Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (from wikipedia.org)
Imagine you are at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. You’ve been at war for years. Your money is virtually worthless due to inflation. A section of the country you’re trying to establish (New England) already wants to secede; Spain and England are waiting to swoop in and take over your new nation as soon as it fails, which is looking more and more likely.
And by the way—your first try at creating a government for the new nation has miserably failed.
Before the Constitution, the law of the land designed by the Founders was called the Articles of Confederation. But the AoC weren’t very effective; they didn’t provide a strong enough central government. Essentially, the federal government couldn’t do anything without the states’ authorization, and the states didn’t want to authorize much. Somewhat understandable, considering the monarchial rule the people were trying to get away from. But as a result of the federal government’s weakness, they were unable to even provide for the army—everyone knows the story of Valley Forge.
Herein lay the Founders’ dilemma: to find a balance between “no law” (anarchy) and “ruler’s law” (tyranny, or a police state, as we might say today). The AoC were too close to anarchy for the government to function effectively. So the Founders were aiming to create what they called “people’s law”. This would be distinguished by certain principles, such as:
- All men possess certain rights granted to them by God, not by their government.
- Decisions should be made by a consensus of the governed.
- Problems should be addressed as locally as possible.
The formation of a government founded on “people’s law” was the intention of the Constitutional Convention. But even though they were edging away from the anarchy end of the spectrum, they had a few cautions in mind.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our business is to march straight forward…without either turning to the right or left.” The Founders wanted to be on guard against “fringe elements” of either political persuasion that would seek to move the government toward anarchy or tyranny. They could foresee the possibility that future generations might want to move toward a “welfare state” in which the government tries to provide everything for everyone. This was unacceptable, and would likely lead to excessive taxation and deficit spending. To quote Jefferson again, “…we shall all consider ourselves unauthorized to saddle posterity with our debts, and morally bound to pay them ourselves; and consequently within what may be deemed the period of a generation, or the life of the majority.”
Also, the Founders felt that, in order for Americans to keep their government balanced in the center, the populace must be informed as to how their new government worked, and what the duties of the citizen were to be, so that the enlightened system which they had designed might be protected for all future generations. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
The Founding Fathers were a diverse group of men. They attended several different churches, or no church at all. Some were employed as farmers and some as university presidents. Their backgrounds included wilderness pioneers and aristocratic estate-owners. They were educated at home and at Harvard.
Yet for all their differences, they shared several fundamental beliefs, gleaned from their extensive readings in religious, political, historical, economical, and philosophical studies. Our next FTYL post will start examining those principles
Don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the Comments—live up to Jefferson’s thoughts by educating yourself! Blessings from my Home Front to yours!