Everybody talks about Founding Principles—sometimes called First Principles—but what are these bedrock values that formed the basis of the American Experiment. I believe there were five principles of government that were firmly held by all fifty-five delegates to the Constitutional Convention. These principles directed the design of the Constitution of the United States of America.
This Founding Principle is actually embedded in our Declaration of Independence: “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.”
The Founders didn’t believe governments bestowed rights, nor were they an agent to protect rights—governments were the ones that abridged rights.
The Founders were strongly influenced by John Locke, who advocated government as a social contract. The term, will of the governed, encapsulates this concept, which means the people are boss. The power of the people is declared in the first three words of the Constitution, “We the people …” This principle is also the underlying basis for our Declaration of Independence, “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to 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 effect their safety and happiness.”
This principle dictated that conventions of the people were the only authorizing force to ratify the Constitution. Neither Congress nor the state legislatures had the power.
Delegate William Paterson, author of the New Jersey Plan, wrote, “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 Founders believed in limited government in the form of a representative republic. They distrusted a direct democracy, because they equated it to mob rule. James Madison constantly preached against any system that allowed special interests (factions) to gain control of the government. He showed that throughout history, majority factions tyrannized minorities, whether the minorities be based on race, wealth, religion, or even geography.
The Founders believed that to protect against government oppression, they must disperse power, and give each branch of government formidable checks on the authority of every other branch. By the end of the Constitutional Convention, the Founders also came to firmly believe that the states must act as a solid check on the national government. Last, monarchies had general power, so they would give the national government only delineated powers.
If government is a social contract, and it has only limited power formally delegated by the people, then the contract—Constitution—must be in writing. The strongest proponent of a written constitution was Thomas Paine, who said, “[A]n unwritten constitution is not a constitution at all.” This may seem commonplace today, but England, the most powerful nation on earth, had no written constitution. This was different in America, however, where all thirteen states had a written constitution. This American tradition goes back to the Mayflower Compact. Our national heritage is a written constitution that sets the rules for governance between the people and their elected representatives. The Founders intent was that this contract would only be changed through the amendment process.
The Founders were influenced by Adam Smith, and were firm believers in private property rights. In their minds, private property rights were intertwined with liberty. True liberty would never allow the government to come at any time and take a person’s property. That would be Divine Right, which they had fought eight bloody years to escape.
James Madison said, “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.” He meant that even if a person owned nothing else, he still owned his rights, which were the most valuable property of all.
The Constitutional Convention delegates didn’t agree on everything. In fact, they possibly only agreed on these Founding Principles. After all, they did argue for four months about the design of the government.