Philadelphia, PA. 1787, the Founding Fathers set before them a foundation for a new nation. This nation was to be formed in the interest of its people: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Important here is how the United States was formed to provide its people with these “unalienable rights.” The formation of the United States did not arise solely on the genius of the Founding Fathers.
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They adopted ideas from political writers and philosophers around the globe, but none so more than those of British theorists. Theorists such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke provided solid work to expand on. Others assisted the Founding Fathers on the significance of law. They set precedent by taking theories that were only written of, but never applied, and instituting them towards the formulation of the United States.
The state of nature was believed to be a state of constant war; the only path to escaping the state of nature is the creation of society. From society, the government is borne. Hobbes and Locke were the first to formulate this theory; the Founding Fathers were in agreement as well. To create government man had to bestow certain individual(s) with the authority to govern, therefore creating a social contract, “a set of bilateral agreements between each pair of participants to transfer their rights of self-rule to, and authorize all the acts of, whatever individual or assembly is later elected sovereign by the majority of the group.” The social contract is key to the American government in that it led to popular sovereignty, sovereignty to be held by the people and by those who govern.
This very concept of popular sovereignty, sovereignty amongst the people, drew directly from the writings of Hobbes, Locke and furthermore in relation to Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (V.C.T.). The Founding Fathers took further considerations to Locke and V.C.T., applying that government is established by, a fiduciary trust to Locke, and trusteeship in V.C.T. Both arrangements call forth those who govern are granted the power to govern by the people, however, the power of the ruler can be revoked at the will of the governed if the ruler then becomes a tyrant; one who pursues his own interest more so than the interest of the people. The sanctity of sovereignty was not overlooked by the Founding Fathers, for the ability to revoke power, when necessary, was thus included as part of the Constitution.
In the selection of a suitable sovereign(s), the selection must be made with a consensus of the majority. Hobbes supported the concept of majority rule. He saw it as a necessary means to obtain support from the majority because “The Sovereign, in every Commonwealth, is the absolute Representative of all the subjects.” Not only Hobbes thought it necessary, but also the Founding Fathers. The American voting system today is a hybrid of Hobbes’ majority rule concept; we elect our representative by a majority of the population. Even though the Founding Fathers did set requirements to allow certain people to vote, they still upheld the basic theory of a majority rule system.
The majority rule allowed people to vote for their representative, however that did not exclude the possibility that their representative would forgo their wishes and implement plans to pursue his own objectives. A suitable solution to this was to separate the power of the government. Locke advocated for there to be a separation of power, fearing consolidation of power would lead to tyranny. He went so far as to explain there should be two houses in the law-making process, having one house represent the common folk, the other representing the royalists. The Founding Fathers were not keen on the concept of one ruler, one nation either. They realized the many abuses one ruler could perform. The Revolutionary War was to free them from a tyrant, they were not about to allow a tyrant to come from their own people. Therefore the American government was formed under a separation of power among those who ruled; the legislature, the executive, and the judicial branch respectively.
From a separation of power, we have a separation between the church and state. Both Hobbes and Locke wrote about the exclusion of the Church from the government. Hobbes excluded the Church because he was an atheist. Locke denied the Church power because the church had no role in governing the people. Many people can attest to Thomas Jefferson declaring a wall of separation between the two. It was a necessary step the Founding Fathers took in order to assert to its citizenry, the government was to provide for their fundamental needs, such as protection from foreign invasion and providing for the commonwealth.
Providing for the commonwealth was widely performed through the process of taxation. In Hobbes, he viewed taxing being a necessity. His main point on taxing was to provide for a military. The Founding Fathers used taxes to assist in the development of the nation in all aspects. However, taxing was done with representation, henceforth the term “no taxation without representation.” The abuse of ill-advised taxing, by the British monarchy, on the colony inspired the Founding Fathers to establish a representative forum. They produced something never before seen, tax the people with their consent.
To enforce taxes the American government, like any other government, established law. “Locke lists four limitations on the powers of the legislature: first, the law must apply equally to all, rich and poor, favourite at court and countryman at plough; second, the law must not be arbitrary and oppressive, the nut must be designed for the good of the people; third, the legislature must not raise taxes without the consent of the people or their representatives; fourth, the legislature must not transfer its lawmaking power to anybody else.” It would seem the Founding Fathers took notice of Locke’s limitations on the law. It is clearly seen in the American institution how the legislature is restricted by Lockean theory.
Where there is law there is Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Coke believed the law to be supreme and everyone, even those who create and enforce the law, are subject to the law. Law through custom and tradition becomes known as the common law; and common law, to Coke, is sovereign.
The concept of common law was then taken by the Founding Fathers and applied to the United States. Law was thus above everyone, and those who governed were to govern within the limits of these laws. Even more extreme, Coke believed the justices who interpreted law were the highest authority in a nation. Although early American justices were not superior to any other branch of government they were granted authority to question the constitutionality of the law. Common law was not supreme, but Coke would have been extremely proud of the Founding Fathers in their framing of law.
We constantly need to come back to Locke. This time what was borrowed from Locke was his theory on the relation between the church and state. Basically, there is a separation between the role of the Church and the role of the State. They are two distinct entities, not intertwined and not complementing one another. The Framers invited the concept of separating the two, declaring no religious test should be required for holding office. They did not clearly declare a separation of the two; that came later with Thomas Jefferson. However it was not necessary for someone to aurally say it, it was implicit.
The United States is a capitalist nation. Locke’s theory on private property is the origin of capitalism. Labour creates property. Labour determines the value of the property. If there be excess in fruits of property, one can trade for other goods, thus creating a capitalistic society. The Levellers, on the other hand, became Britain’s first socialists. The property remained among the people. Both theories were in response to Britain’s upper class becoming richer and the peasantry becoming poorer. The Framers overlooked the importance of the Levellers or deemed a socialist society being unreasonable, or for whatever reason, they opted to agree with Locke and let man create his own in a capitalistic society.
British philosophers were a heavy influence on the Founding Fathers. Many of their theories were taken and applied. Russell Kirk wrote of the Founding Fathers, “They were not political theorists, but men of many experiences of the world, assembled not in hope of creating the Terrestrial Paradise, but rather to contrive a tolerable practical plan of general government: a plan for survival.” This plan for survival, however, led them to the most radical nation of the time.
When George Washington left office and John Adams entered it, it was revolutionary. At no time before had there been a peaceful exchange of power. That was made possible by implementing the liberal concepts of Locke and having the ability to trust a leader and having the leader trust its people in Hobbes. The Founding Fathers may not have been philosophers or political theorists of their own, but their boldness allowed them to form a nation that based itself on theories and manipulated these theories into actualities.
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