The most radical experiment in history is the Constitution of the United States of America. Throughout history, people had accepted the commonly held notion that governmentâ€™s powers over the citizenry were supreme. In 1787, however, for the first time ever, the American people announced to the world that the liberties of the people were supreme and that the powers of government were limited. Governments throughout the world were startled, stunned, and appalled at such an audacious suggestion.
To understand fully the thinking that formed the Constitution, however, it is necessary to go back 11 years â€” to the Declaration of Independence, which Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776. The revolutionary nature of the thoughts expressed in that document would later be reflected in the Constitution.
Keep in mind that prior to July 4, 1776, there was no United States of America and there were no Americans. The people living in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the other colonies in the New World were Englishmen. The British government was their government, just as the U.S. government today is the government of the American people. These were British citizens living abroad on lands under the jurisdiction of the English crown. In other words, men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and Samuel Adams were as British as you and I are American.
Thus, on July 4, 1776, in the eyes of their own government officials, those men were not heroes. By taking up arms against their own government officials and waging war against British soldiers, the Founding Fathers were traitors to their own government. If the revolution had failed, they would have been hanged.
To catch a glimpse of what the revolutionaries faced, imagine today that one-third of the American people, fed up with high taxes, excessive regulations, arbitrary confiscations of property, and unjust killings of citizens, took up arms against their own government and began ambushing and killing U.S. troops. How many federal government officials would view these revolutionaries as heroes? How many would suggest that statues and monuments be built in their honor?
The government would do whatever was necessary to smash the insurrection and the names of the insurrectionists would be remembered, if at all, in shame in every history book in every public school across America. But if the revolutionaries won, the monuments and statues would be erected, and they would go down in history as great heroes.
Not all the British colonists took up arms and tried to kill their own governmental officials. It has been estimated that one-third joined the revolution, one-third sided with their government, and one-third stayed neutral during the war. But the only reason that the Founding Fathers are as revered as they are is that they ultimately won the military battles against the troops of their own government. They are patriots, not traitors, because they were victorious.
The revolutionary nature of what happened on July 4, however, was not the courage that our Founding Fathers displayed in taking on what was arguably the most powerful government on earth. Instead, the real revolution was reflected by the ideas that Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It has been said that as far as the colonists were concerned, Jefferson did not express anything new or novel but rather the widely held sentiments of the populace.
The origin of rights
Throughout history, people believed that their rights came from government. The king had the power to conscript them and send them into war to fight for him and his government, even in faraway lands. The king had the power to confiscate their property and holdings. The king had the power to arrest and incarcerate them. Sometimes a king was kind and other times not. But everyone accepted the notion that the king could do with him as he wished. After all, he was the king, and they were his subjects.
In one fell swoop, Jefferson and the English colonists rejected that long-held notion. Jefferson said that rights preexist government and that government was simply a servant whose purpose was the protection of those preexisting rights.
This was a revolutionary notion and not one with which kings and governments would be enamored.
Where do the peopleâ€™s rights come from? Jefferson said that they come from manâ€™s Creator. In other words, my life was not created by government. It came into existence independent of government. I donâ€™t have to be beholden or thankful to government for the fact that I exist.
As Jefferson pointed out, life is indeed one of these preexisting rights of man. Others include liberty and the pursuit of happiness. By using the word â€œamong,â€ Jefferson was indicating that manâ€™s fundamental rights were not limited to â€œlife, liberty, and the pursuit of happinessâ€ but included others as well. He had taken the phrase from the English philosopher John Locke, who had described â€œlife, liberty, and propertyâ€ as fundamental, God-given rights.
But what do they mean? They mean that your life is your life. You were born with certain talents, abilities, handicaps, and disabilities. As Roger Williams pointed out many years ago in his remarkable book, You Are Extraordinary, everything about you is different from everybody else. Not just fingeprints. Also hair texture, skin color, voice, personality, face, and figure. Even the shape of your kidneys is different from everyone elseâ€™s.
You use your talents as a way to sustain your life. If you are a person with farming abilities, you grow food that you can eat. But if you are a person with singing talents, you donâ€™t grow your food; instead you sing in return for pay and use the proceeds to buy excess food from the farmer.
Thus, liberty entails the right to live your life the way you choose (as long as your conduct is peaceful), the right to use your talents and abilities to engage in enterprise freely (â€œfree enterpriseâ€), the right to engage in mutually beneficial trades with others (â€œfreedom of tradeâ€), and the right to accumulate the fruits of those trades (â€œpropertyâ€).
Do kings or other government officials have the right to regulate or control these activities? Under what moral authority? These are fundamental rights that preexist kings or governments. Governmental officials have no more right to regulate or control these activities than they have to control how many children a family is to have.
So, why do we need government then? Why not simply do away with kings, princes, princesses, presidents, parliaments, congresses, bureaucracies, and the like? (Stop cheering!) Because as Jefferson points out in the Declaration, governments are necessary to secure the exercise of the fundamental rights of man.
Secure it from what? From violent, anti-social people who would deny other people their rights to live their lives as they choose. In other words, suppose there is a society of peaceful people, all of whom are engaging in free enterprise, entering into trades with one another, and accumulating wealth. Standards of living are slowly increasing for everyone in society. So far, no problems.
But all of a sudden, along comes a person who murders someone and steals his property. How does society protect itself from the murderers, rapists, robbers, trespassers, and other violent people? Government is instituted for the primary purpose of protecting people from those who would initiate force against others.
What happens, however, if government itself becomes more destructive than what the situation would be in the absence of government? In other words, letâ€™s say that in the absence of government, thieves would steal about 10 percent of peopleâ€™s property and murderers would kill 1 percent of the populace. What happens if a corrupt element takes control over the reins of government and uses governmental force to steal 40 percent of peopleâ€™s property and kill 2 percent of the populace?
Jefferson provided the answer to this problem in the Declaration of Independence. He said that when this happens, it is the right of people to alter or abolish their government, even if force is necessary, and institute new government designed to protect, not destroy, the preexisting rights of the people.
Here are the exact words that Thomas Jefferson used to express these revolutionary thoughts in the 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 â€” That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of 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.
Eleven years later, after the Revolution had been won by the colonists, the revolutionary principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence were the backdrop for the formation of the most radical political experiment in history â€” the Constitution of the United States of America.
Originally published at The Future of Freedom Foundation.