What is "the Founding" and who are "the Founders"?
What was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence?
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.
What does the Declaration of Independence mean by equality? How does the contemporary understanding of equality differ?
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.”
When the Declaration of Independence speaks of “all men,” are women included? Are blacks?
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.
What does the Declaration of Independence mean by "liberty"?
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.
What are "rights" and where do they come from? How is the Founders’ understanding of rights different from contemporary conceptions of rights?
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.
What does it mean to say that our rights are "unalienable"”?
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.”
What are the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” that the Declaration of Independence appeals to?
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.
Are human rights the same as natural rights?
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.
What is the difference between natural rights and civil 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?”
What is the right to property?
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.”
What is religious liberty?
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.”
What is the "purpose of government" according to the Declaration of Independence?
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?”
How does government "secure our rights"?
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.
What is “the consent of the governed” and how is it obtained?
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.
When can the people exercise their "right to revolution" and throw off the government?
The consent of the governed is the standard by which a government’s legitimacy is judged. As the Declaration of Independence asserts: “Governments are instituted among Men…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Since all men are created equal, no individual or group has an inherent right to rule over anyone else. The only way anyone can have the authority to govern his equals is if they consent to his rule. A government not based on consent would unjustly deprive its citizens of the fundamental right to liberty.
There are two principal ways that the government obtains the consent of its citizens. First, citizens consent to the institution of a particular type of government. The American people, for example, ratified their Constitution through state conventions. Citizens also express their ongoing consent through frequent and fair elections. They may of course decide to withdraw their consent, “after a long train of abuses and usurpations,” by exercising their right to revolution.
How can America’s founding principles be just if the country did not abolish slavery?
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.
Did the Founders really think that blacks were worth "three-fifths" of a white person?
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.”
How do you account for the fact that the same Founders who proclaimed the equality of men owned slaves?
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.”
Weren’t all the Founders deists or atheists?
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.
Did America have a "Christian founding"?
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.
Is America an "exceptional country"? If so, what does that mean?
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?”
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?