As we celebrate the 236th anniversary of the passage of the Declaration of Independence (the signing would have to wait until August 2, 1776), it’s very much worth remembering what form of government the Founders hoped to establish in America. We were founded unquestionably as a Republic with the writing and passages of the Articles of Confederation, with the Constitution of 1787 only reaffirming this form of government.
Despite our post-modern tendency to distort and mock the true meanings of words, America never has been, nor really can it be, a democracy. Indeed, as several founders made clear, democracy was a great evil, necessary perhaps in some manifestation, but not as the ruling element of a balanced government or a stable society.
In the opening days of the Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, several participants described the havoc caused by too much democracy. Gerry of Massachusetts lamented,
The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue; but are the dupes of pretended patriots [“demagogues” in the original; later corrected].
And, Randolph of Virginia proclaimed
the general object was to provide a cure for the evils under which the U.S. laboured; that in tracing these evils to their origin every man had found it in the turbulence and follies of democracy.
My favorite quote, though, comes from Fisher Ames, 1806:
Our disease is democracy. It is not the skin that festers–our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene. Which rogues shall be first, is of no moment–our republicanism must die, and I am sorry for it. But why should we care what sexton happens to be in office at our funeral? Nevertheless, though I indulge no hopes, I derive much entertainment from the squabbles in Madam Liberty’s family. After so many liberties have been taken with her, I presume she is not longer a miss and a virgin, though she may still be a goddess.
And yet, as many Jacksonians wished it to be, the Republic was neither purely a commercial nor libertarian one. Indeed, the American founders crafted not a commercial republic, but a virtuous republic, allowing for commerce and liberty to serve as a means by which man could use each of his gifts wisely and for the common good (the good thing; the res publica).
While not all of the founders belonged to orthodox Christian denominations or even subscribed to Jewish or Christian orthodoxy, they each accepted most of what the Judeo-Christian context and heritage had bequeathed to them.
Their understanding of liberty was not the collectivist or primivist liberty of Rousseau or the atheistic and abstract liberty of Locke, but the liberty of St. Paul as described in his letter to the Galatian Christian community, the freedom to do what one ought to do.
For most patriots, one could find the best definition of liberty in the prophetic writings of Micah (4:4), as our own John Willson has reminded us many times. “But they shall sit every man under his vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid,” the Jewish prophet had written.
In these understandings, rooted in the classical as well as the Judeo-Christian, the founders wanted to emulate Republican Rome, not Carthage, as another one of us, Gleaves Whitney, has poignantly argued.
To do so, the founders wisely looked to the past–and especially to the Republican thought of the Greeks, the Romans, the medievals, and the Protestant Reformers and Whig thinkers of the so-called 1688 “Glorious Revolution.”
Because of the wisdom of the founders and the emphasis upon a historical understanding of humanity, the patrimony of four symbolic cities of western civilization—Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London—culminated in a fifth iconographic city, Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787.
The Revolutionary leaders were men of substance—propertied, educated. They read. And what they read made it easer for them to become rebels because they did not see rebels when they looked in the mirror,” historian Trevor Colbourn has written. “They saw transplanted Englishmen with the rights of expatriated men. They were determined to fight for inherited historic rights and liberties.
It is critical (yes, I stress this as much as I can) that what we call the American Revolution was really the War for Independence, an extended moment of reformation and purification, not one of unadulterated innovation.
One can see how unrevolutionary the Declaration was, for example. In its structure and form, it follows almost exactly the ancient (classical as well as Christian) understandings of rhetoric. Indeed, it most closely resembles the Lord’s Prayer and Cicero’s On the Laws.
In its introduction, it offers a cosmology: this is how history and time work. It then asserts and answers the most fundamental of questions: what is the relationship of God to man and man to man. After, it defends its point with an overwhelming cache of evidence. Finally, it concludes with a declaration of purpose and strength, taking the reader back to the beginning, the source of all Being.
While it also draws upon a number of more modern writers, the Declaration does so not in a punctuated manner or as proof texting but in a way that allows a lineage and a continuity.
When writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson explained that he drew on ancient sources (the following three quotes are all taken from the excellent work of Christian Kopff on the same subject):
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.
John Adams, the first American to argue for independence, as early as 1765, said the same as Jefferson in 1774:
These are what are called revolution principles. They are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, of Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason.
Unlike the French or Russian revolutionaries, attempting to create, in the words of Shakespeare, a brave new world, the American patriots turned the world right-side up, reforming and purifiying.
They desired a republic rooted in right reason, first principles, and the Natural Law. God had written the republican principles of the American Revolution into nature herself. “We do not by declarations change the nature of things, or create new truths, but we give existence, or at least establish in the minds of the people truths and principles which they might never have thought of, or soon forgot. If a nation means its systems, religious or political, shall have duration, it ought to recognize the leading principles of them in the front page of every family book,” a leading Anti-Federalist wrote in the aftermath of the war for Independence.
While I would never go so far as to state the founders added nothing to the moment, I would stress repeatedly that the innovations they made had far more to do with the specifics of a frontier country and the necessities of life in North America than they did with some kind of new revelation of eternal truth.
Not only had they studied the classics deeply, but they also connected the classical tradition through the Christian tradition, Catholic and Protestant, to a mythologized view of the liberties and common law of the Anglo-Saxons. “The minds of the youth are perpetually led to the history of Greece and Rome or to Great Britain,” Noah Webster wrote, as “boys are constantly repeating the declamations of Demosthenes and Cicero or debates upon some political question in the British Parliament.”
The founders were certainly brilliant and active men, but they were mostly certainly MEN—each born in a certain time and a certain place, armed with unique gifts by Grace and called forth to be Temples of the Holy Spirit.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
- Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (1965; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1998), xviii-xix.
- Quoted in E. Christian Kopff, “Open Shutters on the Past: Rome and the Founders,” in Gary L. Gregg, ed. Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999), 86-7.
- Quoted in Kopff, “Open Shutters on the Past,” 87.
- Quoted in Walker, “Virtue and the Constitution,” in Vital Remnants, 117.
- Webster quoted in Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Harvard, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 13. See also two brilliant chapters in Gary L. Gregg II’s stunning Vital Remnants: America’s Founding and the Western Tradition (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1999): Bruce Thornton’s “Founders as Farmers: The Greek Georgic Tradition (pp. 33-70); and E. Christian Kopff’s “Open Shutters on the Past: Rome and the Founders” (pp. 71-98).