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Did the American Founders Debate on the Relative Size of the Government?

Did the American Founders Debate on the Relative Size of the Government?


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It seems to me that the concern with the size of government, specifically that it's too large and therefore complex, is a relatively modern concern in American politics. I would assume that given the lack of modern transportation and communication infrastructures the government was far more limited in the scope to which it could govern. Furthermore, that same lack of infrastructure and the attendant lack of specialization in a pre-industrial economy rendered much of the present day functions of the government either unnecessary or of a much more diminished importance.

I am aware that there was a major debate among the founders of the United States over the balance of power between the state governments and the federal government (ie. the federalist / anti-federalist debates). There was also much debate over the power given to a centralized authority and individual political leaders. However, I am not aware of evidence of the founders being specifically concerned with the government ever becoming "too large" or "too complex". Is there any evidence of the U.S. founders having this concern?


Yes, absolutely. The Federalist /Anti-Federalist controversy went far beyond the issues you cite. The founders feared a tyrannical central government - the writings of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are particularly clear on this point.

The 9th and 10th were designed to limit the growth of the government.

Hamilton wanted a strong, effective government. Jefferson wanted a tiny government. Washington's first term in office was occupied with limiting the amount that they sabotaged one another. (Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury tried to manage all foreign correspondence. Jefferson hired a man to do nothing but publish a newspaper that criticized Hamilton)

When Jefferson took office he devoted much of his tenure to dismantling the institutions that Hamilton built; the only significant expansion was West Point - which Jefferson reluctantly increased because he feared that Hamilton's flunkies would stage a military coup, and Jefferson wanted to pack the Army with "right thinking" officers. (All the more remarkable because he opposed a standing army - after all a Republic had no need to fight!)

The most frequently referenced institution was the First Bank of the US. There are several books on the constitutional conventions that offer excruciating details on what the founders felt should and should not be within the purview of the government. (The South in general wanted a tiny government and an isolationist foreign policy; the North wanted a powerful government and an engaged commercial foreign policy.)

Discussions about Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution included fears that the government would become a tyrant.

I'm not aware of any discussion that state or local governments would become too complex or too large. Three possible exceptions were Vermont and Kentucky who wanted indepdence from their states, and Rhode Island - which declined to join the union in part because of the power of the Rhode Island state government. That might be another source of very good material (but I can't find a quick, useable citation - the situation was complicated).


Did the American Founders Debate on the Relative Size of the Government? - History

Given the overheated character of the debate over the Founding Fathers, perhaps it is prudent to move towards less contested and more factual terrain, where we might better understand what the fuss is all about. What, in the end, did the Founding Fathers manage to do? Once we brush aside both the inflated and judgmental rhetoric, what did they achieve?

At the most general level, they created the first modern nation-state based on liberal principles. These include the democratic principle that political sovereignty in any government resides in the citizenry rather than in a divinely sanctioned monarchy, the capitalistic principle that economic productivity depends upon the release of individual energies in the marketplace rather than state-sponsored policies, the moral principle that the individual, not the society or the state, is the sovereign unit in the political equation, and the judicial principle that all citizens, regardless of class or gender, are equal before the law. Moreover, this liberal formula has become the preferred political recipe for success in the modern world, vanquishing the European monarchies in the 19th century and the totalitarian regimes of Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

More specifically, the Founding Fathers managed to defy conventional wisdom in four unprecedented achievements: first, they won a war for colonial independence against the most powerful military and economic power in the world second, they established the first large-scale republic in the modern world third, they invented political parties that institutionalized the concept of a legitimate opposition fourth, they established the principle of the legal separation of church and state, though it took several decades for that principle to be implemented in all the states. Finally, all these achievements were won without recourse to the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, which is to say without the violent purges that accompanied subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, and China. This was the overarching accomplishment that the British philosopher Alfred Lord North Whitehead had in mind when he observed that there were only two instances in the history of Western Civilization when the political elite of an emerging empire behaved as well as one could reasonably expect: the first was Rome under Caesar Augustus, and the second was the United States under the Founding Fathers.

What about their failures?

Slavery was incompatible with the values of the American Revolution, and all the prominent members of the revolutionary generation acknowledged that fact. In three important areas they acted on this conviction: first, by ending the slave trade in 1808 second, by passing legislation in all the states north of the Potomac that put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction third, by prohibiting the expansion of slavery into the Northwest Territory. But in all the states south of the Potomac, where some nine-tenths of the slave population resided, they failed to act. Indeed, by insisting that slavery was a matter of state rather than federal jurisdiction, they implicitly removed the slavery question from the national agenda. This decision had catastrophic consequences, for it permitted the enslaved population to grow in size eightfold (i.e., from 500,000 in 1775 to 4,000,000 in 1860) and to spread throughout all the southern states east of the Mississippi River. And at least in retrospect, their failure to act decisively before the slave population swelled so dramatically rendered the slavery question insoluble by any means short of civil war.

There were at least three underlying reasons for this tragic failure. First, many of the Founders mistakenly believed that slavery would die a natural death, that decisive action was unnecessary because slavery would not be able to compete successfully with the wage labor of free individuals. They did not foresee the cotton gin and the subsequent expansion of the Cotton Kingdom. Second, all the early efforts to place slavery on the national agenda prompted a threat of secession by the states of the Deep South (i.e., South Carolina and Georgia were the two states who actually threatened to secede, though Virginia might very well have chosen to join them if the matter came to a head), a threat especially potent during the fragile phase of the early American republic. While most of the Founders regarded slavery as a malignant cancer on the body politic, they also believed that any effort to remove it surgically would in all likelihood kill the young nation in the cradle. Finally, all conversations about abolishing slavery were haunted by the specter of a free African American population, most especially in those states south of the Potomac where in some locations blacks actually outnumbered whites. None of the Founding Fathers found it possible to imagine a biracial American society, an idea that, in point of fact, did not achieve broad acceptance in the United States until the middle of the 20th century.

Given these prevalent convictions and attitudes, slavery was that most un-American item, an inherently intractable and insoluble problem. As Thomas Jefferson so famously put it, the founders held “the wolfe by the ears,” and could neither subdue him nor afford to let him go. Virtually all the Founding Fathers went to their graves realizing that slavery, no matter how intractable, would become the largest and most permanent stain on their legacy. And when Abraham Lincoln eventually made the decision that, at terrible cost, ended slavery forever, he did so in the name of the Founders.

The other tragic failure of the Founders, almost as odious as the failure to end slavery, was the inability to implement a just policy toward the indigenous inhabitants of the North American continent. In 1783, the year that the British surrendered control of the eastern third of North America in the Treaty of Paris, there were approximately 100,000 American Indians living between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi. The First Census (1790) revealed that there were also 100,000 white settlers living west of the Alleghenies, swelling in size every year (by 1800 they would number 500,000) and moving relentlessly westward. The inevitable collision between these two peoples posed the strategic—and ultimately the moral question: how could the legitimate rights of the Indian population be reconciled with the demographic tidal wave building to the east?

In the end, they could not. Although official policy of Indian removal east of the Mississippi was not formally announced and implemented until 1830, the seeds of that policy—what one historian has called “the seeds of extinction”—were planted during the founding era, most especially during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-09).

One genuine effort to avoid that outcome was made in 1790 during the presidency of George Washington. The Treaty of New York with the Creek tribes of the early southwest proposed a new model for American policy toward the Indians, declaring that they should not be regarded as a conquered people with no legal rights, but rather as a collection of sovereign nations. Indian policy was therefore a branch of foreign policy, and all treaties were solemn commitments by the federal government not subject to challenge by any state or private corporation. Washington envisioned a series of American Indian enclaves or homelands east of the Mississippi whose borders would be guaranteed under federal law, protected by federal troops, and bypassed by the flood of white settlers. But, as it soon became clear, the federal government lacked the resources in money and manpower to make Washington’s vision a reality. And the very act of claiming executive power to create an Indian protectorate prompted charges of monarchy, the most potent political epithet of the age. Washington, who was accustomed to getting his way, observed caustically that nothing short of “a Chinese Wall” could protect the Native American tribes from the relentless expansion of white settlements. Given the surging size of the white population, it is difficult to imagine how the story could have turned out differently.


Activity 1. Introducing the Constitutional Convention

As necessary, begin by reviewing with students the Virginia, New Jersey, and Hamilton Plans, as well as the Great Compromise (Connecticut Plan). If desired, use the summaries found in the Preparation Instructions section, above. Adapt the "Chart of Various Plans (Blank)"on page 1 of the PDF as an organizer to help students see the differences and similarities between the various plans. The "Chart of Various Plans" — the same chart, complete with information-is available on page 2 of the PDF. Here are some additional sources of information to use in your review:

  • A good discussion of the basic issues requiring compromise during the Constitutional Convention, written for grades 6–8, is offered at History of the Constitution, a feature from Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government for Kids (6–8), a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
  • Another feature on Ben's Guide to the U.S. Government for Kids (6–8) is a Glossary with definitions of many of the terms students may come across in their readings.

The American Founders and Their Relevance Today

Many people today are rediscovering the American Founding Fathers. The interest can be seen among both scholars and ordinary citizens. Books by historians and political scientists have continued to pour forth—Pauline Maier’s American Scripture (1997) on the Declaration of Independence Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers (2000) and First Family: Abigail and John Adams (2010) Michael Novak’s book on religion at the founding, On Two Wings: Faith and Reason at the American Founding (2002), and Gregg Frazer’s The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders (2012) and the great American historian Gordon Wood continues his lifelong work on the founding with Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different (2006) and Empire of Liberty (2009).

The general public is also very interested in rediscovering the Founders and in bringing their ideas to contemporary political debates, as we see in the Tea Party movement or learn on Constitution Day, September 17, each year. I think one can say that this is a recurring pattern in America: every generation “rediscovers” the American Founders and interprets them for its own age. What explains this perennial fascination?

One explanation is that the founding period seems like a Heroic Age in which great statesmen were performing great deeds for the greater glory of our country and debating great issues at the highest level of political discourse. Its heroes include the leaders of the American Revolution in 1776 and the framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 and the first generation of leaders of the American republic—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, John Adams, as well as lesser figures like John Witherspoon, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry. We also sometimes include the earlier generations of colonial leaders, such as William Penn and John Winthrop of Massachusetts.

This fascination with greatness and heroes will never die, despite the efforts of revisionist historians to demythologize the Founders and cut them down to size. Americans simply love to compare later politicians to the Founders—and to bemoan the lack of greatness in the present crop of leaders who “don’t measure up.” Such comparisons are especially popular when politics turns petty, nasty, and personal—although this behavior is nothing new, since the Founders too could be petty, nasty, and personally ambitious (as Ellis’s book on the sibling rivalry of the founding “brothers” vividly demonstrates, as does Gordon Wood’s description of the election of 1800 between Adams and Jefferson, one of the most divisive and nastiest in our history). The difference is that the Founders were more than small-minded partisans they also faced heroic challenges and overcame them, giving a certain objective basis to the comparisons of the great statesmen of the past with the petty politicians of today. But there is more to the study of the Founders than the game of comparative rankings.

A second and deeper reason for the perennial fascination with the American Founders is the need to justify our political principles today—to explain why the principles we live by are “legitimate” in the ultimate sense of being right, just, or true. The search for legitimizing principles takes many forms, but one form is to try to prove that “the Founders are on your side”—meaning, your view of government and vision of America are in accordance with the Founding Fathers’ view, or with one of their members.

The assumption is that the founding period of a nation is a time when the fundamental principles of a new political order are openly contested and then settled or established. These founding periods are dangerous, but they are also the most exciting and formative times: the founders are the ones who lay down the principles of legitimate authority for new laws and institutions and create a new regime that lasts for generations (until they are contested again, usually provoking a civil war). This makes the founding period authoritative and explains why it matters today if one can show, for example, that Madison or Jefferson understood the “separation of church and state” in a certain way, or that the “original intention” of the Constitution supports a certain view of the federal government’s power to provide for the welfare of the people.

Of course, our attitude toward the Founding Fathers is more complicated than simple hero worship or deference to original authority. We actually have two schools of thought in American history and constitutional law regarding the Founders: the “originalists” and the “progressives.” The originalists want to stick with the Founders, whereas the progressives want to move beyond them in order to modernize and develop them into something new. Yet the authority of the Founders is so great that even the progressives wind up appealing to one Founder against another—for example, by playing off the more radical side of Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” in the Declaration against the more conservative U.S. Constitution, which limits federal power. Or they combine the two, as Herbert Croly did in formulating the progressive vision of activist government at the beginning of the twentieth century. In The Promise of American Life (1909), Croly famously defined the philosophy of progressivism as using “Hamiltonian means for Jeffersonian ends,” by which he meant using the powers of a strong national government to advance the equality of people against big business.

In various ways, then, the American Founders remain the most important authority for deciding which principles of American government are legitimate, for their times as well as for our own. They established a new regime with a moral vision that, despite certain flaws and inner tensions, possessed an overall coherence and defined American political life for more than two centuries. The crucial questions are, therefore, What was the moral vision of the American Founders? And what issues of today lead us back to the Founding Fathers for understanding the legitimate course for twenty-first-century America? And to what extent are we still bound by the Founders?

Regarding the first question, one can say that the Founders’ moral vision centers on a special kind of freedom or liberty. George Washington referred to this idea in his Farewell Address as “republican liberty.” The phrase I like best to capture the moral vision of the American Founders is “the American experiment in ordered liberty” it is an expression that opens up the broadest vision of the American founding. What does it mean to say that the founding principle of the American polity is republican liberty or ordered liberty?

By republican liberty, the Founders meant something new: a historic test of whether human beings could actually govern themselves without a king or a military ruler or a high priest or tribal chieftain or some kind of authoritarian “father-figure” to keep the people in line and to decide for them how best to preserve their safety and happiness. Abraham Lincoln later captured the essence of the Founder’s vision in his memorable pronouncement that America is a test of “the capability of a people to govern themselves.”

The central point of the American founding was a notion of liberty that seems simple but actually is quite complicated. It meant more than independence from Great Britain, although it implied that we were a sovereign nation in a separate territory. It also meant more than individual rights, although it included protections for personal rights and freedoms from arbitrary power. In other words, it included the notion of “negative liberty,” meaning the absence of restrictions (made famous in the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me”). But it also included the notion of “positive liberty,” meaning freedom goes together with responsibility as well as with duties and obligations to others and to the common good.

Positive liberty included moral and civic duties, or what the Founders called “republican virtue,” which they took from the classical tradition of citizenship and statesmanship. This rich and complex notion of liberty is different from the libertarianism and collectivism of today, and it required more than the democracy or populism of earlier democratic movements. Their idea of ordered liberty meant a people living in an independent nation, uncoerced by a king and enjoying their rights, so that they could prove they had the moral maturity to govern themselves—in both the personal sense of self-government as virtuous individuals and in the political sense of self-government as a civic-minded people.

To clarify the American Founders’ idea of ordered liberty, I would like to list and briefly explain four key elements that went into their moral vision—elements that were sometimes in tension but nevertheless blended into a new political ideal. The four elements are republicanism, constitutionalism, natural law, and cultural traditions.

According to the first idea, the American Founders sought to establish a republican form of government, which they often compared to the ancient Roman republic. They loved to invoke the symbols of classical Rome, such as the names of Roman heroes like Publius Publicola, Cincinnatus, Brutus, and Cato. They employed the neoclassical style of architecture, the Palladian style, for their state buildings and they named the building that housed Congress Capitol Hill (spelled with an o), after Rome’s Capitoline Hill. And, of course, the terms Republic and Senate were derived from the Roman Republic. The designers of Washington, D.C., even named a small river off the Potomac “the Tiber,” after Rome’s main river. Stylistically, the American founding sometimes resembles a giant toga party.

Despite the echoes of ancient Rome, the American Founders understood that the American regime was a modern republic, different from the ancient republic of Rome. Both types of republic defined themselves in opposition to kingship, but the ancient Roman was an aristocratic republic, governed by the patricians of the Senate (with some mixture of popular will through the tribunes of the people). America was different because it was a democratic republic, deriving its authority from the people. But it too included the idea of a mixed regime, with “we the people” as the source of authority mixed with elitist and quasi-aristocratic elements to check majority rule and to elevate the common people’s views on politics. Hence, they incorporated undemocratic features into the original American republic, such as the election of senators by state legislatures, the Electoral College, and the unelected judiciary. Modern republicanism meant representative democracy in which the people are sovereign but have no direct participation in governing. It also meant a commercial republic, not a military republic like ancient Rome, which was set up for war and imperial conquest. In other words, the Founders were symbolically Romans but in reality their republicanism was new, modern, American—its authority came from the people mixed with representatives, and its strong protections for property rights promoted a commercial society that would raise civilization to a more enlightened and peaceful stage of history.

The second feature of the Founders’ moral vision was constitutionalism, based on the idea of a written constitution. This too was new and different, since the influential English constitution was unwritten (although the Founders borrowed many particulars of the U.S. Constitution from the English common law tradition). The purpose of a written constitution was to put limits on the power of the national government and to spell out the shared system of power between the national government and the separate states in a decentralized federal system. Hence, the most important features of the U.S. Constitution of 1787 were not only the checks and balances of the three branches of government (Articles I, II, and III) but also the power sharing between the national and state governments (Articles IV, V, and VI). The other crucial feature was the enumeration of Congress’s powers in Article I, sections 8–9, spelling out the scope and range of national powers—taxation, regulating commerce among the states, coining money, establishing post offices and patents, declaring war, raising armies, navies, and militias, governing federal districts, along with the “necessary and proper” means to these ends. The implication is that republicanism required constitutionalism because its essence is self-government under law, and this ideal requires self-imposed limitations on power.

The third element of the Founders’ moral vision is largely forgotten or misunderstood today: above the written constitutional law was an unwritten, intangible higher law called natural law. The Founders recognized that the liberty embodied in the republican constitution had to be justified by a universal ideal of justice that was rooted in the moral order of the universe, not merely created by man. Hence, the importance of the Declaration of Independence, which asserts that our liberty and rights come from “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” The natural law doctrine of the Declaration is the moral, philosophical, and theological underpinning of the Constitution and the republican form of government. It states that “all men are created equal” in the sense of possessing certain inalienable rights that come from the Creator who put them in human nature and created a natural universe with a rational moral order. It shows that freedom is grounded in God-given natural rights and would make no sense if the universe were meaningless or indifferent (if the cosmos is “absurd,” as existentialists later said) and if there were no objective standards of right and wrong.

This view is quite different from the predominant beliefs of today. The Founders believed that liberty was based on moral order, not on moral relativism, and they derived this idea from the natural law principles of Locke, Cicero, Aristotle, Vattel, Blackstone, and others. Without natural law—meaning, an objective moral law inscribed in nature and human nature by the Creator—the ideal of republican liberty lacks an ultimate foundation. Natural law explains why such a life is just and accords with the moral order of the universe.

The fourth element, cultural traditions, extends the idea of moral order to social practices. The American Founders believed that liberty required not only natural law (an objective standard of justice) but also customs, habits, and manners derived from the heritage of Western civilization and from English and American history. I use the phrase “cultural traditions” as a catch-all phrase to refer to the values and beliefs handed down over centuries from several ancient sources—from classical Greek and Roman ideals of republican virtue and patriotic citizen-soldiers from the English heritage of common law jurisprudence from the ideal of gentlemen statesmen (possessing the gentleman’s code of honor) from Protestant Christianity and its biblical beliefs about America as a “city on a hill” charged with moral duties, such as the work ethic, the struggle against sin, and charity for the poor and from the historical experience of local self-government in colonial assemblies and the harsh self-reliance of frontier life. The implication is that liberty was embedded in cultural traditions that gave it higher and nobler purposes than mere self-expression or the values of a consumer-entertainment society. The American Founders assumed that such customs and traditions would provide a set of moral virtues for the exercise of responsible liberty by citizens and leaders.

In sum, the four elements of republicanism, constitutionalism, natural law, and cultural traditions made up the moral vision of the American Founders. These were the crucial elements of ordered liberty that made the Founders’ ideal of freedom different from the contemporary notion of libertarianism, which focuses on individualism, and from collectivism, which focuses on empowering people through the centralized state. The moral vision of the American Founders was neither individualist nor collectivist. It was intended to inspire citizens to exercise their God-given natural rights along with the virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and prudence at the local and personal level. It meant making political decisions through representatives at the national level who possessed a certain antique Roman sense of civic duty and an English gentleman’s code of honor. And it was a way of proving to the world that the people and their leaders have the moral maturity to govern themselves freely and virtuously without degenerating into anarchy or corruption.

These elements gave the founding generation a sense of “American exceptionalism”—a belief that America was special as a new and noble experiment in self-government, a belief that would serve the nation for good and for ill. The good side was the universal message of freedom and high expectations to succeed. The bad side was the arrogance and presumption of a nation that sometimes treated other peoples with contempt and that did not live up to its own ideals by excluding women, the original native peoples, and black slave populations from participating in the American experiment in ordered liberty.

First, there are questions about the size and scope of government, in particular the role of the federal government in people’s lives: How big or how limited should government be? Are liberty and responsibility endangered by a large central government that is driven by expansive notions of social welfare and by concerns about national security during the war on terror? How much national debt is compatible with a free society?

Second, there is the perennial debate about American exceptionalism. In the present context, it pertains to America’s role in the world as the sole superpower: Are we still a moral example to all the world? Do we have a duty to use American power and influence to lead the world to freedom and self-government? What special conditions does freedom have that make it difficult to spread our ideals to other nations and cultures that do not have the crucial elements of republican liberty, such as the heritage of Anglo-American constitutionalism and the belief in natural law?

Third, we are in the midst of “culture wars” where the essential meaning of freedom or liberty is at stake: Is freedom the same as libertarianism or moral relativism, in which “anything goes” that does not harm others or break the law? Or does freedom require virtue and cultural traditions? Does liberty include gay marriage and abortion, or permit the legalizing of drugs, gambling, and prostitution? How should we balance liberty with other values, such as equality and security and which value is supreme—liberty or equality or security?

To bring some of these debates into sharper focus, I would like to speculate on how the moral vision of the American Founders might be applied today—with the awareness that all these issues are highly controversial and open to legitimate debate. These are my judgments on how we might draw on the wisdom and experience of the American Founders to illuminate contemporary politics. The striking feature of our debates today is how much they arise (sometimes without acknowledging it) from the Founders’ central idea of finding the proper balance for exercising ordered liberty—testing once again for our generation the “capability of a people to govern themselves.”

On the first issue, of the size and scope of government, we can learn a great deal from the Founders. There is little doubt that the Founders’ view of republican liberty implied limited government, because it meant that the people had to assume responsibility for their personal and civic lives. Of course, they disagreed about how extensive the powers of the central government should be, leading to the first great partisan disputes between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. Despite this disagreement, I think one can say the common ground was a vision of a strong but limited central government.

The powers and limitations were clearly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution, Article I, sections 8–9 (listed above), and were meant seriously. The national or federal government had to be strong enough to overcome states’ rights, factions, and sectionalism and unified enough to protect the nation and to create the infrastructure for a dynamic national economy. Today’s idea of a centralized government—the modern welfare state that provides security from “cradle to grave”—was not envisioned by the Founders. It comes from the Progressive Era’s redefinition of the meaning of “rights”—from protections against arbitrary power to entitlements from the state—requiring a vastly expanded view of the constitutional powers of the central government (even to the point of subordinating “constitutionalism” itself to personal leadership, as Woodrow Wilson famously argued in Constitutional Government in the United States [1908]).

These developments raise precisely the issue of republican self-government that concerned the Founders: Do we have the discipline and virtue to govern ourselves by limiting spending on welfare policies and national defense in order to live within our means to pay for them? Today the threat to responsible self-government no longer comes from kings or imperial rulers but from the ideologues of expansive government. Yet the challenge is the same: if “we the people” through our elected leaders cannot govern ourselves responsibly, then some external “master” will have to do it for us, whether it is the IMF, or the Chinese government, or a super‒Federal Reserve chairman. Hence, it is not unreasonable when movements like the Tea Party use the rallying cry, “Read the Constitution.” They are trying to connect republican self-government with constitutional limits on power and with moral virtue, in this case fiscal discipline exercised by its citizens and leaders. It is a way of invoking the Founders and reapplying their ideal of republican liberty in a modern context.

On the second major issue of today, American exceptionalism, we have to be more careful about reapplying the Founders’ vision. They had a complex view of the message of the American Revolution for the world: it had universal implications, but America was a weak power at the founding compared to the European empires. As president, George Washington was an “isolationist” for prudential reasons, but he thought America had a universal message. The Founders were also aware of the tension between the universality of natural rights proclaimed in the Declaration and the special conditions of freedom found in Anglo-American-Protestant cultural traditions.

Today this tension emerges in U.S. foreign policy as well as in immigration issues. We sense a need for both the universalism of the Declaration’s natural law and for the particularism or exclusiveness of “English-only” cultural conditions in America, as Samuel P. Huntington has forcefully argued in his book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2004). We also recognize the need to spread freedom to other nations, like Iraq and Afghanistan, but we need to be aware of limits imposed by cultural traditions that are unfavorable to republican liberty. The most prudent policy lies somewhere between the demands of neoconservatives and the retreat of isolationists—a policy that might be called “great power nationalism.” It would recognize America’s role as a global leader of the free world, but it would be coldly realistic about the limits of military power and honestly admit the impossibility of regime change and nation building in countries with unfavorable historical conditions.

On the third major issue of today, the culture wars, we confront all the problems of balancing the ideal of a free society with the cultural traditions that make it possible and desirable. The American Founders were unusual as eighteenth-century leaders because they were shaped by both the old world of aristocracy and the new world of democracy. They believed in progress, enlightenment, and “a new order of the ages” but they also revered the ancient Romans, English traditions of the gentleman statesman and common law, the religious basis of morals, and practical experience.

I would describe the Founders, somewhat paradoxically, as “enlightened traditionalists.” They understood the special preconditions of ordered liberty, which distinguished liberty from license because it was based on certain God-given truths about the human person and the moral order of social life. They took for granted (perhaps naively) that the cultural preconditions of ordered liberty would always be there—in churches and stable family life, in local communities and social manners, in competitive economic life, in public education as well as in the arts, literature, and theatre. In today’s moral climate, I think they would be deeply disturbed by the degeneration of the culture and would be on the conservative side of the culture wars, since responsible liberty is not moral relativism or libertarianism or mere self-expression. Ordered liberty needs the classical and biblical heritages of Western culture, and it is undermined by practices like banning displays of religion in the public square or redefining marriage and family to however the “equality of all lifestyles” is defined. The confusion of freedom with moral relativism is the most serious threat to the republic in the present age.

The main concern we should have today is losing the complex balance of political, legal, and social elements that the American Founders thought were essential for ordered liberty. We are moving toward a destructive mixture of centralized state power and permissive freedom—an irrational combination of the all-powerful state and rootless individualism that undermines ordered liberty at both ends by rejecting limited government and vital cultural traditions. My fear is that the elements of true freedom are being lost. My hope is that every generation will rediscover the American Founders and restore the balance they considered necessary for the proper exercise of republican liberty.


The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics

The roots of the liberalism with which we are familiar lie in the Progressive Era.

For the Progressives, freedom is redefined as the fulfillment of human capacities, which becomes the primary task of the state.

To some degree, modern conservatism owes its success to a recovery of and an effort to root itself in the Founders' constitutionalism.

There are, of course, many different representations of Progressivism: the literature of Upton Sinclair, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the history of Charles Beard, the educational system of John Dewey. In politics and political thought, the movement is associated with political leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt and thinkers such as Herbert Croly and Charles Merriam.

While the Progressives differed in their assessment of the problems and how to resolve them, they generally shared in common the view that government at every level must be actively involved in these reforms. The existing constitutional system was outdated and must be made into a dynamic, evolving instrument of social change, aided by scientific knowledge and the development of administrative bureaucracy.

At the same time, the old system was to be opened up and made more democratic hence, the direct elections of Senators, the open primary, the initiative and referendum. It also had to be made to provide for more revenue hence, the Sixteenth Amendment and the progressive income tax.

Presidential leadership would provide the unity of direction -- the vision -- needed for true progressive government. "All that progressives ask or desire," wrote Woodrow Wilson, "is permission -- in an era when development, evolution, is a scientific word -- to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine."

What follows is a discussion about the effect that Progressivism has had -- and continues to have -- on American politics and political thought. The remarks stem from the publication of The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), to which Dr. West contributed.

Remarks by Thomas G. West

The thesis of our book, The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, is that Progressivism transformed American politics. What was that transformation? It was a total rejection in theory, and a partial rejection in practice, of the principles and policies on which America had been founded and on the basis of which the Civil War had been fought and won only a few years earlier. When I speak of Progressivism, I mean the movement that rose to prominence between about 1880 and 1920.

In a moment I will turn to the content of the Progressive conception of politics and to the contrast between that approach and the tradition, stemming from the founding, that it aimed to replace. But I would like first to emphasize how different is the assessment of Progressivism presented in our book, The Progressive Revolution, from the understanding that prevails among most scholars. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that few scholars, especially among students of American political thought, regard the Progressive Era as having any lasting significance in American history. In my own college and graduate student years, I cannot recall any of the famous teachers with whom I studied saying anything much about it. Among my teachers were some very impressive men: Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, Martin Diamond, Harry Neumann, and Leo Strauss.

Today, those who speak of the formative influences that made America what it is today tend to endorse one of three main explanations. Some emphasize material factors such as the closing of the frontier, the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the modern corporation, and accidental emergencies such as wars or the Great Depression, which in turn led to the rise of the modern administrative state.

Second is the rational choice explanation. Morris Fiorina and others argue that once government gets involved in providing extensive services for the public, politicians see that growth in government programs enables them to win elections. The more government does, the easier it is for Congressmen to do favors for voters and donors.

Third, still other scholars believe that the ideas of the American founding itself are responsible for current developments. Among conservatives, Robert Bork's Slouching Toward Gomorrah adopts the gloomy view that the Founders' devotion to the principles of liberty and equality led inexorably to the excesses of today's welfare state and cultural decay. Allan Bloom's best-selling The Closing of the American Mind presents a more sophisticated version of Bork's argument. Liberals like Gordon Wood agree, but they think that the change in question is good, not bad. Wood writes that although the Founders themselves did not understand the implications of the ideas of the Revolution, those ideas eventually "made possible…all our current egalitarian thinking."

My own view is this: Although the first two of the three mentioned causes (material circumstances and politicians' self-interest) certainly played a part, the most important cause was a change in the prevailing understanding of justice among leading American intellectuals and, to a lesser extent, in the American people. Today's liberalism and the policies that it has generated arose from a conscious repudiation of the principles of the American founding.

If the contributors to The Progressive Revolution are right, Bork and Bloom are entirely wrong in their claim that contemporary liberalism is a logical outgrowth of the principles of the founding. During the Progressive Era, a new theory of justice took hold. Its power has been so great that Progressivism, as modified by later developments within contemporary liberalism, has become the predominant view in modern American education, media, popular culture, and politics. Today, people who call themselves conservatives and liberals alike accept much of the Progressive view of the world. Although few outside of the academy openly attack the Founders, I know of no prominent politician, and only the tiniest minority of scholars, who altogether support the Founders' principles.

The Progressive Rejection of the Founding

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, a large majority of Americans shared a set of beliefs concerning the purpose of government, its structure, and its most important public policies. Constitutional amendments were passed abolishing slavery and giving the national government the authority to protect the basic civil rights of everyone. Here was a legal foundation on which the promise of the American Revolution could be realized in the South, beyond its already existing implementation in the Northern and Western states.

This post-Civil War consensus was animated by the principles of the American founding. I will mention several characteristic features of that approach to government and contrast them with the new, Progressive approach. Between about 1880 and 1920, the earlier orientation gradually began to be replaced by the new one. In the New Deal period of the 1930s, and later even more decisively in the 1960s and '70s, the Progressive view, increasingly radicalized by its transformation into contemporary liberalism, became predominant.

1. The Rejection of Nature and the Turn to history

The Founders believed that all men are created equal and that they have certain inalienable rights. All are also obliged to obey the natural law, under which we have not only rights but duties. We are obliged "to respect those rights in others which we value in ourselves" (Jefferson). The main rights were thought to be life and liberty, including the liberty to organize one's own church, to associate at work or at home with whomever one pleases, and to use one's talents to acquire and keep property. For the Founders, then, there is a natural moral order -- rules discovered by human reason that promote human well-being, rules that can and should guide human life and politics.

The Progressives rejected these claims as naive and unhistorical. In their view, human beings are not born free. John Dewey, the most thoughtful of the Progressives, wrote that freedom is not "something that individuals have as a ready-made possession." It is "something to be achieved." In this view, freedom is not a gift of God or nature. It is a product of human making, a gift of the state. Man is a product of his own history, through which he collectively creates himself. He is a social construct. Since human beings are not naturally free, there can be no natural rights or natural law. Therefore, Dewey also writes, "Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology."

Since the Progressives held that nature gives man little or nothing and that everything of value to human life is made by man, they concluded that there are no permanent standards of right. Dewey spoke of "historical relativity." However, in one sense, the Progressives did believe that human beings are oriented toward freedom, not by nature (which, as the merely primitive, contains nothing human), but by the historical process, which has the character of progressing toward increasing freedom. So the "relativity" in question means that in all times, people have views of right and wrong that are tied to their particular times, but in our time, the views of the most enlightened are true because they are in conformity with where history is going.

2. The Purpose of Government

For the Founders, thinking about government began with the recognition that what man is given by nature -- his capacity for reason and the moral law discovered by reason -- is, in the most important respect, more valuable than anything government can give him. Not that nature provides him with his needs. In fact, the Founders thought that civilization is indispensable for human well-being. Although government can be a threat to liberty, government is also necessary for the security of liberty. As Madison wrote, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." But since men are not angels, without government, human beings would live in "a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger." In the Founders' view, nature does give human beings the most valuable things: their bodies and minds. These are the basis of their talents, which they achieve by cultivating these natural gifts but which would be impossible without those gifts.

For the Founders, then, the individual's existence and freedom in this crucial respect are not a gift of government. They are a gift of God and nature. Government is therefore always and fundamentally in the service of the individual, not the other way around. The purpose of government, then, is to enforce the natural law for the members of the political community by securing the people's natural rights. It does so by preserving their lives and liberties against the violence of others. In the founding, the liberty to be secured by government is not freedom from necessity or poverty. It is freedom from the despotic and predatory domination of some human beings over others.

Government's main duty for the Founders is to secure that freedom -- at home through the making and enforcement of criminal and civil law, abroad through a strong national defense. The protection of life and liberty is achieved through vigorous prosecutions of crime against person and property or through civil suits for recovery of damages, these cases being decided by a jury of one's peers.

The Progressives regarded the Founders' scheme as defective because it took too benign a view of nature. As Dewey remarked, they thought that the individual was ready-made by nature. The Founders' supposed failure to recognize the crucial role of society led the Progressives to disparage the Founders' insistence on limited government. The Progressive goal of politics is freedom, now understood as freedom from the limits imposed by nature and necessity. They rejected the Founders' conception of freedom as useful for self-preservation for the sake of the individual pursuit of happiness. For the Progressives, freedom is redefined as the fulfillment of human capacities, which becomes the primary task of the state.

To this end, Dewey writes, "the state has the responsibility for creating institutions under which individuals can effectively realize the potentialities that are theirs." So although "it is true that social arrangements, laws, institutions are made for man, rather than that man is made for them," these laws and institutions "are not means for obtaining something for individuals, not even happiness. They are means of creating individuals…. Individuality in a social and moral sense is something to be wrought out." "Creating individuals" versus "protecting individuals": this sums up the difference between the Founders' and the Progressives' conception of what government is for.

3. The Progressives' Rejection of consent and Compact as the Basis of Society

In accordance with their conviction that all human beings are by nature free, the Founders taught that political society is "formed by a voluntary association of individuals: It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good" (Massachusetts Constitution of 1780).

For the Founders, the consent principle extended beyond the founding of society into its ordinary operation. Government was to be conducted under laws, and laws were to be made by locally elected officials, accountable through frequent elections to those who chose them. The people would be directly involved in governing through their participation in juries selected by lot.

The Progressives treated the social compact idea with scorn. Charles Merriam, a leading Progressive political scientist, wrote:

For the Progressives, then, it was of no great importance whether or not government begins in consent as long as it serves its proper end of remolding man in such a way as to bring out his real capacities and aspirations. As Merriam wrote, "it was the idea of the state that supplanted the social contract as the ground of political right." Democracy and consent are not absolutely rejected by the Progressives, but their importance is greatly diminished, as we will see when we come to the Progressive conception of governmental structure.

4. God and religion

In the founding, God was conceived in one of two ways. Christians and Jews believed in the God of the Bible as the author of liberty but also as the author of the moral law by which human beings are guided toward their duties and, ultimately, toward their happiness. Nonbelievers (Washington called them "mere politicians" in his Farewell Address) thought of God merely as a creative principle or force behind the natural order of things.

Both sides agreed that there is a God of nature who endows men with natural rights and assigns them duties under the law of nature. Believers added that the God of nature is also the God of the Bible, while secular thinkers denied that God was anything more than the God of nature. Everyone saw liberty as a "sacred cause."

At least some of the Progressives redefined God as human freedom achieved through the right political organization. Or else God was simply rejected as a myth. For Hegel, whose philosophy strongly influenced the Progressives, "the state is the divine idea as it exists on earth." John Burgess, a prominent Progressive political scientist, wrote that the purpose of the state is the "perfection of humanity, the civilization of the world the perfect development of the human reason and its attainment to universal command over individualism the apotheosis of man" (man becoming God). Progressive-Era theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch redefined Christianity as the social gospel of progress.

5. Limits on Government and the Integrity of the Private Sphere

For the Founders, the purpose of government is to protect the private sphere, which they regarded as the proper home of both the high and the low, of the important and the merely urgent, of God, religion, and science, as well as providing for the needs of the body. The experience of religious persecution had convinced the Founders that government was incompetent at directing man in his highest endeavors. The requirements of liberty, they thought, meant that self-interested private associations had to be permitted, not because they are good in themselves, but because depriving individuals of freedom of association would deny the liberty that is necessary for the health of society and the flourishing of the individual.

For the Founders, although government was grounded in divine law (i.e., the laws of nature and of nature's God), government was seen as a merely human thing, bound up with all the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. Government had to be limited both because it was dangerous if it got too powerful and because it was not supposed to provide for the highest things in life.

Because of the Progressives' tendency to view the state as divine and the natural as low, they no longer looked upon the private sphere as that which was to be protected by government. Instead, the realm of the private was seen as the realm of selfishness and oppression. Private property was especially singled out for criticism. Some Progressives openly or covertly spoke of themselves as socialists.

Woodrow Wilson did so in an unpublished writing. A society like the Founders' that limits itself to protecting life, liberty, and property was one in which, as Wilson wrote with only slight exaggeration, "all that government had to do was to put on a policeman's uniform and say, 'Now don't anybody hurt anybody else.'" Wilson thought that such a society was unable to deal with the conditions of modern times.

Wilson rejected the earlier view that "the ideal of government was for every man to be left alone and not interfered with, except when he interfered with somebody else and that the best government was the government that did as little governing as possible." A government of this kind is unjust because it leaves men at the mercy of predatory corporations. Without government management of those corporations, Wilson thought, the poor would be destined to indefinite victimization by the wealthy. Previous limits on government power must be abolished. Accordingly, Progressive political scientist Theodore Woolsey wrote, "The sphere of the state may reach as far as the nature and needs of man and of men reach, including intellectual and aesthetic wants of the individual, and the religious and moral nature of its citizens."

However, this transformation is still in the future, for Progress takes place through historical development. A sign of the Progressives' unlimited trust in unlimited political authority is Dewey's remark in his "Ethics of Democracy" that Plato's Republic presents us with the "perfect man in the perfect state." What Plato's Socrates had presented as a thought experiment to expose the nature and limits of political life is taken by Dewey to be a laudable obliteration of the private sphere by government mandate. In a remark that the Founders would have found repugnant, Progressive political scientist John Burgess wrote that "the most fundamental and indispensable mark of statehood" was "the original, absolute, unlimited, universal power over the individual subject, and all associations of subjects."

6. Domestic Policy

For the Founders, domestic policy, as we have seen, concentrated on securing the persons and properties of the people against violence by means of a tough criminal law against murder, rape, robbery, and so on. Further, the civil law had to provide for the poor to have access to acquiring property by allowing the buying and selling of labor and property through voluntary contracts and a legal means of establishing undisputed ownership. The burden of proof was on government if there was to be any limitation on the free use of that property. Thus, licensing and zoning were rare.

Laws regulating sexual conduct aimed at the formation of lasting marriages so that children would be born and provided for by those whose interest and love was most likely to lead to their proper care, with minimal government involvement needed because most families would be intact.

Finally, the Founders tried to promote the moral conditions of an independent, hard-working citizenry by laws and educational institutions that would encourage such virtues as honesty, moderation, justice, patriotism, courage, frugality, and industry. Government support of religion (typically generic Protestantism) was generally practiced with a view to these ends. One can see the Founders' view of the connection between religion and morality in such early laws as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which said that government should promote education because "[r]eligion, morality, and knowledge [are] necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind."

In Progressivism, the domestic policy of government had two main concerns.

First, government must protect the poor and other victims of capitalism through redistribution of resources, anti-trust laws, government control over the details of commerce and production: i.e., dictating at what prices things must be sold, methods of manufacture, government participation in the banking system, and so on.

Second, government must become involved in the "spiritual" development of its citizens -- not, of course, through promotion of religion, but through protecting the environment ("conservation"), education (understood as education to personal creativity), and spiritual uplift through subsidy and promotion of the arts and culture.

7. Foreign Policy

For the Founders, foreign and domestic policy were supposed to serve the same end: the security of the people in their person and property. Therefore, foreign policy was conceived primarily as defensive. Foreign attack was to be deterred by having strong arms or repulsed by force. Alliances were to be entered into with the understanding that a self-governing nation must keep itself aloof from the quarrels of other nations, except as needed for national defense. Government had no right to spend the taxes or lives of its own citizens to spread democracy to other nations or to engage in enterprises aiming at imperialistic hegemony.

The Progressives believed that a historical process was leading all mankind to freedom, or at least the advanced nations. Following Hegel, they thought of the march of freedom in history as having a geographical basis. It was in Europe, not Asia or Africa, where modern science and the modern state had made their greatest advances. The nations where modern science had properly informed the political order were thought to be the proper leaders of the world.

The Progressives also believed that the scientifically educated leaders of the advanced nations (especially America, Britain, and France) should not hesitate to rule the less advanced nations in the interest of ultimately bringing the world into freedom, assuming that supposedly inferior peoples could be brought into the modern world at all. Political scientist Charles Merriam openly called for a policy of colonialism on a racial basis:

Progressives therefore embraced a much more active and indeed imperialistic foreign policy than the Founders did. In "Expansion and Peace" (1899), Theodore Roosevelt wrote that the best policy is imperialism on a global scale: "every expansion of a great civilized power means a victory for law, order, and righteousness." Thus, the American occupation of the Philippines, T.R. believed, would enable "one more fair spot of the world's surface" to be "snatched from the forces of darkness. Fundamentally the cause of expansion is the cause of peace."

Woodrow Wilson advocated American entry into World War I, boasting that America's national interest had nothing to do with it. Wilson had no difficulty sending American troops to die in order to make the world safe for democracy, regardless of whether or not it would make America more safe or less. The trend to turn power over to multinational organizations also begins in this period, as may be seen in Wilson's plan for a League of Nations, under whose rules America would have delegated control over the deployment of its own armed forces to that body.

8. Who Should Rule, Experts or Representatives?

The Founders thought that laws should be made by a body of elected officials with roots in local communities. They should not be "experts," but they should have "most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society" (Madison). The wisdom in question was the kind on display in The Federalist, which relentlessly dissected the political errors of the previous decade in terms accessible to any person of intelligence and common sense.

The Progressives wanted to sweep away what they regarded as this amateurism in politics. They had confidence that modern science had superseded the perspective of the liberally educated statesman. Only those educated in the top universities, preferably in the social sciences, were thought to be capable of governing. Politics was regarded as too complex for common sense to cope with. Government had taken on the vast responsibility not merely of protecting the people against injuries, but of managing the entire economy as well as providing for the people's spiritual well-being. Only government agencies staffed by experts informed by the most advanced modern science could manage tasks previously handled within the private sphere. Government, it was thought, needed to be led by those who see where history is going, who understand the ever-evolving idea of human dignity.

The Progressives did not intend to abolish democracy, to be sure. They wanted the people's will to be more efficiently translated into government policy. But what democracy meant for the Progressives is that the people would take power out of the hands of locally elected officials and political parties and place it instead into the hands of the central government, which would in turn establish administrative agencies run by neutral experts, scientifically trained, to translate the people's inchoate will into concrete policies. Local politicians would be replaced by neutral city managers presiding over technically trained staffs. Politics in the sense of favoritism and self-interest would disappear and be replaced by the universal rule of enlightened bureaucracy.

Progressivism and Today's liberalism

This should be enough to show how radically the Progressives broke with the earlier tradition. Of what relevance is all of this today?

Most obviously, the roots of the liberalism with which we are familiar lie in the Progressive Era. It is not hard to see the connections between the eight features of Progressivism that I have just sketched and later developments. This is true not only for the New Deal period of Franklin Roosevelt, but above all for the major institutional and policy changes that were initiated between 1965 and 1975. Whether one regards the transformation of American politics over the past century as good or bad, the foundations of that transformation were laid in the Progressive Era. Today's liberals, or the teachers of today's liberals, learned to reject the principles of the founding from their teachers, the Progressives.

Nevertheless, in some respects, the Progressives were closer to the founding than they are to today's liberalism. So let us conclude by briefly considering the differences between our current liberalism and Progressivism. We may sum up these differences in three words: science, sex, and progress.

First, in regard to science, today's liberals have a far more ambivalent attitude than the Progressives did. The latter had no doubt that science either had all the answers or was on the road to discovering them. Today, although the prestige of science remains great, it has been greatly diminished by the multicultural perspective that sees science as just another point of view.

Two decades ago, in a widely publicized report of the American Council of Learned Societies, several leading professors in the humanities proclaimed that the "ideal of objectivity and disinterest," which "has been essential to the development of science," has been totally rejected by "the consensus of most of the dominant theories" of today. Instead, today's consensus holds that "all thought does, indeed, develop from particular standpoints, perspectives, interests." So science is just a Western perspective on reality, no more or less valid than the folk magic believed in by an African or Pacific Island tribe that has never been exposed to modern science.

Second, liberalism today has become preoccupied with sex. Sexual activity is to be freed from all traditional restraints. In the Founders' view, sex was something that had to be regulated by government because of its tie to the production and raising of children. Practices such as abortion and homosexual conduct -- the choice for which was recently equated by the Supreme Court with the right "to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life" -- are considered fundamental rights.

The connection between sexual liberation and Progressivism is indirect, for the Progressives, who tended to follow Hegel in such matters, were rather old-fashioned in this regard. But there was one premise within Progressivism that may be said to have led to the current liberal understanding of sex. That is the disparagement of nature and the celebration of human will, the idea that everything of value in life is created by man's choice, not by nature or necessity.

Once sexual conduct comes under the scrutiny of such a concern, it is not hard to see that limiting sexual expression to marriage -- where it is clearly tied to nature's concern for reproduction -- could easily be seen as a kind of limitation of human liberty. Once self-realization (Dewey's term, for whom it was still tied to reason and science) is transmuted into self-expression (today's term), all barriers to one's sexual idiosyncrasies must appear arbitrary and tyrannical.

Third, contemporary liberals no longer believe in progress. The Progressives' faith in progress was rooted in their faith in science, as one can see especially in the European thinkers whom they admired, such as Hegel and Comte. When science is seen as just one perspective among many, then progress itself comes into question.

The idea of progress presupposes that the end result is superior to the point of departure, but contemporary liberals are generally wary of expressing any sense of the superiority of the West, whether intellectually, politically, or in any other way. They are therefore disinclined to support any foreign policy venture that contributes to the strength of America or of the West.

Liberal domestic policy follows the same principle. It tends to elevate the "other" to moral superiority over against those whom the Founders would have called the decent and the honorable, the men of wisdom and virtue. The more a person is lacking, the greater is his or her moral claim on society. The deaf, the blind, the disabled, the stupid, the improvident, the ignorant, and even (in a 1984 speech of presidential candidate Walter Mondale) the sad -- those who are lowest are extolled as the sacred other.

Surprisingly, although Progressivism, supplemented by the more recent liberalism, has transformed America in some respects, the Founders' approach to politics is still alive in some areas of American life. One has merely to attend a jury trial over a murder, rape, robbery, or theft in a state court to see the older system of the rule of law at work. Perhaps this is one reason why America seems so conservative to the rest of the Western world. Among ordinary Americans, as opposed to the political, academic, professional, and entertainment elites, there is still a strong attachment to property rights, self-reliance, and heterosexual marriage a wariness of university-certified "experts" and an unapologetic willingness to use armed forces in defense of their country.

The first great battle for the American soul was settled in the Civil War. The second battle for America's soul, initiated over a century ago, is still raging. The choice for the Founders' constitutionalism or the Progressive-liberal administrative state is yet to be fully resolved.

Thomas G. West is a Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas, a Director and Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and author of Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class, and Justice in the Origins of America (Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).

Commentary by William A. Schambra

Like the volume to which he has contributed, Tom West's remarks reflect a pessimism about the decisively debilitating effect of Progressivism on American politics. The essayists are insufficiently self-aware -- about their own contributions and those of their distinguished teachers. That is, they are not sufficiently aware that they themselves are part of an increasingly vibrant and aggressive movement to recover the Founders' constitutionalism -- a movement that could only have been dreamt of when I entered graduate school in the early '70s.

To be sure, the Progressive project accurately described herein did indeed seize and come to control major segments of American cultural and political life. It certainly came to dominate the first modern foundations, the universities, journalism, and most other institutions of American intellectual life. But, as Mr. West suggests, it nonetheless failed in its effort to change entirely the way everyday American political life plays itself out.

As much as the Progressives succeeded in challenging the intellectual underpinnings of the American constitutional system, they nonetheless faced the difficulty that the system itself -- the large commercial republic and a separation of powers, reflecting and cultivating individual self-interest and ambition -- remained in place. As their early modern designers hoped and predicted, these institutions continued to generate a certain kind of political behavior in accord with presuppositions of the Founders even as Progressive elites continued for the past 100 years to denounce that behavior as self-centered, materialistic, and insufficiently community-minded and public-spirited.

The Progressive Foothold

The Progressive system managed to gain a foothold in American politics only when it made major compromises with the Founders' constitutionalism. The best example is the Social Security system: Had the Progressives managed to install a "pure," community-minded system, it would have been an altruistic transfer of wealth from the rich to the vulnerable aged in the name of preserving the sense of national oneness or national community. It would have reflected the enduring Progressive conviction that we're all in this together -- all part of one national family, as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once put it.

Indeed, modern liberals do often defend Social Security in those terms. But in fact, FDR knew the American political system well enough to rely on other than altruistic impulses to preserve Social Security past the New Deal. The fact that it's based on the myth of individual accounts -- the myth that Social Security is only returning to me what I put in -- is what has made this part of the 20th century's liberal project almost completely unassailable politically. As FDR intended, Social Security endures because it draws as much on self-interested individualism as on self-forgetting community-mindedness.

As this illustrates, the New Deal, for all its Progressive roots, is in some sense less purely Progressive than LBJ's Great Society. In the Great Society, we had more explicit and direct an application of the Progressive commitment to rule by social science experts, largely unmitigated initially by political considerations.

That was precisely Daniel Patrick Moynihan's insight in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. Almost overnight, an obscure, untested academic theory about the cause of juvenile delinquency -- namely, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin's structure of opportunity theory -- leapt from the pages of the social science journals into the laws waging a war on poverty.

Indeed, the entire point of the Great Society was to reshape the behavior of the poor -- to move them off the welfare rolls by transforming their behavior according to what social sciences had taught us about such undertakings. It was explicitly a project of social engineering in the best Progressive tradition. Sober liberal friends of the Great Society would later admit that a central reason for its failure was precisely the fact that it was an expertise-driven engineering project, which had never sought the support or even the acquiescence of popular majorities.

The engineering excesses of the Great Society and the popular reaction against them meant that the 1960s were the beginning of the first serious challenge to the Progressive model for America -- a challenge that the New Deal hadn't precipitated earlier because it had carefully accommodated itself to the Founders' political system. Certainly the New Left took aim at the Great Society's distant, inhumane, patronizing, bureaucratic social engineering but for our purposes, this marked as well the beginning of the modern conservative response to Progressivism, which has subsequently enjoyed some success, occupying the presidency, both houses of Congress, and perhaps soon the Supreme Court.

Curiously, for Mr. West, this is precisely the moment -- he settles on the year 1965 -- at which Progressivism achieves near complete dominance of American politics.

Recovering the Founders' constitutionalism

Central to the modern conservative response, I would suggest, is precisely a recovery of the Founders' constitutionalism -- serious attention to the "truth-claims" of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist Papers. This had begun in the mid-1950s but really gathered steam in the '60s. It was above all a result, as John Marini's essay in The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science suggests, of Leo Strauss's acknowledgement that the constitutional democracies of the West, no matter how weakened by the internal critique of Progressive elites, had alone managed to resist modern totalitarianism and were worthy of a spirited intellectual defense.

Suddenly, the founding documents, which had long been consigned to the dustbin of history, came once again to be studied seriously, not as reflection of some passing historical moment of the late 18th century, but rather as potential sources of truth about politics, government, and human nature. Harry Jaffa, Herbert Storing, Martin Diamond, Harry Clor, Allan Bloom, Irving Kristol, and so forth all devoted at least some of their efforts to serious study of the Founders' thought -- a process that the volume before us continues.

I would argue that linking the conservative resurgence to a recovery of the Constitution was in fact a critical part of its ability to flourish in a way that conservatism had not otherwise managed earlier in the 20th century.

In other words, to some degree, modern conservatism owes its success to a recovery of and an effort to root itself in the Founders' constitutionalism. Frank Meyer was famous for his doctrine of fusionism -- a fusing of libertarian individualism with religious traditionalism. The real fusionism for contemporary conservatism, I would suggest, is supplied by its effort to recover the Founders' constitutionalism, which was itself an effort to fuse or blend critical American political principles like liberty and equality, competent governance and majority rule.

As noted, the Founders' constitutionalism had continued to shape American politics and public opinion in a subterranean fashion throughout the 20th century out of sight of, and in defiance of, the intellectual doctrines and utopian expectations of American Progressive intellectuals. Modern conservatism "re-theorizes," so to speak, the constitutional substructure and creates a political movement that, unlike Progressivism, is sailing with rather than against the prevailing winds of American political life. That surely makes for smoother sailing.

Mr. West and his co-authors are all children of this conservative resurgence and are themselves obviously hoping to link it to a recovery of constitutionalism. So perhaps it is just modesty that leads them to profess that their efforts and those of their teachers have come to naught and to insist that Progressivism has succeeded in destroying America after all.

The Early Constitutionalists

This volume's pessimism also neglects the critical moment in American history which provided the indispensable basis for today's effort to recover the Founders' constitutionalism. As you may know, in the Republican primaries of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency on a platform of radical constitutional reform enunciated in his "Charter of Democracy" speech, delivered in Columbus in February 1912. There and subsequently, he endorsed the full range of Progressive constitutional reforms: the initiative, referendum, and recall, including the recall of judges and judicial decisions.

Had Roosevelt managed to win the nomination of his party as he came close to doing, it is likely that it would have put its weight behind these reforms and others that appeared later in the platform of the Progressive Party, including, critically, a more expeditious method of amending the Constitution. That would probably have meant amendment by a majority of the popular vote in a majority of the states, as Robert LaFollette suggested. Had that happened -- had the Constitution come down to us today amended and re-amended, burdened with all the quick fixes and gimmicks that, at one point or another over the 20th century, captured fleeting majorities -- the effort to recover the Founders' constitutionalism and reorient American politics toward it would obviously have been a much, much trickier proposition.

This is precisely what William Howard Taft, Henry Cabot Lodge, Elihu Root, and other conservatives understood. So they stood against Roosevelt, in spite of deep friendships and in spite of the certainty of splitting the party and losing the election. For they believed that the preservation of the Constitution as it came to them from the Founders had to be their first priority, and they believed that this question would be settled decisively in the Taft-Roosevelt contest of 1912. When the constitutionalists succeeded in keeping the magnificent electoral machinery of the Republican Party out of Roosevelt's hands, they were able to tell themselves that they had done the one thing needful.

And they were right, I would argue. In spite of the fact that Progressivism would go on to seize the commanding intellectual heights of the past century -- in spite of the fact that law schools, political science departments, high-brow journals, and foundations alike told us to transcend and forget about the Founders' Constitution -- it was still there beneath it all, still there largely intact, waiting for rediscovery, still the official charter of the Republic, no matter how abused and ridiculed.

This aspect of the election of 1912 -- that is, the contest within the Republican Party between Taft and Roosevelt about preserving the Constitution -- is almost entirely forgotten today. Shelves and shelves of dissertations and books have been done on Progressivism and socialism in that election, but virtually nothing about conservatism. As we try to recover an understanding of the Founders' Constitution, so also conservatives need to recover our own history, which has otherwise been completely ignored by the Progressive academy.

Anyway, let us not neglect the sacrificial struggles of men like Root, Taft, and Lodge in seeing to it that we have a constitutional tradition to recover -- or, rather, seeing to it that the recovery is worthwhile, because the written Constitution has come down to us largely as it emerged from the pens of the Founders and still commands popular allegiance.

William A. Schambra is Director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal and editor of As Far as Republican Principles Will Admit: Collected Essays of Martin Diamond (American Enterprise Institute, 1992).


America’s Founders and the Principles of Foreign Policy: Sovereign Independence, National Interests, and the Cause of Liberty in the World

Abstract: America’s Founders sought to define a national good that transcended local interests and prejudices. The national good included the common benefits of self-defense and prosperity that all Americans would realize by participating in a large, commercial nation able to hold its own in an often hostile world. But it was only with the constitutional rule of law that the higher purpose, or true national interest, of America could be realized. That purpose was to demonstrate to all mankind the feasibility of self-government and the suitability of justice as the proper and sustainable ground for relations among nations and peoples. The honor of striving for domestic and international justice would give moral purpose to the American character. The United States would support, defend, and advance the cause of freedom everywhere. It would be a refuge for the sober, industrious, and virtuous of the world, as well as for victims of persecution. By sympathy and appropriate action, Americans would show themselves to be true friends of humanity.

Independence was the clarion call of the American Revolution. While we tend to think of independence mainly as an important historic event that marks our separation from Great Britain, the Founders and subsequent generations had a larger understanding of what was signified by the national independence they were celebrating.

Americans sought independence not only from Great Britain, after all, but also from military occupation, royal overseers, arbitrary laws, taxation without representation, and—as it says in the Declaration of Independence—everything that “evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.” But in doing so they also were declaring their unity—or interdependence—as a people, a compact of states, and a new nation. Independence implied at the same time separation as well as the creation of a new and independent country, living and governing by its own means and according to its own ways.

The concept of independence—that is, what we mean when we speak of American independence—has profound implications for how we understand and govern ourselves as a nation and how we justify and defend ourselves as an independent actor on the world stage. The American Founders were deeply divided over the appropriate policies in foreign affairs during the early years of the republic: Alexander Hamilton thought America should build a stronger military and side more with the British, for instance, while Thomas Jefferson preferred diplomacy and favored the French. Divisions on foreign policy were the catalyst that led to the establishment of the first political parties. Nevertheless, there was a core agreement about not only the nature of America and its sovereign independence, but also the cause of liberty in the world. Taking a broader view, it is possible to develop an underlying consensus view of the Founders’ thinking about American foreign policy.

Contemporary thinking on foreign policy falls prey to a number of pernicious and false dichotomies—realism versus idealism, isolationism versus internationalism—that are modern creations and have no relationship to the Founders’ approach to international politics. The Founders’ view, encapsulated in the idea of strategic independence, offers a way out of these unsatisfying and ultimately problematic theories and instead defines a prudential framework consistent with America’s core foundational principles. It is time to reconsider the Founders’ approach and readopt it as the best guide to understanding America’s unique role in the world.

Prudence and Foreign Affairs

Foreign affairs, that field of politics dealing with the outside world, is inherently different from domestic affairs. At home, we have our own laws and share a constitutional framework for deciding and enforcing the rules within a common legal framework. We are one people “among the powers of the earth.” In the world, by contrast, there is no common political community and thus no international consent of the governed.

Throughout history, different groups of peoples have banded together to form political communities—states, confederations, commonwealths, nations—based on different historical and geographic conditions and interests, resulting in different opinions about man, government, and justice. It is because of the nature and requirements of government, of communities of people uniting as a nation for common purposes, that the measure of international affairs will always be sovereign countries and national interests as each nation conceives them. The interaction of nations can be peaceful but often leads to competition and conflict. Nations are never completely free from the demands of necessity—above all, national survival and self-preservation.

Foreign policy choices are often presented as alternatives between two abstract categories: “idealism,” meaning that nations should be motivated by ideals to the exclusion of practical concerns and self-interest, and “realism,” meaning that nations are motivated primarily by the desire for more military and economic power or security rather than by principles. The distinction is false and misleading. The concept of idealism rejects the practical reality of particular national interests in favor of a dogmatic moralism, while the concept of realism suggests a narrow, cynical view that completely excludes moral considerations in dealing with other nations.

These two approaches share the assumption that principle and power are opposites and contradictory and that a nation pursuing its interests is by definition selfish and immoral, while principle is inherently dogmatic and inflexible and can be followed only when absolutely separated from concern about interest and power. However, an allegiance to principle and a clear recognition of the requirements of international security can be complementary. When rightly understood, they are inseparable—at least, this is what the American Founders thought. Neither idealism nor realism satisfies an integrated worldview that is consistent with a true understanding of the nature of international politics.

A better approach, understood by the Founders and consistent with the common sense of foreign affairs, relates principles and practice through the gauge of practical wisdom or prudence. Foreign affairs—dealing with friends and enemies in a constantly changing and often unstable world—is especially the realm of prudence. For one thing, it is impossible to predetermine the extent, priority, and immediacy of the nation’s security requirements, which shift with the balance of world forces and over which one nation has little, if any, control. Likewise, it is impossible to predetermine the challenges and opportunities for furthering principles and long-term objectives in the world. So it is impossible to know beforehand what prudence will dictate at any particular time and place.

A great example of the Founders’ prudence is their early foreign policy. It is often said that the American Founders were isolationists and that the principle of their foreign policy was to withdraw from the world in favor of focusing solely on the home front. This fails to distinguish between a particular policy conditioned on the times and the permanent principles that underlie the policy and inform changing circumstances.

At the time of its founding, the United States was a weak and fledgling nation, unique in claiming its republican institutions, extremely vulnerable to the great powers that dominated the world. Its objectives were to strengthen its constitutional government, build an adequate military capacity to defend itself, and, if possible, remove European influence from the North American continent. If America failed in this, Alexander Hamilton warned in Federalist 11, it would become “the instrument of European greatness.” But if it succeeded, it would be “superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence and be able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world.”[1]

The Founders had few choices. They were active in some areas of the world—especially concerning international trade, as well as some matters of national security—but generally constrained by the circumstances in which they found themselves. American weakness, in order to avoid getting caught up and destroyed in the competition of European powers, dictated a policy of neutrality in Europe’s wars. At the same time, the geopolitical situation that caused this policy also provided an advantage that offset American weakness—distance from Europe and the time to gain strength. It was in America’s interest to take advantage of the European balance of power, exploiting Old World rivalries to prevent any one power from dominating Europe and threatening American independence. A policy of “global noninvolvement” would be as prudent for a weak nation as it would be foolish for a strong one.

The Founders were neither utopian idealists—they strongly disagreed with the “visionary, or designing men, who stand ready to advocate the paradox of perpetual peace” and hoped to “soften the manners of men,” as Hamilton put it in Federalist 6—nor vulgar realists, relegating justice to the whims of the strongest.[2] Theirs was a worldview that was both principled and practical, where the preeminent virtue of statesmanship was prudence: the practical wisdom and ability to relate universal principles to particular circumstances.

By implication, the Founders rejected modern approaches in American foreign policy represented in what today is called power politics, isolationism, and crusading internationalism. Instead, they designed a truly American foreign policy—fundamentally shaped by our principles but neither driven by nor ignorant of the place of necessity in international relations.

A Separate and Equal Station

What does it mean to be independent? Literally, the word means “not dependent,” which comes from the Latin for “hang down” or “suspended from”—as in a pendant hanging from a necklace. In practical terms, something that is dependent hangs on, or is reliant on, something else. A person who is dependent is less free. The American Founders deplored this idea, following Blackstone’s definition: “Dependence is very little else but an obligation to conform to the will or law of that superior person or state upon which the inferior depends.”[3]

To be independent, when it comes to men and nations, is to be not only physically detached, but also fundamentally self-governing. This dual meaning of independence—technical separation from another ruling nation as well as political self-government—can be seen in our own Declaration of Independence. Indeed, this deeper sense of independence explains why we celebrate Independence Day—not the dates of the end of the Revolutionary War or even the completion of the Constitution—as our nation’s birthday.

From its opening words, the Declaration of Independence expresses certain assumptions about independent nationhood. The document begins by presupposing a crucial aspect of nationhood: that the Americans are or are becoming “one people” and that it has become necessary for that one people to dissolve the political bands that had connected it to another people—the British. This people is entitled (has a right) to “assume among the powers of the earth” a “station,” or status that is “separate and equal” to that of other nations and peoples. This status is due to them not from their English charters or British constitutional law, but by virtue of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

To claim a separate and equal status among nations is to make a claim of “sovereignty” in the context of international law. A nation is sovereign if it is independent of rule by other nations, controlling its own affairs and dealing with other nations as coequals in rank. Nations are of course not equal in regard to their size, wealth, power, and traditions. Separateness and equality are the key characteristics of what it means to be a sovereign nation.[4]

The document concludes by declaring that “these Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” that “have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Those same “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” imply that nations are independent, self-governing entities when it comes to the core functions of nationhood. So it was that at the same time the Continental Congress declared independence it also called for a plan of unity and confederation to confirm this equal status and create a new government to exercise sovereign powers.

The immediate purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to announce and defend before “the opinions of mankind” the American separation from Great Britain. The document was also intended to make the case to other nations that this separation justified America’s right to seek formal diplomatic relations and military alliances. In short, the Declaration proclaimed to the world that the united colonies—having become a people—were now separate, sovereign, and by international law equal to Great Britain and all other nations.

The Declaration of Independence also describes the enduring principles by which this nation claims a right to be an independent sovereign people. Certain foundational principles instruct not only our own political structure, but also our concept of legitimacy in the world. For example, the principle of consent—that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed—also makes legitimate a particular claim to a separate and equal rank among nations. National sovereignty in the world, based on popular sovereignty at home, underscores the primary responsibility of the national government: to defend and provide for the freedom and well-being of the people who authorized this government. Republican government means a government that expresses and represents the consent of the governed and defends American society both at home and in the world.

Lastly, the Declaration commits this nation to universal ideas—human equality, natural rights, consent of the governed, the rule of law—that have profound consequences. The Declaration of Independence submits its facts to “a candid world,” but the decision to become independent is not left to the international community, which cannot have moral authority in this matter. Instead, the Declaration asserts independence by appealing “to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions.” That is, it appeals to a higher standard to which all other laws are answerable: a universal standard above all communities, against which all other nations should be measured as well. The document makes all-important distinctions, for instance, between “civilization” on the one hand and “barbarism” or “savagery” on the other. By that standard, the object of British rule was to establish an absolute tyranny over the colonies, and it was the Americans’ right and duty—after suffering a “long train of abuses”—to free themselves of that colonial rule: “A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

America justified its independence on, and then formed a nation around, principles understood to be true not just for Americans, but for everyone everywhere. But the United States is also a particular nation with a particular history and a particular people. This combination of universal and particular helps to explain why our foreign policy, in the broadest sense, strives to relate these noble principles to the real-world challenges and requirements of international politics. That America’s particular policies, while not always perfect, are informed and shaped by principles understood to be universally true explains why America is unique in the community of nations and why America’s national self-interest in the international order is inseparable from the well-being of freedom everywhere.

The Command of Our Own Fortunes

The classic statement of the Founders’ understanding of the relationship between domestic and foreign policy is George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796. Its immediate purpose was to announce Washington’s decision to retire from public life and not seek a third term as President, but the larger objective was to give advice and warnings about the long-term safety and happiness of the American people. It is all the more significant since Washington was assisted in its drafting by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, who later became political enemies over foreign policy. Madison described Washington’s essay as one of “the best guides to the distinctive principles” of American government.[5]

The Farewell Address presents Washington’s advice concerning the Constitution and the rule of law, political parties, religion and morality, foreign influence in domestic affairs, international relations, and commercial policy. While it is often remembered for its recommendations concerning American involvement in international affairs and Washington’s defense of his debated policy of neutrality in the wars of the French Revolution, the overarching argument of the Farewell Address transcends the requirements of the moment in favor of maintaining America’s national independence.

Washington argues that the United States should take advantage of its peculiar geographic and political situation—a physical separation from Europe and the opportunity to remain aloof from its quarrels—to pursue a long-term strategy of defying external threats and choosing its own course as a nation. As described by Washington, early policy was designed “to gain time for our country to settle and mature its recent institutions, and to progress, without interruption, to that degree of strength and consistency, which is necessary to give it, humanly speaking, command of its own fortunes.”[6]

Samuel Flagg Bemis, the great 20th century diplomatic historian, interpreted this to mean “strategic independence,” or freedom of action in international affairs.[7] A better way to understand fully what Washington meant is to recall the older term used to encompass the goal for a political community: self-sufficiency. Certainly, strategic independence requires taking care of the nation’s security and material interests, but self- sufficiency is not exclusively or even primarily material. It comprehends a larger sense of moral purpose, well-being, and completeness that needs no outside support or guidance for its existence or perpetuation.

Self-sufficiency means sovereignty in the fullest sense—or, as the Declaration of Independence says, “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” and obtain the full power to do the “Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.” Rather than a permanent condition of detachment from the world, the Founders advocated a flexible policy aimed at achieving and thereafter permanently maintaining the sovereign independence for Americans to determine their own fate.

A self-sufficient America could freely choose its own leaders, establish its own laws, and set up a government that ensured its own safety and happiness and could reach its full potential as a republican political community. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote that independence “means no more than whether we shall make our own laws, or, whether the king, the greatest enemy this continent hath, or can have, shall tell us ‘there shall be no laws but such as I like.’”[8] If a foreign power can tell America “what we shall do, and what we shall not do,” Washington once told Hamilton, “we have Independence yet to seek, and have contended hitherto for very little.”[9]

True independence, then, is not only the absence of physical restraint and control, but also the flourishing of an autonomous and free character. This requires freedom of action and independent thinking—an important theme of the Farewell Address. Americans must be free from hatreds and irrational attachments to foreign nations if they are to become partisans of their own. Preconceived positions restrict policy options and prevent the nation from responsibly choosing its own course. When these attachments dominate the public mind, they not only lead the nation away from its duty and interest, but also make the supposedly free nation “in some degree a slave” to the others. “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence,” Washington warned, “the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake.”[10]

As America’s fate is necessarily tied to its principles, the key to American self-sufficiency was to find the political ground on which the requirements of independence could be reconciled with those principles at home and in our relations with other nations. How is this to be done? Here is Washington’s answer:

If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy injury from external annoyance when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.[11]

While appreciating the difficulties, prejudices, and self-interested character of politics, the Founders sought to elevate American foreign policy by the guidance of higher and nobler principles. In order to command our own fortunes in the world, we must first provide for the nation’s security and serve its interests, but our actions must always be enlightened by the fundamental and universal principles that are at the heart of our national identity.

Security, whether for an individual or for a nation, is the first requirement of self-sufficiency. “Security against foreign danger is one of the primitive objects of civil society,” Madison observed in Federalist 41. “It is an avowed and essential object of the American Union.”[12] Without providing for our own security, we could never hope to control our own destiny or command our own fortunes.

All political communities need to defend themselves and acquire those things they need to survive. Governments are instituted among men to secure their rights, which are insecure without government, and that includes a general right to liberty free from violence (hence the rule of law) and external threats.

Collective defense against external threats is the primary reason why the colonies banded together in the first place. A key weakness of the Articles of Confederation was that it did not create sufficient capacity for security, and a central purpose of the Constitution is “to provide for the common defense.” Congress and the President are given the power to provide for defense, and the President, also commander in chief of the military forces, is constitutionally and morally obligated to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The Founders often spoke of national security in terms of “safety.” In the Declaration of Independence, the right of the people to institute government was said to mean “laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness [emphasis added].” The pursuit of happiness is a natural right of liberty, but safety is the initial requirement of the pursuit. “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be first,” John Jay wrote in Federalist 3.[13] “Nations, as well as men, are taught by the law of nature, gracious in its precepts, to consider their happiness as the great end of their existence,” James Wilson wrote in his Lectures on Law. “But without existence there can be no happiness: the means, therefore, must be secured, in order to secure the end.”[14]

In defending the new constitution against the Articles, Hamilton appealed in Federalist 43 “to the absolute necessity of the case to the great principle of self-preservation to the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim.”[15] That is, necessity and self-preservation, the most basic requirements of safety, must be given their due before the higher claims of the happiness of society can be attended to.

National security is challenging in an often competitive, and sometimes hostile, international environment. The most prominent instrument of national security is military power and the potential use of force against powers and persons who threaten America and its citizens, but there are many other instruments of national security as well, including diplomacy and foreign relations, commerce with and aid to other nations, participation in alliances, foreign intelligence, and the exchange of ambassadors.

The requirements of security are dictated by the challenges and threats we face in the world. “How could a readiness for war in time of peace be safely prohibited, unless we could prohibit, in like manner, the preparations and establishments of every hostile nation?” Madison asked in Federalist 41.

The means of security can only be regulated by the means and the danger of attack. They will, in fact, be ever determined by these rules, and by no others…. If one nation maintains constantly a disciplined army, ready for the service of ambition or revenge, it obliges the most pacific nations who may be within the reach of its enterprises to take corresponding precautions.[16]

The dangerous ambitions of power were to be found in the passions of human nature. “To judge from the history of mankind,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist 34,

we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.[17]

Necessity dictates that the United States must be ready to fight wars and use force to protect the nation and the American people. Washington often liked to use the old Roman maxim: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of promoting peace.”[18] At the time, such preparations included the creation of a well-organized militia development of a naval force sufficient to vindicate American commerce from insult or aggression the promotion of a manufacturing base that would render the United States independent of others for essential military supplies the provision of military stores, arsenals, and dockyards and the establishment of a military academy.

There was disagreement over the particulars necessary for national defense, but the policy objective was broadly supported. Washington was anxious that the country, as he once described it in an Annual Message to Congress, “leave nothing to the uncertainty of procuring a warlike apparatus at the moment of public danger.”[19] In other words, it is imprudent to wait until it is too late.

The right of a sovereign nation to preserve itself is not merely passive or defensive. Sovereignty also entails a proactive right to eliminate threats. “When a nation has a right, and is under an obligation to preserve itself and its members it has, by a necessary consequence, a right to do every thing, which, without injuring others, it can do, in order to accomplish and secure those objects,” wrote Wilson in his Lectures on Law.

The same principles, which evince the right of a nation to do every thing, which it may lawfully do, for the preservation of itself and its members, evince its right, also, to avoid and prevent, as much as it lawfully may, every thing which would load it with injuries, or threaten it with danger.[20]

The American Revolution, after all, was a preemptive military action. Over the course of “a long train of abuses,” the Americans had become convinced that British policy amounted to the establishment of a tyranny over the American colonies, and they acted to prevent this outcome.

National security is a challenge for all nations, but particularly for democratic political systems dedicated to the limitation of power. “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct,” Hamilton noted in Federalist 8. “Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates.”[21] Those dictates can rub up against liberty, as many actions necessary for security employ the use of force and proceed in ways that are often secretive and less open than democracy prefers. Likewise, national security sometimes requires restrictions and sacrifices that would be inimical to personal liberty were it not for significant threats to the nation.

The solution to this dilemma is not to deny the use of force or to make it so onerous as to be ineffective. Rather, it is to establish a well-constructed constitution that focuses powers on legitimate purposes and then divides that power so that it does not go unchecked, preserving liberty while providing for a nation that can—and will—defend its liberty.

Nevertheless, the nature of international affairs demands different processes and institutional arrangements for dealing with foreign challenges, which is why the Constitution grants the national government rather than the states extensive powers in the realm of national security and foreign affairs. This is especially the case when it comes to the President’s power as commander in chief of the armed forces. Consider this from Federalist 23:

The authorities essential to the common defense are these: to raise armies to build and equip fleets to prescribe rules for the government of both to direct their operations to provide for their support. These powers ought to exist without limitation, because it is impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies, and the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to satisfy them. The circumstances that endanger the safety of nations are infinite, and for this reason no constitutional shackles can wisely be imposed on the power to which the care of it is committed.[22]

The extent of this authority, then and now, has always been a point of contention. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison debated executive authority in a famous series of essays called the Pacificus–Helvidius debates. Hamilton (Pacificus) argued that the executive had broad constitutional power in foreign affairs, while Madison (Helvidius) argued in favor of strong legislative authority over foreign affairs in all areas except those specifically granted to the executive in the Constitution.

Obviously, not every action we take in the world involves threats to national security. Nevertheless, whatever the United States does in the international arena must be guided by the duty of a constitutional government based on consent to guarantee the nation’s security and safety.

National Interests Guided by Justice

Independence, to have substantive meaning, must remain first and foremost an internal concern about how we govern ourselves within the confines of our own nation. For the United States to exist as a cohesive, self-governing political community—in command of its own fortunes—it must begin with a fundamental, and entirely proper, distinction between this nation and its national interests on the one hand and other nations and their interests on the other. All political communities need to defend themselves and to acquire what they need to survive and prosper, and this means that nations have distinct interests in the context of world politics. Foreign policy must protect the nation’s security, interests, and goals in a world where different nations with different national interests—not bound by the laws of our political system—may be competitive, threatening, or hostile.

The concept of national interest follows from the primary obligation to the community that constitutes the nation in the first place. “Under every form of government rulers are only trustees for the happiness and interest of their nation,” Hamilton wrote in the Pacificus essays, “and cannot, consistently with their trust, follow the suggestions of kindness or humanity toward others, to the prejudice of their constituents.”[23] This is especially the case in a representative democracy in which the elected leaders have an obligation to act in the best interests of the people they represent and on whose behalf they exercise power. The first obligation of government is to the particular community it governs.

Independence means that it is always in our interest to prevent the United States from becoming subservient to the interests of another nation. “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation,” Washington warned. “[I]t must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”[24] We have our own interests to protect, and we must not leave our destiny to be determined “in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.”[25]

National interest is a matter of the greatest prudence. Some interests are immediate and others long-term. Some are absolutely vital, some important, others minor and marginal. And in general, interests change according to changing circumstances—other nations’ actions, new threats, technological advances—in the world. While America had, for instance, an immediate interest at the time of the founding in preventing entanglement in Europe’s wars and has a permanent interest in not becoming embroiled in other nations’ political quarrels, the country has always had a paramount interest in preventing (and a willingness to ally with other nations to prevent) a hostile power from dominating the European continent, since such a power would potentially threaten the freedom and very existence of the United States as an independent nation—as when Nazi Germany was conquering Europe or Soviet Russia threatened to do so.

The Constitution and the union were the vehicles by which the national interest with respect to foreign powers, as well as the interests of individuals and sections, could best be realized. The American people would achieve the material requirements necessary to command their own fortunes by remaining united rather than divided. The greater strength and greater resources provided by the Constitution were essential for security against external danger. Combining resources and enterprises would bring great prosperity to the nation, which in turn would provide important advantages in foreign commerce.

Interest, properly understood, represents an entirely legitimate feature of moral principle in foreign affairs. The Founders never wavered from the view, expressed in Washington’s Farewell Address, that it was “the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.”[26] Washington insisted that “there can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon real favours from Nations.” A nation relying on the altruism of others would “pay with a portion of its Independence” for that conceit.[27]

This recognition of interest does not diminish the importance of justice in American foreign policy. The Founders argued that it was in the true interest of America to act with justice toward other peoples. Jefferson put it this way in his Second Inaugural: “We are firmly convinced, and we act on that conviction, that with nations, as with individuals, our interests, soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.”[28]

Commerce, Not Conquest

We can begin to understand this clearly in the Founders’ emphasis on the development of international commerce. An important argument for ratifying the Constitution was that it would create a commercial republic appropriate for the entrepreneurial character of the American people. America’s “unequaled spirit of enterprise” makes for “an inexhaustible mine of national wealth,” Hamilton argued in Federalist 11. He worried that if the states failed to unite under the Constitution, commerce “would be stifled and lost, and poverty and disgrace would overspread a country which, with wisdom, might make herself the admiration and envy of the world.”[29]

In the Farewell Address, Washington warned the United States against entering into binding political agreements with other countries or into permanent alliances that would not account for changing national interests. But while he opposed political connections and permanent alliances, recognizing the need for temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies such as fighting a war or defending against a mutual threat, he recommended that the United States pursue commercial relations with other countries and supported commercial agreements with willing nations. In general, Washington favored harmony and liberal intercourse with all nations as recommended by “policy, humanity and interest.”[30]

A foreign policy of interest guided by justice implies that commerce, not military conquest or intimidation, should be the primary method of acquiring and trading goods, the preferred means of securing the necessities for national life that the United States did not possess within its territory and the general means of dealing with the other nations of the world.

It was in the commercial realm that depends so completely on contracts and negotiations—and where America had an interest in prosperity—that justice could most clearly be defined, rendered, and exacted. To foster peaceful commercial relations with other nations—and to create an interest in living in peace and friendship—American commercial policy, according to the Farewell Address, “should hold an equal and impartial hand, neither seeking nor granting exclusive favours or preferences consulting the natural course of things diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of Commerce, but forcing nothing.”[31]

The Founders appreciated the importance of foreign commerce to the long-term interests of the United States. Placed in the proper channels, the American genius for commerce could be an enormous boon: “A people…who are possessed of the spirit of commerce, who see, and who will pursue their advantage, may achieve almost anything,” Washington wrote in 1784.[32] They also subscribed, though with reservations, to the view that the development of international commerce was one of the best policies available to ameliorate conflict among nations. They were not so naïve as to suppose that the spread of commerce and republican government would abolish conflict between nations. It was, noted Hamilton in Federalist 6, “time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age, and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue.”[33]

Nevertheless, the possibility of transforming international relations by encouraging peaceful commercial relations and the proper and necessary role that the United States should play in that transformation remained an inseparable part of the Founders’ thinking. The American character in the world was to be defined generally by commercial pursuits, and the Founders expressed hope, within limits, that commerce might temper international relations.

Justice and Benevolence

Washington began his Farewell Address by asserting that the success of the American experiment—to bring about the happiness of the American people under the auspices of liberty—would give the United States the glory of recommending the American model “to the applause, the affection, and the adoption of every nation which is yet a stranger to it.”[34] The transcendent theme of the founding, elevating it beyond the action of merely one country, was for Americans to demonstrate the viability of self-government not only for themselves, but also for the imitation of mankind everywhere.

The process of calmly deliberating, creating, ratifying, and implementing a self-governing constitution through democratic means—demonstrating that reflection and choice, not accident and force, could govern men—was the example that would give America moral authority in the world. As James Wilson had remarked:

The United States now exhibit to the world, the first instance, as far as we can learn, of a nation, unattacked by external force, unconvulsed by domestic insurrections, assembling voluntarily, deliberating fully, and deciding calmly, concerning that system of government, under which they would wish that they and their posterity should live.[35]

The Farewell Address introduced a matching American ambition in foreign policy: “It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give mankind the too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.”[36] Independence would allow the United States to follow a more enlightened approach to the world and give America the freedom to choose a course in accord with a larger sense of justice and commitment to universal principles of liberty. “Religion and morality enjoin this conduct,” Washington wrote, “and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?”[37] This standard of morality should characterize America abroad as well as at home.

This was the higher aim that ultimately defined the American purpose in the world. “Can it be, that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a Nation with its virtue?” Washington asked in the Farewell Address. “The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”[38]

What does it mean to be “guided by an exalted justice and benevolence” in foreign affairs?

First, it means respecting other nations. Our claim to a separate and equal status implies that others, too, have a rightful claim to that same status. Each people have a sovereign right to determine the government that seems to them to serve their own safety and happiness.

This does not mean that the United States must recognize or treat repugnant regimes as legitimate nation-states, but it does mean that we have a general obligation to respect other nations’ sovereignty and not intervene in their affairs when our security or vital interests are not involved. “A nation has a right to manage its own concerns as it thinks fit,” Hamilton wrote, and it “ought to have a right to provide for its own happiness.”[39] The “self-evident right” of a nation to determine its own affairs, Madison wrote, “can be denied to no independent nation.”[40]

Second, it means observing good faith and justice toward other nations. Having recognized other nations’ right to manage their own affairs, this country should approach and treat other nations as befits separate and equal sovereign nations. In general, the United States should act honestly and fairly in dealing with other countries, fulfill its contractual obligations, and keep its word. Relations among nations should be matter-of-fact and openly diplomatic rather than based on cynicism or an assumption of disinterested friendship.

It is “the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it,” Washington observed.[41] Because all nations are limited by their own interests, the best way to make and keep obligations is through agreements that define the obligations of each party. Despite the Founders’ aversion to permanent political alliances, our security and our respect for the sovereignty of other nations suggest that alliances are the appropriate ways of securing relationships with nations that have common economic or security interests.

Third, it means cultivating peaceful relations with other nations. The guidelines of usage and right reason, represented by the law of nature and nations, determine the boundaries of justice in foreign affairs. To be sure, the specific requirements of the law of nations are often controversial and ill-defined, but it indicates principles and practices that conform to natural justice. The Farewell Address identified the foremost of these principles as “the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every Nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of Peace and amity toward other nations.”[42]

The important qualification “in cases in which it is free to act” represented a positive injunction not merely to avoid unnecessary war, but also to prevent being forced into war through our own weakness or the actions of others. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 11, “The rights of neutrality will only be respected when they are defended by adequate power. A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral.”[43] John Jay added that the American people ought to support steps that would “put and keep them in such a situation as, instead of inviting war, will tend to repress and discourage it.”[44]

By establishing a well-administered union that observed justice and good faith in international relations, the United States might create an international environment in which other nations would lack the incentive or opportunity to become America’s enemy. The interests of the United States and other nations were not static or immutable America, within the limits of what is humanly possible, could help shape in a positive fashion a world where a general amity among nations—or at least between the United States and the rest of the world—could be sustained. We should hold other nations, as the Declaration of Independence says of Great Britain, “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”

Lastly, it means not only defending but promoting the cause of liberty in the world. Other nations have the same sovereign right as we do to choose governments they believe will best serve their safety and happiness, but that has never meant that the United States is indifferent to the choice between liberty and tyranny. America’s principles compel this country to advocate freedom in the world.

The Cause of Liberty in the World

The Declaration of Independence holds that all men—not just Americans—are endowed with a right to liberty. That liberty is an aspect of human nature everywhere is central to understanding America’s first principles. This is why the promotion of freedom in the world has been and should always be a predominant theme of American foreign policy. Washington put it this way in his First Inaugural Address: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”[45]

The question, then, is not whether but how to advance liberty, and this is a preeminent question of prudence and statecraft, relating principles and practice. The Founders framed the question with three important caveats.

First, they understood that America, though dedicated to a universal principle, is a particular nation. The United States must always keep in mind its own sovereign obligations and be careful not to risk its capacity to perform the vital task of defending itself, its people, and its interests.

Second, the Founders understood that America acted within the possibilities of the real world, and in a world of limited resources, the nation must not forget its limits. Moreover, no matter how passionate we are to expand free government, it is not in our hands to dictate the final outcome. Making the right to liberty into an enduring principle of a nation’s political order can be fully accomplished only by the people of that nation.

Third—and most important—the Founders were acutely aware of the difficulties involved in advancing the cause of liberty. They based their hopes, as James Madison wrote in Federalist 39, on “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.”[46] Liberty is not just about holding an election now and again it is also about establishing stable constitutional government and the rule of law, upholding majority rule, and securing civil and religious liberty.

There is a great distance between the natural right to liberty and the capacity of particular peoples and nations for self-government. Although every human being has a desire to be free, by no means are all willing to fight (and perhaps die) for it or to acknowledge the political forms necessary to establish and preserve it for themselves or for others. The Founders’ own experience—breaking with a sovereign power, fighting a war for independence, creating constitutional forms and institutions, building on extensive experience in self-government and deep constitutional traditions inherited from their mother country—proves the case.

This is not to say that the Founders thought establishing republican government was unlikely or impossible—or that they were opposed in all cases to intervention on behalf of liberty and the republican cause. That would make a mockery of their own call for foreign support in the Declaration of Independence.

The French Revolution is an instructive example. Americans were optimistic about the influence that their principles would have on the cause of liberty elsewhere and initially welcomed the possibility of an American-inspired revolution in France that would replace its monarchy with a constitutional republic like their own. But as events developed, they were increasingly concerned about the disorder and violence that seemed to stem from deliberate policies of the revolutionary French leadership.

Although there was great debate over how to interpret these events—Hamilton saw violent social upheaval where Jefferson saw the chaotic advance of liberty—the Washington Administration (which included Hamilton and Jefferson) ultimately concluded that the French Revolution threatened to spread violence throughout Europe, drawing other nations—perhaps including America—into a worldwide war. While there was disagreement about implementing the policy, there was wide agreement that the United States should stay out of the conflict.

Alexander Hamilton made an important distinction between a nation that had “come to a resolution to throw off a yoke, under which it may have groaned” and “is in the act of liberating itself” on the one hand and, on the other, the policy of the French Revolution, which held out “a general invitation to insurrection and revolution” in all countries and had declared that it would “treat as enemies the people who, refusing or renouncing liberty and equality, are desirous of preserving their prince and privileged castes.” In the former case, it would be “justifiable and meritorious” for another nation to offer assistance (as France had supported the American cause), but the latter situation amounted to a declaration of war against all opponents and all nations.[47]

Likewise, Washington made important distinctions when it came to the French Revolution. He stirringly proclaimed to the French minister in 1796 that “my anxious recollections, my sympathetic feelings, and my best wishes are irresistibly excited, whensoever in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of Freedom.” But in praising the cause of freedom in France, Washington made explicit the grounds on which Americans would evaluate the true merits of the French Revolution:

I rejoice that liberty…now finds an asylum in the bosom of a regularly organized government a government, which, being formed to secure the happiness of the French people, corresponds with the ardent wishes of my heart, while it gratifies the pride of every citizen of the United States, by its resemblance to their own.[48]

It is one thing to unfurl the banners of freedom but quite another to actually establish constitutional government.

The Founders fervently welcomed opportunities to promote liberty in the world, but they judged those opportunities in light of America’s legitimate national interests and obligations and recognized that the success of liberty ultimately required stable institutions of constitutional government—what today we often refer to broadly as liberal democracy. Likewise, while it is important to understand the universal and even revolutionary implications of our principles, as a nation with sovereign responsibilities, it is not our objective—or our responsibility—to intervene in every case when our principles are invoked or to impose liberal democratic forms on the rest of the world.

When opportunities for advancing liberty arise, the United States is entitled (even obligated) to make prudent distinctions about commitments (such as cost, time, and manpower) relative to our interests and sovereign responsibilities, including the larger cause of liberal democracy. The principal duty this nation has toward the world is to remain strong and independent so that the United States can maintain the freedom to advance and, when necessary, defend freedom in the world.

The Founders sought to advance liberty not directly by imperial expansion or by using force to change other nations, but indirectly—even secondarily to our primary obligations and interests as a nation. America should promote and assist democracies and even prevent others from intervening with or imposing nondemocratic governments (implied in the Monroe Doctrine when the United States agreed not to intervene in Europe in exchange for Europe’s not establishing European-backed monarchical regimes in South America). Otherwise—with strong encouragement and general support for the spread of liberal democracy—it should let particular peoples determine their own fate. This approach reflects our historical understanding of how best to uphold and vindicate the universal principle of human liberty.

This is the meaning of John Quincy Adams’s famous speech delivered to Congress on July 4, 1821. The son of President John Adams, he was at the time Secretary of State (and would help author the Monroe Doctrine) and would be President of the United States in less than four years. The address is a wonderful statement of American principles and history, focusing on America and the world. Consider this key passage:

Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.[49]

America’s “glory is not dominion, but liberty,” Adams concludes. “Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”[50] America is an empire, but not of servitude or mastery. As Jefferson once said, it is “an empire of liberty.”[51]

The Founders believed that whatever temporary advantages might be lost by following a foreign policy of interest guided by justice would be richly repaid over the course of time. The practices of other nations, following America’s example in foreign as well as domestic affairs, would lead to a structure of international relations that might achieve America’s interests in security and prosperity more surely than one in which nations act unjustly in an international system marked by the pursuit of narrow self-interest. America could provide for its security and realize its interests—in short, command its own fortunes—better in a peaceful and prosperous world than in a world torn by constant avarice and strife.

To be sure, the Founders did not think that a peaceful and prosperous world was around the corner any more than they believed that self-government would soon become the norm. America would do its part in leading by example in both foreign and domestic affairs. The great American experiment would further ennoble the American character, giving moral content to American interests in relation to other nations and peoples.

The Founders sought to create an independent, self-sufficient American political community, in the form of a large commercial republic, able to control its destiny through a foreign policy that pursued American interests guided by justice. Both the American political community and the national character depended on establishing in the mind of the people the proper relationship—and distinction—between America and other nations and peoples.

Above all, the American character was to be republican. America would be founded and sustained not merely for narrow interests of a particular people in a particular place, but for the sake of that people’s commitment to achieving civil and religious liberty for all under the rule of law.

America’s Founders sought to define a national good that transcended local interests and prejudices. The national good included the common benefits of self-defense and prosperity that all Americans would realize by participating in a large commercial nation able to hold its own in an often hostile world. But it was only with the constitutional rule of law that the higher purpose, or true national interest, of America could be realized. That purpose was to demonstrate to all mankind the feasibility of self-government and the suitability of justice as the proper and sustainable ground for relations among nations and peoples.

The honor of striving for domestic and international justice would give moral purpose to the American character. The United States would support, defend, and advance the cause of freedom everywhere. It would be a refuge for the sober, industrious, and virtuous of the world, as well as for victims of persecution. By sympathy and appropriate action, Americans would show themselves to be true friends of humanity.

Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation and author of We Still Hold These Truths (ISI Books, 2009).

[1] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 11,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: Signet Classic, 2003), p. 86.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 6,” The Federalist Papers, p. 50.

[3] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, in Four Books, ed. William Draper Lewis (Philadelphia: Geo. T. Bisel Co., 1922), p. 89.

[4] See Jeremy Rabkin, The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence (Washington: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2004), as well as his “The Meaning of Sovereignty: What Our Founding Fathers Could Tell Us About Current Events,” Heritage Foundation First Principles Essay No. 10, May 25, 2007.

[5] James Madison, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 8 February 1825,” in James Madison: Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: The Library of America, 1999), p. 809. On the Farewell Address, see Matthew Spalding and Patrick Garrity, A Sacred Union of Citizens: George Washington’s Farewell Address and the American Character (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996).

[6] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” in George Washington: A Collection, ed. W. B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), p. 527. Emphasis added.

[7] Much of the best work of Samuel Flagg Bemis on the founding era is collected in American Foreign Policy and the Blessings of Liberty: and Other Essays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).

[8] Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” in Paine: Collected Writings, ed. Eric Foner (New York: Library of America, 1995), p. 30.

[9] George Washington, “Letter to Alexander Hamilton, 8 May 1796,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 630.

[10] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 524. Emphasis in original.

[12] James Madison, “Federalist No. 41,” The Federalist Papers, p. 252.

[13] John Jay, “Federalist No. 3,” The Federalist Papers, p. 36.

[14] James Wilson, “Lectures on Law,” in Collected Works of James Wilson, ed. Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), Vol. 1, p. 534.

[15] James Madison, “Federalist No. 43,” The Federalist Papers, p. 276.

[16] James Madison, “Federalist No. 41,” The Federalist Papers, p. 253.

[17] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 34,” The Federalist Papers, p. 204.

[18] George Washington, “First Annual Message,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 468.

[19] George Washington, “Fifth Annual Message,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 488.

[20] James Wilson, “Lectures on Law,” Collected Works of James Wilson, Vol. 1, p. 536. Emphasis added.

[21] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 8,” The Federalist Papers, p. 61.

[22] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 23,” The Federalist Papers, p. 149.

[23] Alexander Hamilton, “Pacificus No. IV,” in The Pacificus–Helvidius Debates of 1793–1794: Toward the Completion of the American Founding, ed. Morton J. Frisch (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), p. 33.

[24] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 524. Emphasis added.

[25] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 525.

[26] George Washington, “Letter to Henry Laurens,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 115.

[27] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 525.

[28] Thomas Jefferson, “Second Inaugural Address,” in Jefferson: Autobiography, Notes On the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 518.

[29] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 11,” The Federalist Papers, p. 83.

[30] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 525.

[32] George Washington, “Letter to Governor Benjamin Harrison,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 288.

[33] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 6,” The Federalist Papers, p. 53.

[34] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 514.

[35] James Wilson, “Remarks of James Wilson in the Pennsylvania Convention to Ratify the Constitution of the United States, 1787,” Collected Works of James Wilson, p. 182.

[36] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 522.

[39] Alexander Hamilton, “Letter to George Washington, April 1793,” in The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1904), Vol. 4, p. 366.

[40] James Madison, “Political Observations, 20 April 1795,” in Madison: Works (New York: R. Worthington, 1884), Vol. 4, p. 489.

[41] George Washington, “Letter to Henry Laurens,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 115.

[42] George Washington, “Farewell Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 526.

[43] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist No. 11,” The Federalist Papers, p. 82.

[44] John Jay, “Federalist No. 4,” The Federalist Papers, p. 41. Emphasis in original.

[45] George Washington, “First Inaugural Address,” George Washington: A Collection, p. 462. Emphasis in original.

[46] James Madison, “Federalist No. 39,” The Federalist Papers, p. 236.

[47] Alexander Hamilton, “Pacificus No. II,” The Pacificus–Helvidius Debates of 1793–1794, pp. 22–23.

[48] George Washington, “Reply to the French Minister, 1 January 1796,” in The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931–1944), Vol. 34, pp. 413–414. Emphasis added.

[49] John Quincy Adams, An Address, Delivered at the Request of the Committee of Arrangements for Celebrating the Anniversary of Independence, at the City of Washington on the Fourth of July 1821, upon the occasion of reading the Declaration of Independence (Cambridge: University Press, 1821), p. 32.


The Debate Over the House of Representatives

During the Revolution all of the American states established republican forms of government in which the people chose representatives to attend state legislatures. Eleven states had bicameral legislatures in which the lower houses were more numerous and exercised more power. (Pennsylvania and Georgia had unicameral legislatures.)

The Constitution called for a bicameral Congress composed of a House of Representatives and a Senate. Representation in the House was proportionately based on population, including 3/5s of all slaves, while the states were equally represented in the Senate. Small-state Antifederalists opposed proportional representation in the House. They maintained that the states had always been distinct and sovereign political units, as such, they should be represented equally. Large-state Antifederalists favored the proportional representation in the House but opposed the equal state representation in the Senate. Antifederalists also maintained that the House of Representatives was too small to adequately represent all segments of American society because (according to Article I of the Constitution) the first U.S. House of Representatives would be composed of only 65 members (if all 13 states ratified). Critics cited the fact that many of the lower houses of the state legislatures had more members than would serve in the U.S. House under the proposed Constitution. Antifederalists also attacked the biennial elections of representatives. Under the Articles of Confederation, delegates to Congress had one-year terms, were subject to recall, and could only serve three years within a six-year period. The Constitution did not have recall or rotation in office provisions. The Constitution was also criticized for neglecting to grant treaty-making powers to the House of Representatives even though treaties would be the law of the land. Although they liked the requirement that money bills would originate in the lower house, Antifederalists criticized the Senate’s power to amend money bills. In Parliament, the House of Lords could only accept or reject money bills. Antifederalists belittled the House’s power to impeach government officials, saying no convictions and removals would take place in trials held in the Senate.

Federalists countered these criticisms forcefully. Under the Articles of Confederation, state legislatures determined how their delegates to Congress were elected. All but Rhode Island and Connecticut opted that the state legislatures did the electing. Under the Constitution, voters qualified to vote for members of their state assemblies could vote for U.S. Representatives. Federalists argued that this meant the House of Representatives was more democratic than the Confederation Congress.

In countering Antifederalist qualms about representation, An American Citizen III noted that proportional representation in the proposed Constitution “accords with reason and the true principles of liberty… and is one more great step towards the perfection of equal liberty and genuine republicanism in America.” Federalists also countered concerns that the House was too small by pointing out that it would enlarge as the nation’s population increased. Federalists argued that the two-year term would create some degree of continuity. Representatives from distant states would find a one-year term difficult simply because much of their time would be spent in transit or running for office, distracting them from pressing national affairs. Federalists also argued that although the House of Representatives had no direct involvement in treaty-making, it still had influence through its control over the appropriation of funds. In addition, its impeachment powers gave it considerable powers in all governmental affairs.

The following documents are taken from The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and have been grouped into sub-categories to better understand the nuances of the debate over the House of Representatives during the ratification period.


The Debate Over a Bill of Rights

Antifederalists argued that in a state of nature people were entirely free. In society some rights were yielded for the common good. But, there were some rights so fundamental that to give them up would be contrary to the common good. These rights, which should always be retained by the people, needed to be explicitly stated in a bill of rights that would clearly define the limits of government. A bill of rights would serve as a fire bell for the people, enabling them to immediately know when their rights were threatened.

Additionally, some Antifederalists argued that the protections of a bill of rights was especially important under the Constitution, which was an original compact with the people. State bills of rights offered no protection from oppressive acts of the federal government because the Constitution, treaties and laws made in pursuance of the Constitution were declared to be the supreme law of the land. Antifederalists argued that a bill of rights was necessary because, the supremacy clause in combination with the necessary and proper and general welfare clauses would allow implied powers that could endanger rights.


The Centennial and the Debate Over Preservation, 1876-1921

In 1876 the Declaration traveled to Philadelphia, where it was on exhibit for the Centennial National Exposition from May to October. Philadelphia's Mayor William S. Stokley was entrusted by President Ulysses S. Grant with temporary custody of the Declaration. The Public Ledger for May 8, 1876, noted that it was in Independence Hall "framed and glazed for protection, and . . . deposited in a fireproof safe especially designed for both preservation and convenient display. [When the outer doors of the safe were opened, the parchment was visible behind a heavy plate-glass inner door the doors were closed at night.] Its aspect is of course faded and time-worn. The text is fully legible, but the major part of the signatures are so pale as to be only dimly discernible in the strongest light, a few remain wholly readable, and some are wholly invisible, the spaces which contained them presenting only a blank."

Other descriptions made at Philadelphia were equally unflattering: "scarce bears trace of the signatures the execution of which made fifty-six names imperishable," "aged-dimmed." But on the Fourth of July, after the text was read aloud to a throng on Independence Square by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (grandson of the signer Richard Henry Lee), "The faded and crumbling manuscript, held together by a simple frame was then exhibited to the crowd and was greeted with cheer after cheer."

By late summer the Declaration's physical condition had become a matter of public concern. On August 3, 1876, Congress adopted a joint resolution providing "that a commission, consisting of the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the Librarian of Congress be empowered to have resort to such means as will most effectually restore the writing of the original manuscript of the Declaration of Independence, with the signatures appended thereto." This resolution had actually been introduced as early as January 5, 1876. One candidate for the task of restoration was William J. Canby, an employee of the Washington Gas Light Company. On April 13 Canby had written to the Librarian of Congress: "I have had over thirty years experience in handling the pen upon parchment and in that time, as an expert, have engrossed hundreds of ornamental, special documents." Canby went on to suggest that "the only feasible plan is to replenish the original with a supply of ink, which has been destroyed by the action of light and time, with an ink well known to be, for all practical purposes, imperishable."

The commission did not, however, take any action at that time. After the conclusion of the Centennial exposition, attempts were made to secure possession of the Declaration for Philadelphia, but these failed and the parchment was returned to the Patent Office in Washington, where it had been since 1841, even though that office had become a part of the Interior Department. On April 11, 1876, Robert H. Duell, Commissioner of Patents, had written to Zachariah Chandler, Secretary of the Interior, suggesting that "the Declaration of Independence, and the commission of General Washington, associated with it in the same frame, belong to your Department as heirlooms.

Chandler appears to have ignored this claim, for in an exchange of letters with Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, it was agreed-with the approval of President Grant-to move the Declaration into the new, fireproof building that the State Department shared with the War and Navy Departments (now the Old Executive Office Building).

On March 3, 1877, the Declaration was placed in a cabinet on the eastern side of the State Department library, where it was to be exhibited for 17 years. It may be noted that not only was smoking permitted in the library, but the room contained an open fireplace. Nevertheless this location turned out to be safer than the premises just vacated much of the Patent Office was gutted in a fire that occurred a few months later.

On May 5, 1880, the commission that had been appointed almost 4 years earlier came to life again in response to a call from the Secretary of the Interior. It requested that William B. Rogers, president of the National Academy of Sciences appoint a committee of experts to consider "whether such restoration [of the Declaration] be expedient or practicable and if so in what way the object can best be accomplished."

The duly appointed committee reported on January 7, 1881, that Stone used the "wet transfer" method in the creation of his facsimile printing of 1823, that the process had probably removed some of the original ink, and that chemical restoration methods were "at best imperfect and uncertain in their results." The committee concluded, therefore, that "it is not expedient to attempt to restore the manuscript by chemical means." The group of experts then recommended that "it will be best either to cover the present receptacle of the manuscript with an opaque lid or to remove the manuscript from its frame and place it in a portfolio, where it may be protected from the action of light." Finally, the committee recommended that "no press copies of any part of it should in future be permitted."

Recent study of the Declaration by conservators at the National Archives has raised doubts that a "wet transfer" took place. Proof of this occurrence, however, cannot be verified or denied strictly by modern examination methods. No documentation prior to the 1881 reference has been found to support the theory therefore we may never know if Stone actually performed the procedure.

Little, if any, action was taken as a result of the 1881 report. It was not until 1894 that the State Department announced: "The rapid fading of the text of the original Declaration of Independence and the deterioration of the parchment upon which it is engrossed, from exposure to light and lapse of time, render it impracticable for the Department longer to exhibit it or to handle it. For the secure preservation of its present condition, so far as may be possible, it has been carefully wrapped and placed flat in a steel case."

A new plate for engravings was made by the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1895, and in 1898 a photograph was made for the Ladies' Home Journal. On this latter occasion, the parchment was noted as "still in good legible condition" although "some of the signatures" were "necessarily blurred."

On April 14, 1903, Secretary of State John Hay solicited again the help of the National Academy of Sciences in providing "such recommendations as may seem practicable . . . touching [the Declaration's] preservation." Hay went on to explain: "It is now kept out of the light, sealed between two sheets of glass, presumably proof against air, and locked in a steel safe. I am unable to say, however, that, in spite of these precautions, observed for the past ten years, the text is not continuing to fade and the parchment to wrinkle and perhaps to break."

On April 24 a committee of the academy reported its findings. Summarizing the physical history of the Declaration, the report stated: "The instrument has suffered very seriously from the very harsh treatment to which it was exposed in the early years of the Republic. Folding and rolling have creased the parchment. The wet press-copying operation to which it was exposed about 1820, for the purpose of producing a facsimile copy, removed a large portion of the ink. Subsequent exposure to the action of light for more than thirty years, while the instrument was placed on exhibition, has resulted in the fading of the ink, particularly in the signatures. The present method of caring for the instrument seems to be the best that can be suggested."

The committee added its own "opinion that the present method of protecting the instrument should be continued that it should be kept in the dark and dry as possible, and never placed on exhibition." Secretary Hay seems to have accepted the committee's recommendation in the following year, William H. Michael, author of The Declaration of Independence (Washington, 1904), recorded that the Declaration was "locked and sealed, by order of Secretary Hay, and is no longer shown to anyone except by his direction."

World War I came and went. Then, on April 21, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued an order creating yet another committee: "A Committee is hereby appointed to study the proper steps that should be taken for the permanent and effective preservation from deterioration and from danger from fire, or other form of destruction, of those documents of supreme value which under the law are deposited with the Secretary of State. The inquiry will include the question of display of certain of these documents for the benefit of the patriotic public."

On May 5, 1920, the new committee reported on the physical condition of the safes that housed the Declaration and the Constitution. It declared: "The safes are constructed of thin sheets of steel. They are not fireproof nor would they offer much obstruction to an evil-disposed person who wished to break into them." About the physical condition of the Declaration, the committee stated: "We believe the fading can go no further. We see no reason why the original document should not be exhibited if the parchment be laid between two sheets of glass, hermetically sealed at the edges and exposed only to diffused light."

The committee also made some important "supplementary recommendations." It noted that on March 3, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt had directed that certain records relating to the Continental Congress be turned over by the Department of State to the Library of Congress: "This transfer was made under a provision of an Act of February 25, 1903, that any Executive Department may turn over to the Library of Congress books, maps, or other material no longer needed for the use of the Department." The committee recommended that the remaining papers, including the Declaration and the Constitution, be similarly given over to the custody of the Library of Congress. For the Declaration, therefore, two important changes were in the offing: a new home and the possibility of exhibition to "the patriotic public."


The debate

Within the broader world of popular opinion in the United States, the Founding Fathers are often accorded near mythical status as demigods who occupy privileged locations on the slopes of some American version of Mount Olympus. Within the narrower world of the academy, however, opinion is more divided. In general, scholarship at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has focused more on ordinary and “inarticulate” Americans in the late 18th century, the periphery of the social scene rather than the centre. And much of the scholarly work focusing on the Founders has emphasized their failures more than their successes, primarily their failure to end slavery or reach a sensible accommodation with the Native Americans.

The very term Founding Fathers has also struck some scholars as inherently sexist, verbally excluding women from a prominent role in the founding. Such influential women as Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, and Mercy Otis Warren made significant contributions that merit attention, despite the fact that the Founding Fathers label obscures their role.

As a result, the Founding Fathers label that originated in the 19th century as a quasi-religious and nearly reverential designation has become a more controversial term in the 21st. Any assessment of America’s founding generation has become a conversation about the core values embodied in the political institutions of the United States, which are alternatively celebrated as the wellspring of democracy and a triumphant liberal legacy or demonized as the source of American arrogance, racism, and imperialism.

For at least two reasons, the debate over its Founders occupies a special place in America’s history that has no parallel in the history of any European nation-state. First, the United States was not founded on a common ethnicity, language, or religion that could be taken for granted as the primal source of national identity. Instead, it was founded on a set of beliefs and convictions, what Thomas Jefferson described as self-evident truths, that were proclaimed in 1776 and then embedded in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. To become an American citizen is not a matter of bloodlines or genealogy but rather a matter of endorsing and embracing the values established at the founding, which accords the men who invented these values a special significance. Second, the American system of jurisprudence links all landmark constitutional decisions to the language of the Constitution itself and often to the “original intent” of the framers. Once again, this legal tradition gives the American Founders an abiding relevance in current discussions of foreign and domestic policy that would be inconceivable in most European countries.

Finally, in part because so much always seems to be at stake whenever the Founding Fathers enter any historical conversation, the debate over their achievement and legacy tends to assume a hyperbolic shape. It is as if an electromagnetic field surrounds the discussion, driving the debate toward mutually exclusive appraisals. In much the same way that adolescents view their parents, the Founders are depicted as heroic icons or despicable villains, demigods or devils, the creators of all that is right or all that is wrong with American society. In recent years the Founder whose reputation has been tossed most dramatically across this swoonish arc is Thomas Jefferson, simultaneously the author of the most lyrical rendition of the American promise to the world and the most explicit assertion of the supposed biological inferiority of African Americans.

Since the late 1990s a surge of new books on the Founding Fathers, several of which have enjoyed surprising commercial and critical success, has begun to break free of the hyperbolic pattern and generate an adult rather than adolescent conversation in which a sense of irony and paradox replaces the old moralistic categories. This recent scholarship is heavily dependent on the massive editorial projects, ongoing since the 1960s, that have produced a level of documentation on the American Founders that is more comprehensive and detailed than the account of any political elite in recorded history.

While this enormous avalanche of historical evidence bodes well for a more nuanced and sophisticated interpretation of the founding generation, the debate is likely to retain a special edge for most Americans. As long as the United States endures as a republican government established in the late 18th century, all Americans are living the legacy of that creative moment and therefore cannot escape its grand and tragic implications. And because the American Founders were real men, not fictional legends like Romulus and Remus of Rome or King Arthur of England, they will be unable to bear the impossible burdens that Americans reflexively, perhaps inevitably, need to impose upon them.


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