“The liberties of the freest people are in danger when they set up symbols of liberty as fetishes, worshipping the symbol instead of the principle it represents.”
NOTE: Recorded at the close of Tenther Radio Episode 25, the following is a special message from Michael Boldin about principles of the founders – timeless principles for liberty.
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The Constitution was written and ratified by people who shared certain core principles and values. No, they didn’t agree on everything, of course, but there were some basics that undoubtedly found strong consensus.
As we read in Rob Natelson’s book, The Original Constitution, “those who thought the Constitution would further those values and principles tended to be Federalists. Those who thought the Constitution subversive of those values and principles tended to be Anti-Federalists. But all agreed that the nation’s basic law should be structured to further those values and principles.”
You won’t find, for example, too many of the founders advocating for gun control. I know of none. This tends to be quite confusing to many people today when considering the fact that these same founders wrote the 2nd Amendment, and the entire Bill of Rights for that matter, to apply to the federal government only, and not the states.
So while they created a system where state governments could have significantly restricted the right to keep and bear arms, they didn’t advocate for such actions. The short version, the reason why? Like most things, the founders felt that the best way to promote liberty was through decentralization of power, as the 10th Amendment enshrines in the Constitution.
But my goal here isn’t to talk about the 2nd Amendment, it’s to talk about foreign policy. And, as discussed here for two weeks in a row, the founders had a pretty strong consensus on foreign policy. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both strongly advocated a foreign policy of peace, trade – and one without “entangling alliances.”
James Madison considered war to be the greatest threat to liberty. And James Wilson told us this about the Constitution, “This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it.”
Why? Because a clear core principle of the founding generation was liberty, and because war, as Madison told us, was considered liberty’s greatest enemy, they set up a system to promote peace and avoid war.
The founding generation, starting years before the ratification of the Constitution, wanted to do everything possible to avoid war – and to wage it only as a matter of self-defense.
The colonial militia at Concord held their fire even after the British had fired upon them, killing two Americans. It was only when one of their commanding officers yelled “Fire, for God’s sake, fellow soldiers, fire!” that they actually fired upon the British. Three months later they still sent what was known as the Olive Branch Petition to King George in an attempt to avoid all-out war.**
When Thomas Paine began a series of pamphlets in the Winter of 1776 with the words, “These are the times that try men’s souls….” – he continued on to sum up this view quite well:
“Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it…am I to suffer it?”
These weren’t however, just principles and values for the times. The founders crafted a Constitution – deliberately – to promote these core values and principles – for the ages. “We are not forming plans for a Day, Month, Year or Age, but for Eternity,” wrote John Dickinson, the penman of the revolution.
So while the founders created a system of government where a state, like Massachusetts for example, could set up a system of health insurance mandates on the people there, one would be pretty hard pressed to find anything from the founders advocating such a thing. They also set up a Constitution with an amendment process – but does that mean that the founders advocated for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment? Of course not.
And when it comes to foreign policy, their core principles also hold true over time. When the Founders advised peace and avoidance of entangling alliances, they meant it. Of course, on this and just about everything else, those of us who believe in following the path of the founders regularly hear the offensive cliché that, “times have changed.”
A recent commenter on the Tenth Amendment Center website best summed up this view when he wrote – “We must not … faithfully attempt to hitch our wagons to an anachronistic 18th century foreign policy approach in the 21st century.”
The obvious question, then, is this – if the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers is “anachronistic” then what other principles of theirs should we discard for being out of touch with our modern times – freedom of speech, warrants, the 2nd Amendment?
It’s hypocritical to dismiss certain founding principles simply because a convenient rationale is needed to justify certain policies today. And as soon as you decide that a core principle of the founders is old, anachronistic, or should be avoided in regards to policy decisions you personally favor, you’ve just encouraged your opponents to do the same for policies they favor – and you oppose.
The principles enshrined in the Constitution do not change. If anything, today’s more complex world cries out for the moral clarity provided by holding true to these principles from the Founding Fathers.
When the Founders advocated peace as an American foreign policy, they didn’t do so for their own particular time, for their own personal advantage, or even for just strategic reasons. They did so as a core principle – for the ages.