Our Founding Principles: The Beginning of the American "Experiment" | Eastern North Carolina Now | There are many people who overlook the brilliance of the US Constitution. They argue that it is outdated and unfit to adequately govern such a modern nation as ours in the 21st century.

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    Publisher's note: This is the third installment of a three-part series by Diane Rufino, which celebrates the rich history of the United States of America by examining three essential components of our past:

"Our English History"

"The Constitutional Convention of 1787 - A Miracle in Philadelphia"

"Our Founding Principles - The Beginning of the American 'Experiment' "


    The first installment was a treatment of our English heritage before and after the American Revolution. In the second installment, "The Constitutional Convention of 1787 - A Miracle in Philadelphia," Mrs. Rufino dealt with one of her most knowledgeable subjects - the United States Constitution.
Now we have the third installment, just before us, which is Mrs. Rufino's intellectual strength - the serendipitous zeitgeist, which provided the sturdy foundation to a birthed nation - the United States of America - that eventually became the model of hope for an entire world.

    Included in the development of this series are these companion pieces: The Magna Carta, The Petition of Right of 1628, The Habeous Corpus Act of 1679, The Declaration of Independence, The English Bill of Rights of 1689, Timeline of Events Leading to the Revolutionary War.

    There are many people who overlook the brilliance of the US Constitution. They argue that it is outdated and unfit to adequately govern such a modern nation as ours in the 21st century. And I might have believed these critics too if I had not been motivated enough to do my own reading, do my own research, and come to my own conclusions.

    My conclusion is that the Constitution is very much relevant today as it was back when it was drafted and when it was ratified by the States. Its principles and concepts are timeless and as long as man is prone to the same conduct, they will continue to be timeless and applicable to any nation who values individual liberty.

    We talk about strict construction of legal documents, which means that we look at the literal meaning of words in the historical text at the time the document was written. The purpose is to ascertain the intent of the drafters at the time the document was written by considering what the language they used meant at that time. But forget about just the words. The Constitution must not be looked at merely for what it says. The Constitution can only truly be appreciated for what it embraces. Our Founding Fathers, who were immensely well-read and intelligent men, recognized and embraced the most productive and fairest philosophies regarding freedom, representation, government, markets, and laws and sought to embody them in our Constitution. The particular drafting of the Constitution, therefore, addressed the need to embody each particular philosophy for our new nation. First and foremost, the Constitution was designed to put into practice the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. It was designed primarily to secure the individual's God-given, unalienable rights. After all, it was the Declaration of Independence which laid the principles which were to guide our independent nation and therefore represented our national values.

    The Constitution was intended to be timeless. It was intended to withstand the test of time and establish a government that would survive eternal (that is, as long as its people remained moral and ethical and of course, beholden to the Constitution). One of the biggest debates today, especially because of the condition we find ourselves in as a nation, is whether the Constitution is indeed timeless or was it just the starting place for those to "mold" as they deemed necessary. The answer to that is to use common sense. As we have repeatedly deviated from the Constitution, we have progressed further and further away from the positive ideals and productive values that made our country great. The biggest argument that liberal-minded people today make is that the Constitution is out-of-date, out-of-touch with the American people, and ineffective to meet our growing diversity and our evolving society. They argue that the Founders are outdated and that they have lost relevance. They say all these things because they believe that our Founding Fathers were products of their era and could not foresee the societal change that has evolved in this country. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our Founders absolutely understood how the society would develop. The men who gave us the greatest nation on Earth weren't just a couple of guys who went to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to hammer out the wording of a Constitution that would be binding on all the states. These men were visionaries. These men did their homework. They were deeply devoted to creating a nation that would stand the test of time. They wanted to come up with a foundation, a Constitution, that would not wither with the times. And so for that purpose, they studied all the failed regimes of history and they looked at all the constitutions and founding documents of other nations and studied the reasons why they were unable to last long. So, there is nothing that we've seen in our developing history that other nations haven't dealt with and nothing that our Founders weren't able to foresee and to deal with (to prevent) in our new Constitution. As Machiavelli wrote: "Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results."

    In order to understand our Constitution and other founding documents, we Americans need to understand what issues concerned the individual states at the time of our founding. We need to understand the issues on the minds of the Framers in crafting our new nation and where they looked for guidance and vision and solutions. The states were concerned with their sovereign power and their reluctance to give any of it up. Most states also were concerned with their right to embrace their religious heritage. All states except for three wanted to make sure that our new nation, which proclaimed that "All Men are Created Equal" would be rid of the injustice that was slavery. In drafting a document that would bind all the states into a unified nation (a union of states), and do so harmoniously and to meet their legitimate expectations, the Founding Fathers had to address the following fundamental questions: How to divide the power up as between the States and the Government? How much power should the government have? How much will it need in order to be effective? What is the legal basis of our fundamental rights? Do our rights come from God or from the government? What is the proper foundation to protect human rights? How to make sure that fundamental freedom is not burdened by the government? How should the government be structured? How can power remain with the people and be checked from abuses? What is the proper system to represent the voice of the people? How should the individual states be represented in the government? Each of these issues is critical in understanding how our nation was created. Our national heritage stems from the decisions these men made in 1787 with respect to these issues.

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    The goal of the Founders at the Convention of 1787 was to reach a consensus or general agreement on concepts and principles that the Constitution should embrace rather than compromise. They wanted to reach a consensus on what the Constitution should provide rather than compromise. So before they went into a voting session, they made sure that they thoroughly discussed and debated each issue. After almost 4 months of such debate, they were able to reach a general consensus on just about everything - except the issues of slavery, proportionate representation, and regulation of commerce. These three issues eventually needed to be resolved by compromise.

    The Founders honored their goal and resolved most issues by consensus rather than compromise. As "compromise" often reflects a tone of defeat and submission (it's been called a "lose-lose scenario since both sides lose something they hold as important), the strength of the Constitution is that its provisions eventually and predominantly arose out of consensus. The Constitution was the product of extreme patience on the part of our Founders as each used reason and logic to bring the minds of the delegates into agreement. They wanted to make sure that the absolute soundest principles and concepts were adopted for the type of free and fair nation they had envisioned. Not one of the Founding Fathers could have come up with the perfect Constitutional formula to create a stable nation representative of the people and protective of their rights by himself, and the delegates who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 knew this.

    Luckily, the Founders were remarkably well-read. The philosophies of great minds like Polybius (Greek political philosopher, mixed form of government and checks and balances), Cicero (philosopher, Natural Law), Thomas Hooker (Natural Law; also, he wrote Connecticut's state constitution, which was one of the modern world's first written constitutions and was a primary influence upon our own Constitution), Montesquieu (political philosopher, Separation of Powers), Sir Edward Coke (legal philosopher), Sir William Blackstone (Natural Law; Ten Commandments), John Locke (Natural law), Adam Smith (economic philosopher, Founder of Capitalism), and Jesus influenced the Founders profoundly. The Founders studied Polybius, whose written works provided a theoretical account of the development of society and government. Polybius saw the history of government as falling into a recurring cycle by which kingship inevitably gave way to successive stages of tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and anarchy, at which point a strong leader would emerge and establish himself as king, thus starting the cycle over again. The only hope of breaking the cycle, Polybius maintained, lay in a "mixed" form of government (mixed elements) and certainly not in a pure democracy. The Founders read Adam Smith's groundbreaking and insightful work "The Wealth of Nations," which was published in 1776, and which influenced their decision to embrace and implement capitalism as a means to distribute goods and services within our nation. The Founders also were well-read in the books of the Old Testament. Even though some Founders didn't subscribe to any Christian denomination, the teachings of Jesus and the works of the Old Testament were very held in high regard and with great respect by all. In fact, even though their backgrounds were widely diverse, the fundamental beliefs of the Founders were virtually identical.

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    From their studies of history's failed regimes and their studies of productive philosophies, our Founders came up with a set of core principles that are absolutely vital to preserve the nation, to preserve the values on which the nation are based, and to prevent this country from going down the same destructive paths that other nations have gone down.

    Basically our founding principles can be summarized as follows: A free people living in a civil society, working in self-interested cooperatives, and a government operating within the limits of its authority, promote more prosperity, opportunity and happiness for more people than any alternative ever devised by man. (The 5000-Year Leap)

    1. God (the Creator) - Our nation is not a theocracy and is built on the right of the individual to worship freely or not. But nonetheless, our nation is founded on religious identity and principles. Our Founders understood there is a God. By acknowledging God and His role in the universe, our Founders were able to ground individual human liberties in the human connection to Him, and in that way secure them from the reaches of government. Try reading the Declaration of Independence without the references to God (Creator):

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed 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, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. -- Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States...."

   To read the Declaration without the reference to God would be to acknowledge that individual rights have no legal foundation. "Endowed with certain unalienable rights...." Endowed by who? How are humans endowed? What is the foundation? If it is merely that they are endowed by circumstance of their birth, then the nexus is extremely weak. Birth connotes location and jurisdiction. Jurisdiction explains where the state has power over the individual. If individuals are simply "endowed with certain unalienable rights," the government can easily step in and say something like this: "Since you are born in the United States, the US government will dictate what rights you have." If individual rights come from the state, then the state can regulate them or take them away.

    In a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated June 28, 1813, John Adams wrote: "The general principles on which the (Founding) Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God." In his autobiography, he wrote: "Suppose a nation in some distant Region should take the Bible for their only law Book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God ... What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be."

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   Thomas Jefferson wrote: "God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever; That a revolution of the wheel of fortune, a change of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by Supernatural influence! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in that event."

   And Patrick Henry wrote: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here."

    2. Natural Law - The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 believed that certain human liberties are so fundamental to one's existence, humanity, and individuality that they must come from our Creator. If that is the case, then no government can take them away. Natural law is also the basis of individual sovereignty. Natural law (and individual sovereignty) form the foundation for the Bill of Rights.

    2. Individual Liberty - Our Founders saw Liberty as the opposite of tyranny. Freedom from dependence on another's will. The ability to choose one's own way without interference. Remembering the injustices that the King of Great Britain had imposed upon them, the colonists were adamant about protecting the individual rights of the people. They added the Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution in order to protect those God-given rights from any constraints or denial by the government. In a speech given in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 10, 1847, Daniel Webster said: "Liberty exists in proportion to wholesome restraint." This is not to saw that liberty is something that needs to be controlled or restrained (especially by government). Webster understood that while God gave us our liberty, He set limitations on our conduct (set out in the Bible). So "wholesome restraint" is that which comes through morality and ethics.

    The Founders talk about Liberty and Freedom as two separate but connected ideals. Both of these words contain the idea of possessing the ability to exercise one's will, and a power to choose. However, in many ways the words differ. 'Liberty' comes from the Latin word 'libertas,' which means "unbounded, unrestricted or released from constraint." 'Libertas' even contains the idea of being separate and independent. The English word "Freedom" can trace its roots to the Germanic or Norse word 'Frei,' describing someone who belongs to a tribe and has the rights that go with belonging. This is something along the lines of "membership has its privileges." Besides 'freedom, the root 'frei ' is also the root of the English word 'friend.' [Breed's Hill Institute]

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    John Locke described "liberty'" as: "The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule." (Second Treatise on Government). The Virginia Bill of Rights read: ""That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
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