The basic premise of the Founding Fathers was man’s right to his own life, to his own liberty, to the pursuit of his own happiness—which means: man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; and that the political implementation of this right is a society where men deal with one another as traders, by voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.
The Founding Fathers were neither passive, death-worshipping mystics nor mindless, power-seeking looters; as a political group, they were a phenomenon unprecedented in history: they were thinkers who were also men of action. They had rejected the soul-body dichotomy, with its two corollaries: the impotence of man’s mind and the damnation of this earth; they had rejected the doctrine of suffering as man’s metaphysical fate, they proclaimed man’s right to the pursuit of happiness and were determined to establish on earth the conditions required for man’s proper existence, by the “unaided” power of their intellect.
In the modern world, under the influence of the pervasive new climate, a succession of thinkers developed a new conception of the nature of government. The most important of these men and the one with the greatest influence on America was John Locke. The political philosophy Locke bequeathed to the Founding Fathers is what gave rise to the new nation’s distinctive institutions. That political philosophy is the social implementation of the Aristotelian spirit.
Throughout history the state had been regarded, implicitly or explicitly, as the ruler of the individual—as a sovereign authority (with or without supernatural mandate), an authority logically antecedent to the citizen and to which he must submit. The Founding Fathers challenged this primordial notion. They started with the premise of the primacy and sovereignty of the individual. The individual, they held, logically precedes the group or the institution of government. Whether or not any social organization exists, each man possesses certain individual rights. And “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—or, in the words of a New Hampshire state document, “among which are the enjoying and defending life and liberty; acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; and in a word, of seeking and obtaining happiness.”
The genius of the Founding Fathers was their ability not only to grasp the revolutionary ideas of the period, but to devise a means of implementing those ideas in practice, a means of translating them from the realm of philosophic abstraction into that of sociopolitical reality. By defining in detail the division of powers within the government and the ruling procedures, including the brilliant mechanism of checks and balances, they established a system whose operation and integrity were independent, so far as possible, of the moral character of any of its temporary officials—a system impervious, so far as possible, to subversion by an aspiring dictator or by the public mood of the moment.
The heroism of the Founding Fathers was that they recognized an unprecedented opportunity, the chance to create a country of individual liberty for the first time in history—and that they staked everything on their judgment: the new nation and their own “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.”
“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Jefferson—and the other Founding Fathers—meant it. They did not confine their efforts to the battle against theocracy and monarchy; they fought, on the same grounds, invoking the same principle of individual rights—against democracy, i.e., the system of unlimited majority rule. They recognized that the cause of freedom is not advanced by the multiplication of despots, and they did not propose to substitute the tyranny of a mob for that of a handful of autocrats . . . .
When the framers of the American republic spoke of “the people,” they did not mean a collectivist organism one part of which was authorized to consume the rest. They meant a sum of individuals, each of whom—whether strong or weak, rich or poor—retains his inviolate guarantee of individual rights.
The political philosophy of America’s Founding Fathers is so thoroughly buried under decades of statist misrepresentations on one side and empty lip-service on the other, that it has to be re-discovered, not ritualistically repeated. It has to be rescued from the shameful barnacles of platitudes now hiding it. It has to be expanded—because it was only a magnificent beginning, not a completed job, it was only a political philosophy without a full philosophical and moral foundation, which the “conservatives” cannot provide.