Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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What were the Founding Principles?

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.

1. Rights come from God, not government

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.

2. All political power emanates from the people

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.”

3. Limited representative republic

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.

4. Written Constitution

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.

5. Private Property Rights

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.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.


1 george washington { 09.15.11 at 8:30 am }

I’m an 8th grade student in civics class and we are reading this article and answering questions on it. I just wanted to let you know that this article is cool and thanks for the info.


Martin Reply:

Thanks George! I guess you never know who might stop by. :-) You might also be interested in some of the crossword puzzles.


2 lady gaga { 09.15.11 at 8:40 am }

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I used this with my students last week and they learned a lot.

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Martin Reply:

James is out of town, but I’m glad you found this useful. You may also like some of the interactive crossword puzzles we’ve done. I’d be interested to know what you think. Click on the crossword category to check them out. There’s even a printable version.


3 John c Farnsworth { 04.07.12 at 6:04 am }

In these words, “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”, lie the roots of protection from tyranny. However, the right to re evaluate, even to address the overall unjust behavior of those seen as fomenting it, has been taken from the people in incremental parts until it is virtually impossible to exercise. I speak of the vote of ” no confidence” in the government. Well into the mid 20th century, the ability to cast a direct vote of no confidence was provided every citizen. The opportunity to perform this very basic form of protest no longer exists. What alternative do “we the people” have to exercise this right?


Howard Nelson Reply:

Various States permit recall votes of elected officials prior to the next election date. Elections for legislatures, President, Governor, … still occur.
Use your head; plan ahead with others.


4 The Founding Principles | 2012 Presidential Election News and Commentary { 09.30.12 at 8:36 am }
5 Alondra { 10.25.14 at 8:13 pm }

The SIXTH principle:
“If anyone will NOT work, neither shall he eat.”
(Sluggishness and free-loading SHALL be abolished.)

P.S. I am NOT talking about needy, sick, disabled, old People.
I am talking about YOUNG and HEALTHY people


6 Howard Nelson { 11.07.14 at 4:25 pm }

JDB’s point #1, 2nd paragraph, “The Founders didn’t believe governments bestowed rights, nor were they an agent to protect rights — governments were the ones that abridged rights” is correct in its 1st and3rd segments, but wrong at its center.
Our government’s Constitution’s Bill of Rights, demanded by the anti-Federalists, finally enlisted the State’s approval. This Bill gave responsibility to the Federal government for ensuring certain rights of the citizenry, that is to say, “… to protect rights …” — not all asked for but various rights most essential at the time.


James D. Best Reply:

I see your point but have a different perspective. Most of the Framers did not believe government protected rights. They believed that rights could only be protected by limiting government power. The Bill of Rights doesn’t list rights insured by government, it states that government cannot infringe on certain rights. It is the balanced and separation of powers which provide a vehicle to protect those rights. You are correct that the Bill of Rights only lists the “most essential” rights, as the 9th amendment makes clear.


Howard Nelson Reply:

It appears that we have a semantic problem. As stated in the DoI, 2nd paragraph, 2nd sentence, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted …”
To my mind ‘secure’ is to ‘ensure’ is to ‘protect’ those rights, some of which are noted in para 2, 1st sentence of the DoI. The Constitution’s Amendment 1, for example, clearly conforms to the DoI position.
The government is obliged therefore to protect rights, to prevent violation, and I would hope, to punish via lawful means, violators of those rights.
Thank you for your viewpoint; it’s given me a better appreciation of non-unanimous decisions of the SCOTUS. Logic, meanings, real world — no wonder we have different opinions.


7 Cat { 12.26.15 at 9:42 pm }

Your first point is profoundly wrong. Nowhere in the Constitution will you find the word, “God”. Your point here is misleading and does nothing more than feed people the wrong information, thereby giving them the wrong impression.
The founding fathers weren’t even necessarily deists, the biggest doubters being Madison and Jefferson, particularly the latter. Notice the world “Creator” is used, not “God”. The reason for this lies in the firm belief of the framers and all founding fathers that to limit a person’s beliefs to just one deity was to limit their right to grow spiritually and religiously according to their own personal beliefs.
You need look no further than Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1801 to understand the gravity with which the founding fathers viewed the necessity of religious freedom.

Furthermore, the Constitution wasn’t founded on religious principles, but on what was commonly referred to as natural principles, out of which evolved our freedoms. For example, the right to free speech and religious freedom weren’t considered freedoms stemming from the Bible, but from the firm belief that we ALL have certain inalienable rights. While subscribing to the belief there is a Creator, not one of the framers would name this creator, firmly believing it was a natural right of man to believe according to what he/she believed to be their creator and thus named said creator according to their personal beliefs.
A NATURAL right is a basic human right. In its simplest form, one would say we all have the basic human right to anything essential to sustaining and maintaining life; this would apply to the air we breathe, water, sleep and food.

Please do not submit such opinions as statements of facts without viable proof to back it up. In this case, you are like many Americans, very misinformed. It is, in my view, the responsibility of any person who posts such things as this on the internet to also add evidence of the truth of such statements. Opinions and assumptions are not valid representations of the truth. They are one person’s point of view based on that person’s personal beliefs which have nothing to do with fact.


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