What Would the Founders Say?

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Why isn’t the world embracing American values of liberty, equality, law, and ethics? Why is the world—even the American people it seems—so enamored, instead, with the fundamentalist ideals of violence, misogyny, racism, and demagoguery?

We’ve heard the founding generation bandied about a lot in the last decade. What would the founders do? What was their original intent? How can we regain our founding principles? But all that pining for the past is superficial, focused on our 21st-century insecurities and not on our founding ideals.

We take up symptomatic issues: taxation, second amendment rights, civil rights, Christian identity, fiscal responsibility, immigration, and a host of other popular causes. Every generation of Americans—before and after the generation of 1776—has been concerned about these. The founding generation was not remarkable for their concern about these issues. What made them remarkable was their approach to the issues: Vision, collaboration, and principled leadership.

In May and June 1776, the Fifth Virginia Convention met in Williamsburg. They declared Virginia independent and sent instructions to their delegates at the Continental Congress to make a motion declaring the united American colonies independent from Great Britain. Then, they applied themselves to creating Virginia’s constitutional form of government. They started with a statement of principles—a declaration of rights.

George Mason was the principal author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, ratified June 12, 1776, but a host of other revolutionaries contributed: Patrick Henry, Thomas Ludwell Lee, James Madison, and Edmund Pendleton, to name a few. These men did not agree. In fact, most of them are better described as bitter rivals. Still, they were unified in reverence for the principles of English common law and the ideals expressed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Algernon Sidney, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They were individual citizens with integrity. They understood that they represented not just themselves or a privileged few: They represented the people at large. On that basis, they set out to articulate the essential principles and ideals of the Revolution—a statement against which to measure themselves and every subsequent generation of patriots.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights articulates the principles on which Americans built a nation. There is a declaration of inherent human rights. Government, they avowed, serves the people. Americans rewarded individual merit, and shunned hereditary title and position. They called for the separation of governmental power between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. They affirmed an individual’s right to suffrage and free elections. These patriots guaranteed the right of the accused to a trial by a jury of one’s peers, and confirmed that no government official had power to arrest an individual without first obtaining a judicial warrant. The opposition should not be silenced and a free press, they declared, was essential to the protection of liberty. The military was not in control, but subordinate to civilian authority. And, yes, tucked into the body of article six was a note that the people could not be taxed without the consent of their elected representatives. Religion, they declared, was “the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” All of these concepts were firmly based upon Enlightenment thought and English common law. We cannot deny that their world experience did not embrace the diverse pluralistic world we enjoy today. Yet, taken together, these declarations were and are still today revolutionary in the world.

More important than any of these, however, are critical assertions about civic responsibility. First is the reminder, “That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.” And finally, that “it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”

Ask yourself when was the last time citizens—as individuals and collectively as “the people”— dedicated ourselves, our community, our state, and the nation to these principles of responsible citizenship?

Today, Americans act like an entitled people—like chosen people. But we are not entitled. We are not chosen. The Constitution and our republic owe us only what we are willing to invest. It is the responsibility of free people to work hard for every opportunity and every advantage. But we—the American people—have been unwilling to dedicate ourselves to the hard work of the republic. We attack the unfortunate instead of advocating justice. We pursue excess instead of moderation. We are intemperate with our words, our actions, and our resources. We celebrate power, not virtue. And we have turned our back on the civic education of our citizens—even our children. “Forbearance, love, and charity toward each other” is in dangerously short supply at the moment.

America faces challenges—there is no denying it. Meeting those challenges will be difficult. But there is no hope of preserving our liberties and meeting threats from “enemies foreign and domestic” without first rededicating ourselves to the work of the American Revolution. Military might, strident legal systems, economic dominance, and diplomatic dexterity do not make our nation great. What does make our nation great is adherence to the revolutionary ideals of our founding generation.

We must never forget that we are born of revolution—a revolution that placed the dignity of the individual first. It is what sets us apart in the world. To protect our nation and our liberty, we must first rededicate ourselves to treating each other with forbearance, love, and charity in the quest for justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and fundamental principles, for in these ideals resides the truth of America’s greatness.