Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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The Founders on First Principles

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:

  1.  Rights naturally reside with people—rights are not bestowed by government
  2. Political power comes from the American people—the government has no claim to any power without prior and formal delegation by Americans.
  3. Powers are to be dispersed, and balanced between different levels of government.
  4. The Constitution is a written agreement intended to restrict government.

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, 1834 Thomas 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

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Look for his forthcoming book, Principled Action, Lessons from the Origins of the American Republic.

2 comments

1 James D. Best { 11.16.11 at 8:55 am }

In an oversight, James Madison was credited with the third quote. It was Thomas Jefferson on March 4, 1825.

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2 Michael E. Newton { 11.16.11 at 6:02 pm }

You write: “The Enlightenment concepts of first principles and natural rights were important to the Founders.”

I know that these ideas took off during the Enlightenment, but let us give the ancient philosophers their due credit.

Plato wrote of natural law and Aristotle wrote of natural rights. The Stoics were all about natural law and rights. Cicero wrote about it as well.

I recently read Cicero’s The Republic and The Law and the translation I read included several mentions of “first principles.”
“Let’s inspect the first principles of justice.”
“I am anxious not to make a mistake by laying down first principles which have not been well considered and carefully examined.”
“We have learned from so-call ‘initiations’ things which are in fact first principles of life.”

I doubt Cicero was the first to speak of first principles either.

The Founding Fathers were students of Greek and Roman thought and history. They knew that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Polybius, and others wrote about natural law/rights and first principles.

I know these comments really have nothing to do with the point of this blog post, but I thought I’d share.

[Reply]

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