Progressivism and<b> Socialism</b>?

Both Socialism and Progressivism use government power to control economic outcomes. The methods they use, however, are different. Socialism, strictly speaking, involves the government’s ownership of the means of production in a society. In a socialist economy, there are no private corporations that manufacture goods. All factories and companies belong to the state. Progressivism, by contrast, allows private ownership and control of corporations and manufacturing (thus a private economy and markets), although it does subject them to extensive government administration mostly through heavy regulation as well as other controls.

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What is the<b> New Deal</b>? How does it depart from the principles of the Founding?

The New Deal was the economic security program established under President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933–1945. Roosevelt argued that new economic conditions of industrialization had changed government’s role. Accordingly, the government’s job was no longer merely to safeguard natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Instead, government would have to expand to regulate the economy (through government agencies such as the National Recovery Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission) and guarantee a standard of living for everyone (through programs such as Social Security). 

The New Deal departs from the principles of the Founding in several ways. First, while regulation and welfare have always been a part of the Founders’ theory of government, Roosevelt shifted these functions from local and state governments to the national government, centralizing power and disconnecting it from the communities it was supposed to serve. 

Second, Roosevelt advocated shifting government powers away from the three constitutional branches of government and into a federal bureaucracy that was unaccountable to the people and which combined all three functions of government. 

Finally, with the New Deal, Roosevelt sought to undermine the Founders’ understanding of rights and freedom. For the Founders, citizens possess their rights by nature and must be left free to pursue happiness on their own, within the limits of the law. For Roosevelt, rights come from the state, and government has to supply citizens with what they need in order to become happy.

For more on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, read his “Commonwealth Club Address,” “First Inaugural Address,” and “1944 State of the Union Address” in the Primary Sources series.

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What is the <b>Great Society</b>? How does it depart from the principles of the Founding?

The Great Society was the term used by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 to describe the plethora of programs that made up his grand vision for the role of government. Johnson described the Great Society as the next phase of liberalism after the New Deal. While the New Deal, he claims, gave us economic security, the Great Society would tend to the needs of the spirit and “enrich and elevate our national life.”

The Great Society aims to give people access to beauty and art, and to build communities, rather than merely expand economic benefits (the Great Society does promise to end poverty). Environmental protection, highway beautification, public broadcasting, and other social and spiritual programs are the centerpiece of the Great Society.

Taken along with the New Deal, the Great Society represents the culmination of the Progressive philosophy of government. The Great Society conflicts with founding principles by centralizing government power at the federal level, consolidating power in unaccountable administrative agencies, and establishing a new philosophy of positive rights granted by government rather than stemming from nature.

For more on the Great Society, read LBJ’s Great Society speech in the Primary Sources series.

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What is the “<b>Administrative State</b>?” Is it constitutional?

The administrative state is the conglomeration of federal administrative agencies—whether executive agencies, executive departments, or independent regulatory commissions—that have become a “fourth branch” of government. Power has in effect been transferred from the representative, constitutional institutions—Congress, the President, and the courts—to administrative agencies and bureaucrats.

The administrative state is the conglomeration of federal administrative agencies—whether executive agencies, executive departments, or independent regulatory commissions—that have become a “fourth branch” of government. Power has in effect been transferred from the representative, constitutional institutions—Congress, the President, and the courts—to administrative agencies and bureaucrats.

Although our civics textbooks still describe a government where Congress makes laws, the President executes laws, and courts adjudicate disputes, this is not the way our government actually works. Today, bureaucrats make law, execute law, and adjudicate. Although the laws made by agencies are called rules, they carry the force of law.

The administrative state is inconsistent with the U.S. Constitution. Article I, section 1 of the Constitution states that all legislative powers shall be vested in Congress, yet Congress has transferred its powers to these agencies. Furthermore, the Constitution clearly requires the separation of powers, yet powers are combined in administrative agencies. Finally, many agency personnel are unelected and unaccountable, despite the republican principles on which the Constitution is based.

For more on the administrative state, see Joseph Postell’s special report “From Administrative State to Constitutional Government.”

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Conservatism arose in response to the Progressive challenge in the early 20th century and coalesced into the modern conservative movement in the post-World War II era. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Conservatism. When you're ready for more, read the primary sources yourself and explore Conservatism in greater depth.

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What is the<b> conservative movement</b> about?

The American conservative movement is not defined by a set of policies but rather by a commitment to conserve America's first principles and its tradition of limited self-government. Conservatism holds that these first principles—proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and promulgated by the United States Constitution—define us as a country and inspire us as a people. Conservatives believe that the original structure of America's carefully written constitution and its enduring framework of limited government is the best mechanism for securing national independence, providing economic opportunity, establishing religious liberty, and maintaining a flourishing society of republican self-government. Conservatives believe that the change we need, the change that is consistent with the American idea, is not movement away from but toward our principles—which are both the fixed goal and the unchanging ground of our ever-changing experience.

There are, of course, a wide variety of groups and movements within the conservative movement itself. Some are primarily focused on strengthening our national defense, others are concerned primarily with social issues, and still others are driven primarily to advance economic freedom. Although each of these groups is unique, they are all fused together into an identifiable movement—the conservative movement—by a common commitment to conserve America's first principles and political traditions.

For more on the conservative movement, see Matthew Spalding's lecture " A New American Fusionism: Recovering Principles in Our Politics. "

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What are the<b> origins</b> of the conservative movement?

Though its origins stretch back in Western thought, conservatism, as an organized set of ideas in the United States, can be said to begin when America's founding principles first were seriously challenged and in need of conserving. In the early 20th century a philosophical movement called Progressivism began to dominate mainstream American politics and academia. Progressives rejected the principles of the Founders and advocated reforming the American government as a centralized, administrative state. As Progressivism became increasingly prevalent, prominent political figures and intellectuals, including Calvin Coolidge, began to openly oppose the movement, advocating instead to maintain America's founding principles. As the 20th century progressed, Progressivism and subsequently liberalism would increasingly undermine and attack America's first principles. As these attacks grew stronger, so too conservatism grew stronger and became more visible. The conservative movement became particularly visible and more formalized after 1945 thanks to the energizing work of conservative intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and Barry Goldwater.

For more on the origins of Conservatism, see Johnathan O'Neill's First Principles essay "The First Conservatives: The Constitutional Challenge to Progressivism."

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Who was<b> Calvin Coolidge</b> and why does he matter?

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, was one of the most principled and successful conservative Presidents of the 20th century. He assumed office in 1923 after the death of Warren Harding, under whom he served as Vice-President, and served as President until 1928. 

Coolidge matters today because he is an example of how a principled, conservative leader can be both highly popular and successful in the modern era. Underlying his policies was a proper attachment to America's founding principles. Coolidge was also one of the most important critics of the threat Progressivism posed to those principles.

His conservative economic policies and his constitutional vision helped bring about the prosperity of the 1920s. Harding inherited massive budget deficits and a severe depression from Woodrow Wilson. Coolidge aggressively cut federal spending and income tax rates. In 1922, the top income tax rate was 73 percent. By 1925, Coolidge had reduced it to 25 percent, where it remained until he left office. Harding and Coolidge cut federal spending and helped reduce the debt.

For more on Coolidge, see Julia Shaw's WebMemo "This Fourth of July, Keep Cool with Coolidge."

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Who was<b> Robert A. Taft </b>and why is he important?

Robert A. Taft, known in his day as "Mr. Republican," served in the United States Senate from 1939 until 1953 representing the state of Ohio and was one of the leading opponents of both the New Deal and President Truman's failed "Fair Deal."

As a Senator, Taft respected the checks and balances of the Constitution and stood for liberty under law. He once remarked that "the consideration which ought to determine almost every decision of policy today is the necessity of preserving, maintaining, and increasing the liberty of the people of our country." He also accepted the obligation of government to care, in part, for those who can not care for themselves.

Skeptical about Big Business as well as Big Government, Taft contended for "a humane economy" in which the benefits of American industry might be extended to every citizen. He helped restore the balance between management and organized labor with the Taft-Hartley Act. After his death, Taft was elected to the bipartisan Senate Hall of Fame joining John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Robert La Follette as legislators who have "left a permanent mark on our nation's history and brought distinction to the Senate."

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Who was<b> Friedrich von Hayek </b>and why is he important?

In 1944, when the whole world seemed to be turning left, the Austrian economist F. A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom and laid the foundation for an intellectual and political counter-revolution. Deeply disturbed by collectivist signs in Britain, America, and elsewhere in the West, Hayek proposed a different road—the road of classical liberalism. He listed the personal virtues necessary to travel that road—independence and self-reliance, individual initiative and local responsibility, and "a healthy suspicion of power and authority." At the same time, he accepted a governmental role, carefully limited by law, that encouraged competition and the functioning of a free society.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in economics and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Hayek is regarded as one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, the equal and the philosophical opposite of John Maynard Keynes. An active intellectual, he founded the Mont Pelerin Society, which has become the world's leading organization of free-market advocates.

For more on Hayek, see Bruce Caldwell's First Principles essay "Ten (Mostly) Hayekian Insights for Trying Economic Times."

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Who was<b> Russell Kirk</b> and why is he important?

In 1950, the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that in America liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. Unbeknownst to Trilling, a young Midwestern academic was writing an intellectual history that would demolish such liberal arrogance. With The Conservative Mind (1953), Russell Kirk gave the conservative movement its name and conservatism an intellectual respectability it had lacked in the modern era. Kirk later became one of 20th century conservatism's most active apostles, publishing over 30 books and lecturing on hundreds of college campuses.

His definition of conservatism consists of six canons: (1) a divine intent as well as personal conscience rules society; (2) traditional life is filled with variety and mystery while radical systems are characterized by uniformity; (3) civilized society requires orders and classes; (4) property and freedom are inseparably connected; (5) man must control his will and appetite knowing he is governed more by emotion than reason; and (6) society must alter slowly.

For more on Kirk, see Edwin J. Feulner's First Principles essay "Roots of Modern Conservative Thought from Burke to Kirk."

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Who was <b>William F. Buckley Jr.</b> and why is he important?

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925–2008) was the renaissance man of modern American conservatism. He was the founder and editor in chief of National Review, a syndicated columnist, the host of Firing Line (TV's longest-running weekly public-affairs program), the author of more than 50 books, and a college lecturer for nearly five decades. His mighty stream of words is almost surely unequalled by any other writer of the last 100 years. 

When Bill Buckley came along, American conservatism was composed of "a congeries of ill assorted half-enemies." Buckley purged the conservative movement of its extremist elements and united the rest by persuading traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-communists to focus on a common enemy—liberalism.

Buckley's vision of ordered liberty shaped and guided modern conservatism from its infancy in the 1950s to its present-day maturity as a political force that has transformed American politics. As George Will has written, "Before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater, there was National Review, and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 became a conflagration."

For more on Buckley, see Lee Edwards's First Principles essay "Standing Athwart History: The Political Thought of William F. Buckley Jr."

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Who was<b> Barry Goldwater</b> and why is he important?

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was the first presidential nominee since Calvin Coolidge to run openly as a conservative. He was not so much the nominee of a political party as the personification of a nascent political movement. In his 1964 campaign, he addressed the issues that have dominated the national debate ever since—Social Security, federal spending, privatization, morality in government, and national defense. Goldwater changed the rhetoric of politics by challenging the principles of the New Deal, something no Democrat or Republican presidential candidate before him had dared to do.

Goldwater inspired countless young people to enter and remain in politics. As part of the 1964 campaign, Ronald Reagan delivered his famous TV talk "A Time for Choosing," which made the one-time film actor a national political star overnight (in many ways overshadowing Goldwater).

For more on Goldwater, see Lee Edwards's First Principles essay "The Conservative Consensus: Frank Meyer, Barry Goldwater, and the Politics of Fusionism."

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What were<b> Ronald Reagan's</b> greatest achievements?

Every President is judged on his performance in two areas—peace and prosperity. By this standard Ronald Reagan was one of our greatest Presidents and this is why the last half of the 20th century is often described by historians as the Age of Reagan.

Reagan's military buildup and competition with the Soviet Union not only kept America safe but also won the Cold War without firing a shot, in Margaret Thatcher's memorable phrase. At home, he persuaded Congress to pass an economic recovery program—centered on cutting marginal tax rates—that sparked an unprecedented period of peacetime prosperity. As important, Reagan lifted the country out of a great psychological depression induced by the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and sustained by the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Jimmy Carter malaise. He did so by appealing to the best in the American character. As he explained in his Farewell Address, quoting the Constitution, "We the People" was the underlying basis for everything he tried to do as President.

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What is the <b>Tea Party</b>? Is it important?

The Tea Party is one of the most significant citizen efforts in recent times to revive America's founding principles. It is a grassroots populist movement driven not by politicians but by ordinary American citizens who have become fed up with the excesses of modern government. The Tea Party movement has already had a tremendously significant effect on national politics. It has forced politicians of both parties to pay tribute (even if only superficially) to America's founding principles. In particular, it has galvanized many Republicans to make limited government a top policy priority and revitalized American conservatism.

Although the Tea Party has been dismissed by some as a fringe element of the Republican Party, the movement is, in fact, based on legitimate arguments. The Tea Party's core beliefs are grounded in the principles of limited self-government as a laid out by the Founding Fathers and are consistent with well-established conservative arguments.

For more on the Tea Party, see Matthew Spalding's WebMemo " Reclaiming America: Why We Honor the Tea Party Movement."

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Foreign Policy

Because of its dedication to the universal truths of equality and liberty, America has a special role to play in the world: this country has a responsibility to uphold the cause of freedom abroad. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on foreign policy. When you're ready for more, explore foreign policy in greater depth.

Questions and Answers

What is the most important <b>goal of American foreign policy</b>?

The most important goal of American foreign policy is to defend the independence of the United States, so that America can govern itself according to its principles and pursue its national interests. The U.S. is therefore committed to providing for its common defense, protecting the freedom of its commerce, and seeking peaceful relations with other nations.

At the same time, American foreign policy has a set of long-term goals, or a grand strategy, that have traditionally guided its foreign policy thinking. This grand strategy is shaped by the universal significance of America's founding principles, and the country's unique responsibility to uphold and advance these principles. The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty, and, therefore, the inherent right of self-government, were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere. For over 200 years, through regular diplomacy in times of peace and firm resolve in times of war, the United States has steadily, though at times imperfectly, enhanced the respect for the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice around the world.

For more on the principles of American foreign policy, see Matthew Spalding's First Principles essay " America's Founders and the Principles of Foreign Policy: Sovereign Independence, National Interest, and the Cause of Liberty in the World."

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What is<b> America's role in the world</b>? Does America have a duty to spread democracy around the world?

America has a special role in the world—one that is grounded in the universal nature of its founding principles. Because America is dedicated to the proposition that all men—not just all Americans—are created equal, it must adopt a foreign policy that reflects the political truths that define it. America's role in the world is therefore to stand for the principles of liberty, independence, and self-government, and its interests are defined and shaped by those principles.

This does not mean that the United States has a duty to topple all tyrannical regimes and establish republican governments the world over. That said, the United States may determine that in certain cases it is necessary to fight the monsters of despotism in order to protect its interests, defend freedom, and preserve peace. Foreign policy is always a question of prudence.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's Understanding America booklet "What Is America's Role in the World?"

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Is the United States military responsible to<b> intervene in conflicts</b> where innocent civilians are being killed?

America does not have a formal duty to protect the rights of all mankind since no citizen is required to risk his life for the security or well-being of people in a faraway land. America, like all other countries, has a duty not to infringe upon the rights of others. But the government's duty to secure rights only extends to its citizens—not the whole world.

Given the universal significance of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, America must, however, stand up for those whose natural rights are violated around the world and assist them when possible. This is principled American diplomacy.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's Understanding America booklet "What Is America's Role in the World?"

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Who makes <b>foreign policy</b>?

The Constitution vests the power to make foreign policy in the federal government, specifically in the President and the Senate. The President takes the lead in crafting American foreign policy as the nation's chief diplomat with the constitutional power to make treaties and appoint ambassadors. This authority, however, is checked by the Senate's power of "Advice and Consent": Not only does the Senate need to approve any presidential appointments or treaty agreements, but it can also amend those treaties. While the House of Representatives is given no official role in directing foreign policy beyond declaring war, it can through the power of the purse express public sentiments about the actions of the President and Senate. With this division of power the Founding Fathers found a way to permit the effective and energetic conduct of foreign relations while imposing a system of accountability.

For more on the subject, see Baker Spring's Understanding America booklet "Who Makes American Foreign Policy?"

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What is <b>sovereignty</b> and why is it important?

Sovereignty is a simple idea: The United States is an independent nation and it should therefore control its own affairs. Sovereignty is of fundamental importance in America because its laws derive their legitimacy from the American people, not from any foreign power or international organization.

The Founding Fathers understood that if America did not have sovereignty, it could not be independent. If a foreign power can tell America "what we shall do, and what we shall not do," George Washington once wrote to Alexander Hamilton, "we have Independence yet to seek, and have contended hitherto for very little."

Today, sovereignty faces new threats under the guise of global governance. International organizations and courts seek undermine national sovereignty and expect nations to be governed by a global consensus. The United States cannot participate in this new world order and still remain governed by the Constitution. The U.S. must cooperate internationally, but it must be vigilant in the protection of America's sovereign independence.

For more on sovereignty, see Steven Groves's Understanding America booklet "Why Does Sovereignty Matter to America?"

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Does the President have the power to wage war without a formal <b>declaration of war </b>from Congress?

Yes. From the retaliatory raids on the Barbary pirates at the turn of the 19th century to the 2011 bombing campaign in Libya, American Presidents have deployed military force several hundred times in the nation's history. Yet Congress has declared war on only five occasions—and only once to initiate hostilities (the War of 1812 against Britain). There is no inconsistency in this. The Framers of the Constitution carefully distinguished a declaration of war—which alters the legal relationships between subjects of warring nations—from the act of waging war. Given the exigencies of warfare, the Framers roundly rejected the idea of placing the power to wage war in the legislative branch and vested it instead in the executive. Congress cannot tell the President how to deploy the military forces it raises and funds. Ultimately of course, Congress's control of the purse strings constitutes a powerful check on the President.

For more on the subject, see the Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay by John Yoo and James C. Ho, "The Sword and the Purse (Part 2): The President as Commander in Chief."

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What can <b>Congress</b> do if it disagrees with the President's decision to use military force?

Under the Constitution, the President has ultimate discretion over the deployment of soldiers and nearly all aspects of the conduct of war—including the initiation of hostilities. Ever mindful of the dangers of unfettered powers, however, the Framers were careful to empower Congress to check the President by controlling the funding of the military. Congress has the power to deny or cut funding for any federal activity, including military operations. The President may be Commander in Chief, but he has nothing to command except what Congress may provide. As a result of Congress's authority over the purse, the President is unable as a practical matter to engage in hostilities for very long without the support of Congress. This is why it is usually prudent for Presidents to have the support of the Congress and the American people before engaging in hostilities abroad.

For more on the subject, see the Constitutional Guidance for Lawmakers essay by John Yoo and James C. Ho, "The Sword and the Purse (Part 1): The Role of Congress in War."

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Were the Founders<b> isolationists</b>? Are America's foreign policy principles isolationist?

As a young nation, the American republic tried to remain outside of the turbulent affairs of Europe. Yet this prudential policy should not be mistaken for a principled withdrawal from world affairs. In reality, America's early foreign policy was remarkably engaged. Although it may look unimpressive by today's standards, America's early foreign policy was more supportive of liberty than that of any other country at the time. This was true when the United States was the first established nation to recognize the independence of Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico in 1822, as well as when America diplomatically supported the Greeks and Hungarians in their wars for independence.

This tradition of standing for freedom grows out of America's founding principles, anchored as they are in the universal equality of men. The Founders believed that the idea of human liberty and, therefore, the inherent right to self-government were applicable not only to Americans, but to all people everywhere. They were consequently keenly aware of the universal significance of America's principles and of America's unique responsibility for upholding and advancing these principles. This does not imply a duty to spread the ideas of liberty through force, but it does highlight America's unique role in the cause of liberty in the world.

For more on the subject, see Marion Smith's First Principles Essay "The Myth of Isolationism, Part 1: American Leadership and the Cause of Liberty."

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Were the Founders suspicious of a<b> standing army and navy</b>?

The Founders were suspicious of standing armies because they knew that, in Europe, they had been used by monarchs to oppress the people. That said, the absence of a military capable of defending the United States threatened the very existence of the nation. The weakness of the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation convinced the Founders that the nation needed a stronger government, including a stronger military.

In order to provide for the nation's security while avoiding the dangers of a standing military, the Founders made the common defense a shared responsibility of Congress and the President, the elected (and separate) branches of government. This helped ensure that the American military would serve the nation, not subvert the rule of the people.

Thus, Congress declares war and funds the armed forces: the Constitution gives Congress power to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy." The President commands the armed forces and controls their operations: as Commander in Chief, he is obliged to defend and protect the nation. In his role as the country's chief diplomat, he also seeks to keep the peace.

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Economic Thought

Property rights and free markets are an integral component of what it means to be free. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on economics. When you're ready for more, explore economic thought in greater depth.

Questions and Answers

What are <b>property rights</b>?

The right to property is the natural right to acquire, own, and use property. Property rights form not only the basis for a free market economy, but also for republican self-government, deeply intertwined as they are with human liberty. To be free is to exert one's talents in the pursuit of happiness, and property rights are a fundamental requirement for securing the just rewards of one's labor. According to the Founders, property rights also formed the cornerstone of a commercial republic: When a man has a bit of property—a home, a piece of land, his own source of food and security—he can be independent, and therefore free.

To grasp the full breadth of the concept of property rights, property must be seen less as a static possession and more as the dynamic source of opportunity for all—the engine that allows liberty, prosperity, and civil society to flourish. When property rights are secure and markets operate freely, economics is not a zero-sum game where people make a dollar by taking it from someone else, but rather a formidable way to create wealth and raise the standard of living of all.

For a more detailed discussion of property rights, see Edward J. Erler's First Principles Essay "The Decline and Fall of the Right to Property: Government as Universal Landlord."

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What is <b>economic freedom</b>? Why does it matter?

Economic freedom is the liberty to make full use of one's property rights in open and free markets. It protects the right to freely produce, exchange, distribute, and consume goods and services without coercion or constraint beyond what is necessary to protect and maintain liberty.

At home, economic freedom protects the free movement of labor, the right to enjoy the fruit of one's labors, and the right to acquire, own, use, and sell property as one chooses. Governments have a duty to protect these rights with settled, known laws, impartial judges, and enforcement mechanisms.

In dealing with the rest of the world, economic freedom translates into free trade—an extension of the principle of free exchange at home. While it may sometimes be necessary to place tariffs on imports, they should be lowered or removed whenever possible.

Economic freedom has several practical benefits, the most important of which is an overall increase in the standard of living of a society. The poor, in particular, benefit most from a free economy. Over the past decade, countries that increased economic freedom saw poverty levels fall almost twice as much as countries that lost freedom.

For more on the subject, see the Understanding America booklet "Why Does Economic Freedom Matter?" by Kim R. Holmes and Matthew Spalding, as well as the Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

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Is economic freedom sufficient for<b> liberty</b>?

Of course not. It would be foolish to say that citizens have liberty in a society where there are free markets but other freedoms are neglected. For instance, economic freedom without religious liberty would not be true freedom at all. 

Economic freedom is necessary for the protection of liberty. Liberty without economic freedom is not true liberty and will inevitably become tyranny. As Friedrich Hayek once observed: "To be controlled in our economic pursuits means to be controlled in everything." If government controls a citizen's basic economic decisions—where to work, what to buy, how much to sell for—it controls, as a practical matter, most aspects of a citizen's life.

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Did the<b> Founders</b> support free-market capitalism?

Although the term "capitalism" was scarcely in use at the time of the Founding, the Founders supported the principle of economic liberty underlying it. The Founders understood that property rights and free markets were constitutive elements of what it means to be free. They therefore believed government had a responsibility to protect the rights of all to participate in the economy by upholding contracts, lifting artificial trade barriers, and protecting the right to acquire, possess, and freely use property. 

The Founders did not, however, advocate a completely "laissez-faire" economic policy since they understood that the government had a role to play—a limited role—in regulating the economy. For example, at the time of the Founding, the government inspected goods that were imported into the United States and created licensing systems for certain professions—like doctors—that were essential to public health and safety. Such regulations strengthen a free-market economy by protecting consumers from fraud and by expanding the opportunity for all to participate in the market by ensuring the reliability of goods and services. The Founders' defense of limited regulations enacted by elected representatives is a far cry from the Progressive embrace of far-reaching regulations made by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.

For more on the subject, see Thomas G. West's First Principles essay "The Economic Principles of America's Founders: Property Rights, Free Markets, and Sound Money."

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Do<b> tax cuts </b>stimulate the economy?

Tax cuts stimulate the economy when they reduce tax distortions to economic decision-making. For example, long-term marginal tax rate reductions improve the incentives to work, save, invest, and start new businesses. Additionally, these tax rate reductions decrease tax impediments to productive activity. Reductions in the tax barriers to investment likewise improve incentives and thus provide economic stimulus.

By contrast, many of the tax cuts enacted in recent years have had little or no stimulative effect because they do not improve long-term incentives. One-time tax rebates and tax holidays provide tax relief to those affected, but they generally do not affect long-term economic incentives and thus do not stimulate the economy.

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What should government do to<b> stimulate the economy</b> in a recession?

It depends on what caused the recession. During a recession centering on the financial markets, like the most recent one, government's first response must be to stabilize financial markets through monetary policy and other means. Otherwise, the guiding philosophy is that the government cannot stimulate the economy—it can only reduce government-created impediments to private-sector growth by lowering tax rates, suspending new regulations, lowering trade barriers, etc.

Government can also avoid creating new debilitating uncertainties through ad hoc, one-off policies like the first-time homebuyers credit. In the end these ad hoc policies merely disrupt and thereby lengthen the recovery process.

The favored Washington prescription of additional deficit spending cannot stimulate the economy because it only shifts purchasing power away from the private sector. Such stimulative policies actually slow the recovery by adding to the uncertainty while increasing the national debt.

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Does<b> government spending</b> in a recession lead to economic growth?

Government spending must always be financed, generally either through growth-depleting taxes or by borrowing funds that are then not available to the private sector. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, deficit spending in the face of a recession cannot stimulate growth because the extra dollar borrowed to finance an additional dollar of government spending must first be subtracted from the saving that would otherwise be employed by private consumers and investors.

Some forms of government spending, like defense spending, are necessary for economic growth because they are essential to personal and economic security. Most government spending, however, is not an investment and thus cannot lead to growth. Even the government spending that does add to the nation's capital stock typically yields a return well below what an equivalent amount of private investment would generate

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Does<b> free trade</b> harm workers?

The history of the United States clearly shows that free trade helps workers, and everyone else. Tariffs, quotas, and other barriers to free trade are nothing more than government interventions in the economy that restrict economic liberty. At home, tariffs are called "taxes" and quotas are called "rationing." No one argues that rationing goods and raising taxes help workers. Americans have always believed, and history proves, that everyone is better off when they can make their own economic choices—not when the government decides for them. Free trade is about people being able to make their own choices. That is just as true for trade between Idaho and Iowa, as for trade between Idaho and Italy.

For more on the benefits of free trade, see the opinion piece by Bryan Riley and Ambassador Terry Miller "Free Trade Fights Wealth Concentration."

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