The Enlightenment concepts of first principles and natural rights were important to the Founders. They served as the basis for the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and many other founding documents. Interestingly, the 9th and 10th Amendments are imbued with first principles, often called the Founding Principles.
The amendments read:
9th The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
10th The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Forty-nine words. That’s all it took for the First Congress to articulate these founding principles:
When Americans added a Bill of Rights, they used two of the ten amendments to remind the government that certain principles were intrinsic to the document. What would the Founders think about first principles? Here is what they and a couple modern presidents have said in their own words.
In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths, or first principles, upon which all subsequent reasoning must depend. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 31
What is a Constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental law are established. The Constitution is certain and fixed; it contains the permanent will of the people, and is the supreme law of the land…and can be revoked or altered only by the authority that made it. William Paterson, Constitutional Convention delegate and author of New Jersey Plan
On the distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States, the best guides are to be found in, 1. The Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental act of union of these States. 2. The book known by the title of “The Federalist,” being an authority to which appeal is habitually made by all, and rarely declined or denied by any as evidence of the general opinion of those who framed, and of those who accepted the Constitution of the United States, on questions as to its genuine meaning. 3. The Resolutions of the General Assembly of Virginia in 1799 on the subject of the alien and sedition laws, which appeared to accord with the predominant sense of the people of the United States. 4. The valedictory address of President Washington, as conveying political lessons of peculiar value. —
James Madison, University of Virginia, 1834Thomas Jefferson, March 4, 1825
It is, indeed, of little consequence who governs us, if they sincerely and zealously cherish the principles of union and republicanism.—Thomas Jefferson
The deterioration of a government begins almost always by a decay of its principles.—Montesquieu
A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.—Dwight D. Eisenhower, President
We’ve gone astray from first principles.—Ronald Reagan, President