All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1973

The Founding of the American Republic: 21. The Beacon of Liberty


Dr. Carson, noted lecturer and author, is living at present in Alabama. The articles of this series will be published as a book by Arlington House.

Why should anyone bother to write the history of the founding of the American Republic? Or why, if it be written, should anyone bother to read or study it? Because, it has been asserted, it constitutes an epoch, and even an epic. That may be true enough, but if that epoch be wrenched out of its broader context, why should it be considered an epic? Here were some colonies on a remote continent which revolted from the empire of which they were a part and succeeded in effecting the separation. Having done so, they repudiated their paper money, could not meet many of their obligations, and lacked respect of the great powers of the world. Their Confederation lacked energy, and there was considerable doubt whether their state governments could maintain order. In these circumstances, they made a concerted effort to revamp and reorganize to effect a “more perfect Union.” As we have left the story, they appear to have succeeded in doing this in considerable measure. Though this was an achievement to be admired, it would not suffice to make the story one of epic dimensions.

Nor should the account be read as a glorification of war. Even if war were worthy of glorification, the struggles in America would surely count as among its less notable episodes. There were few great battles; usually when one loomed ahead, a withdrawal occurred rather than a fight to the finish. The British used a great many foreign mercenaries. The Americans relied extensively on the militia, whose members would hardly qualify as soldiers. The Continental armies were rag-tag bob-tail aggregations with all too little discipline and shortages of almost everything else that makes armies go. True, there were great acts of personal heroism, and there was the exemplary tenacity of a few leaders, but these were offset often enough by cowardice of militia, lack of resolution by governments, and a civilian population looking the other way when help was needed. In any case, it is unlikely that the miseries of the Continental armies would be recalled as a glorification of war.

No more is this account to be understood as simply a veneration of government in general or of American governments in particular. Government is necessary; those of a pious bent may properly say that it is ordained. That is, man is such, and society is such, that government is required to maintain the peace. But if government were all that were wanted, it would be possible to construct a much simpler one than the federal system of government in these United States. The exercise of government power does not require checks and balances, the separation of power, two or more distinct jurisdictions, a duplication of court systems, nor a multiplicity of elected officials. Much of this is actually extraneous to the efficient exercise of governmental power.

The Idea of Ordered Liberty

What makes the story worth retelling, then, and gives it its epic dimensions, is neither war nor government. It is worth recalling because in the midst of war, diplomatic contests, internal divisions between Patriots and Loyalists, fiscal irresponsibilities, political squabbles, a sufficient number of Americans clung to a hope and an idea to bring it forth from the upheaval and make strides toward realizing it. That idea, if it must be put in a phrase, was the idea of ordered liberty, the idea that America should be a land where protections of liberty and property were firmly established, a refuge for the persecuted to come to, and a beacon shining forth as a guide for others to follow. George Washington could speak with the assurance that he knew his countrymen when he said, in his Farewell Address, “Interwoven as is the love of liberty with every ligament of your hearts, no recommendation of mine is necessary to fortify or confirm the attachment.”

This epoch is raised to epic proportions, then, by the quality of the idea that nourished it and by the degree to which the men of that day were able to achieve it. The era is appreciated the more for the epic that it was when it is seen in its proper context of past and future. It is what the United States became that justifies our attention to its beginnings, and it is that out of which it was wrought that gave it substance.

A Rebirth of Freedom on the American Continent

The epic of the founding of the American Republic is no less than the epic of the rebirth of liberty on the American continent. That is right; it was indeed a rebirth.

It would have been quite strange if it had been other than a rebirth. All our births are but rebirths. They are not the less remarkable for that, for we celebrate and stand in awe of the succession of rebirths which give continuity to and perennially freshen and renew our world. What is spring but a rebirth of what was there the year before? Every plant that springs from a seed is a rebirth of its parent plant. Every child born of woman is a rebirth of the human form in new attire. Rebirth stands at its peak when Christianity proclaims that you must be born again, that a rebirth in spirit is greater than the original birth. It is not for man to create; it is sufficient that he be able to take part in re-creation.

But there are facts enough to support the position that it was a rebirth of liberty that took place in America; it does not have to be made to follow from the universality of the phenomena. It was a rebirth of liberty because Americans took the elements from the past which they shaped into their own system for the protection of liberty. That is about all that history affords—elements—, for they have all too seldom been drawn together in a working system. The story of mankind is full to overflowing with examples of oppressions, tyrannies, restrictions, and repressions. Arbitrary government has been the rule; government restrained is the exception. Yet here and there and from time to time there have been practices which ameliorated the oppressions and allowed for greater or lesser amounts of liberty. The Founders of these United States combed the pages of history, read the works of political thought, sought guidance from all sources known to them, and brought their own traditions to bear on the subject to learn what they could of how to establish governments that would provide ordered liberty.

The records of the Hebrew people contained in Scripture were of interest; the philosophers of Greece offered hints; the natural law philosophy in ancient Rome was a fount of inspiration; the separation of powers in the Middle Ages in abstracted form provided them a clue and example; the British tradition was ever at their back; and their own colonial experience provided them with numerous examples, bad and good. From these they drew and out of them they wove a frame of government with which to work. All that they had learned they viewed with a canny eye to discern where other systems had failed and what it would be in their own that would give way first before the bent of men toward power. Looking at the matter in the long run, they were reasonably certain that their labor was futile, for the work of men in the past had eventually fallen prey to man’s interior bent to destruction; they saw little enough reason to suppose that theirs would meet with much better luck. Perhaps what was reborn would be a little stronger than what had gone before because its elements had been carefully selected, but that was the most to be hoped for.

A Success Story

The act of rebirth would not, however, have been worthy of extended attention if the infant had been stillborn or if it had been frail and sickly, destined shortly to pass away. What finally makes the founding of such significance is that the American story is, in most important ways, a success story. So it has been adjudged, and so it must be adjudged by the yardsticks that men apply to nations. Those English Americans who had landed on some of the most forbidding territory, or that which was among the least promising in the new world, did, in the course of time, press on across the Appalachians, push their way to the Mississippi, surge across the great plains, pick their way through the Rockies, and establish themselves on the Pacific. Everywhere they went, they carried with them their religion, institutions, language, and constitutions; all others yielded to them, by and large. Conquests there were, but that is not the main story. The main story is one of construction: of houses, of bridges, of fences, of factories, of roads, of canals, of railroads, of barns, of communities, and of cities. In time, they were so productive that the Europe which had once succored them would turn to America for sustenance. It is not a story, of course, in which the pure in heart can always rejoice and take comfort. None of the stories that involve men over any span of time are of that kind. But it has been a success story which could have been viewed by the Founders —who were mostly men who did not expect too much of the frail reed that is man and could therefore rejoice in what he did accomplish — with a measure of pride. They had laid a strong foundation for the United States.

What Accounts for Success?

Any historian worth his salt must pause to ponder the sources of this success, and, it should be said, a goodly number have. But the success of America has not been of academic interest alone; peoples around the world have had and have a considerable interest in America. They have poured in large number to American shores in search of refuge and opportunity. They have sought to abstract from the American system those features they supposed have given the success. Of course, the successful are frequently envied, often despised, and sometimes hated, but they are, nonetheless, imitated.

It is common to ascribe the American success to a variety of causes, ranging from chance or luck to a favorable environment. Some declare that the United States was particularly fortunate during the nineteenth century because of the remoteness from Europe, or because of bountiful resources, or because Presidents have been of a higher caliber than might have been expected, or because the British navy formed a protective shield, or because of a temperate climate which was mild enough to permit work the year round yet demanding enough to stir effort, or any of a large number of causes in combination. But the underlying explanation to which most who have written or spoken on the subject subscribe as judged by the attention given to it is American democracy. They have seen the greatness of America in the quest for democracy and the achievements of America as the fruit of democracy. It is this, above all else, that Americans have talked most about exporting in more recent times and that other countries have most often made the most noise about imitating, however sincerely or with whatever results.

Accidentally Democratic

There is no denying that there are and have been democratic elements in the American political system. The Founders believed in popular government, up to a point, and many quotations could be arrayed to show that they argued that the Constitution provided for a government resting on the consent of the people. They held that popular consent was the source of governmental authority and the fount of its strength. It should be said, however, that what they meant when it is decided by what they did was that government actions, to be legitimate, must have the consent of the property owners and taxpayers. But it is seriously to misread both what they thought and what they did to call it simply democratic; and it is an even more serious error to ascribe to democracy the foundation of American liberty and success.

The matter can be put strongly, perhaps too strongly, by saying in philosophical terminology that the democratic features of the American political system are accidents. In the common parlance, this is roughly the equivalent to saying that the democratic features are incidental. Note well, however, that to call them philosophical accidents is not to declare them unimportant. It is an accident, in this sense of the word, that one man is born black, another white, one red, and another yellow. None will deny that much importance has been and some importance may attach to these distinctions. But they do not go to the heart of the matter of what a man is. Color is not essential — again, speaking philosophically —; it is accidental or incidental to the nature of man. So democracy is accidental, that is, not of the essence of the American political system.

Means to an End

To put the matter another way, and to get closer to the point, the democratic (or republican, if one prefers) features of the political system are largely means to an end, and not to be confused with the end. They are means to legitimating government, selecting officials, and justifying the claims of government on the goods and services of the people. The end of government, so the Founders thought, is to provide order and to protect life, liberty, and property. Nor did they suppose these to be disparate ends. The surest means of promoting happiness (to which order is the one absolute requirement), they thought, is to protect individuals in their possession of life, liberty, and property. After all, the sources of disorder among men in community are the quest for power and the contentions over property. Indeed, so universal have been the contentions over property that some have supposed that, if property be done away with, so would the sources of conflict among men. There is no reason to suppose that this would follow, however, nor do such efforts as have been made to do so give evidence to support it. On the contrary, when property rights are abolished, the contest shifts to the arena of the quest for power and special privilege, which immeasurably worsens rather than improves the situation. At any rate, the Founders thought that order and liberty are correlative ends of government.

Limited Government — and Free Men

The essence of the American political system is limited government. This conclusion is supported in almost every paragraph of the Constitution. Limited government is the reason for being of checks and balances, the separation of powers, the two branches of Congress, the presidential veto, the power of the courts to receive appeals, the enumeration of powers, the prohibitions against the exercise of certain powers, the staggered terms of elected officers, the indirect modes of election, the dispersion of powers among the states and the general government, and the having of a Bill of Rights. One qualification should be made to the classifying of the democratic features as accidents; insofar as the necessity for popular consent limits government, it is essential to the American system.

Had the men who made the Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787 been concerned only with establishing a popular (or democratic) government, their task would surely have been much simpler than it was, and they might have finished with it in short order. If they considered a direct democracy impractical — which they did, of course — then all they need have done would have been to contrive a list of the officials necessary to the exercise of governmental powers and to have provided for the election of them from time to time, by an explicit electorate. It is quite true, of course, that such a system might never have witnessed a second election, but anything added to it would have been by way of limiting government, not of making it democratic.

This is to say, of course, that the Founders conceived their task quite otherwise, that what was uppermost in their minds was to confide governmental powers to a general government — to make these adequate to the exigencies of the Union — and then to see that both the general government and the state governments were restrained and confined. It was for these purposes that they scanned the records of history, consulted the best minds, and called upon their experience. It was for these ends that they made the system as complex as it is.

The Release of Human Energy

The essence of the American system — which is something much more than the political system — is limited government and free men. Government was confined that the energies of men might be released. This is the clue to the productive and constructive successes of Americans. When their energies are released, peaceful men are capable of and have achieved wonders of building, invention, production, transportation, and so forth. These activities proceed from people as individuals. They do not proceed from government, whether the government be democratic, aristocratic, or monarchical. Government is not capable, by nature, of being productive or constructive. In its capacity as government, it acts to restrain and restrict. When it uses these powers against those who would disturb the peace in one way or another it enables peaceful men to produce and construct. When it uses them to restrain peaceful men, it inhibits the constructive. Thus it is that limited government is the requirement for releasing the energies of men.

It would not be appropriate for Americans to be overmuch proud of their successes. Not only does pride go before a fall, but it is much less warranted than may be supposed. One need only to look casually at American history to see that Americans have quite often ignored and forgotten the principles of their political system, that they have confused means with ends and accidents with essences. The ink was hardly dry on the Constitution before there were those conceiving of means to expand the powers of the general government. And it would be less than candid not to say here that in more recent times there have been increasing numbers who act as if their government were some sort of energizer and fount of construction and production. The powers exercised by all governments have been greatly expanded and the energies of individuals have been more and more channeled and confined. The means —the democratic features — have been made into an end — democracy —, and many suppose that America comes closer and closer to its goal the more democratic that it is. American politicians have proven themselves to be as imaginative and inventive as those of any other land in devising justifications for the expansion of their powers. Bemused by the supposed attractions of democracy, many voters must suppose that their own powers are thus being increased, but they only increase the powers of those who hold the reins of government at their own expense.

Enduring Principles of Liberty

It is not in pride, then, but with humility, that we return to an account of the foundations and of the Founders. It is to visit the scene of the beginnings of a great nation, but more than that to capture the sources of the greatness of it in the principles upon which it was founded. Out of the web of conflicts and contests of those years emerge the principles of liberty. They are, we may believe, enduring principles, not something invented by a generation of outstanding men. Indeed, the principles of liberty could probably be rediscovered by any man who would put his mind to the matter for long enough. But that is not necessary, they have long since been clearly enough discerned and written out. What distinguishes the Founders is that they were able to incorporate them into the fundamental laws of the land.

This epoch of history is an epic, finally, because of the quality of the work that was done, the caliber of the men who performed it, the nobility of the ideas that impelled the action, and the durability of the structure they devised. It was not uncommon for men during the days of the founding to declare that Americans had been especially blessed by the remarkable confluence of men, events, and happenings in the midst of which these United States were born. George Washington put the matter about as elegantly and reverently as could be in his First Inaugural Address:

… No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage….

Vestiges of Immortality

One by one, the men who had so much to do with the founding passed on to their final reward. To close this historical account with a record of their departures may serve to remind us not only that all men are mortal but also that those who strive to know and realize great ideas have a portion of their immortality here on earth.

James Otis died in 1783, the first of the notables of the epoch to go. He had been among the first to raise his voice against British repression, reached the peak of his forensic skill in the mid-1760′s, thereafter succumbed to occasional bouts with madness, but did sufficiently recover to fight at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Benjamin Franklin died in 1790. He was probably the first American of international fame. He had risen from obscurity to be a printer, postmaster, inventor, philosopher, diplomat, leader in his state, and elder statesman at the Constitutional Convention. His country had done well by him; he did even better by it.

George Mason died in 1792. His moment of national prominence came during the Convention, in whose deliberations he participated so well but whose product he rejected.

Roger Sherman died in 1793. This dour Connecticut Yankee performed yeoman service for his state and country over the years, never so outstandingly as at the Constitutional Convention. His last years were well spent in the Congress of the United States, where he supported the programs of Hamilton.

John Hancock died in 1793. His national fame probably rests almost solely on his efforts as presiding officer of the Second Continental Congress which enabled him to plant an oversized signature on the Declaration of Independence, but he was involved in the Patriot cause from the early years and was perennial governor of Massachusetts during most of the early years of that state.

Richard Henry Lee died in 1794. He joined early in the resistance to the oppressive acts of Britain, introduced the resolution for independence into the Second Continental Congress, was an opponent of the Constitution as it was drawn, but nevertheless served in the first Senate under it.

James Wilson died in 1798. He is remembered best for his work at the Constitutional Convention, but he was also the most able apologist for it at the state convention to consider ratification.

Patrick Henry died in June of 1799. His was over many years one of the most eloquent voices in America in defense of liberty. The making of strong and effective governments, however, was not his forte. During most of his years he could not forget that government remote from the people was a danger to their liberties.

The End of a Century

George Washington died in December of 1799, probably as a result of the ministrations of his physicians, not an uncommon way to go in those days. Most of his adult life had been a sacrifice to the public service, for he ever longed to devote himself to his own affairs. Although he had frequently perforce to neglect his business affairs he did not, according to his accounts, neglect his private charities.

Samuel Adams died in 1803. His had been a leading role in arousing opposition to British acts in the 1760′s and 1770′s: to the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, Townshend Acts, and Tea Act. Once the revolt had succeeded, however, his public service was restricted to the state of Massachusetts.

Alexander Hamilton died in 1804. His death was caused by wounds suffered in a duel with Aaron Burr, making him the only one of the Founders to die of violence from the anger of another. It is not so surprising that this should have happened to someone, for quarrels were particularly acrimonious in those days. There are many impressions to be had of Hamilton, but it is perhaps most fitting that we take our leave of him by quoting a letter he wrote to his wife just before his death. It brings us more dramatically into another age than anything I know.

This letter, my dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career, to begin, as I humbly hope, from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you, and exposing you to the anguish I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic, lest it should unman me. The consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God, and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu, best of wives — best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.¹º

Henry Knox died in 1806, Robert Morris in the same year, Oliver Ellsworth in 1807, John Dickinson in 1808, Thomas Paine in 1809, Edmund Randolph in 1813, El-bridge Gerry in 1814, Gouverneur Morris in 1816, and Charles C. Pinckney in 1825.

Jefferson and Adams — 1826

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, of the same month, of the same year —July 4, 1826. There was more that was symbolic about this than their death on July 4, but that would have been enough, for both of them had been on the sub-committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence. There was more, however, for in some ways they came to represent the poles of political belief: Adams the proponent of awe, respect, and dignity of government, Jefferson the exemplar of republican simplicity; Adams the sturdy voice of conservative New England, Jefferson the eloquent spokesman for liberal Virginia; Adams, the Federalist, Jefferson, the Republican. They had been early believers in independence and had participated in many of the tasks by which it had been won. Partisan contests had made them the bitterest of political enemies by 1800. Time has a way of healing such wounds, how ever, and they were fortunate to live long enough to put behind them such animosities. Eventually, they resumed correspondence with one another, and continued the friendship until death.

John Jay died in 1829, Charles Carroll of Carrolton in 1832, and John Marshall in 1835.

Shortly before his death, James Madison concluded that he was the last of the men still living who had participated in making the Constitution. Indeed, he observed, wryly, that he might well be thought to have outlived himself. Frail “Jimmy” finally died in 1836 at the ripe age of 85. The last of that remarkable group of men called Founders had passed on.

They had relighted the beacon of liberty; it remains for those who come after to keep it burning.

This concludes the series on The Founding of the American Republic. These articles are being prepared as a book, which will be announced as soon as it is available.

 

—FOOTNOTES—

¹ Richard B. Morris, ed., Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation (New York: Dial, 1957), p. 610. 


  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.