The ideas that came from Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and London were all alive in the minds of the men who gathered in a fifth city, Philadelphia, in 1776 and again in 1787, in order to draft, debate, and eventually adopt the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Our Founders had studied the Bible; they had read the classics and the British political writers; they knew the history of Western civilization. Weaving together the best elements of that tradition, they formed what would endure as the greatest experiment in the history of a political community founded on the concepts of liberty, morality, and justice. In this way, our American Founders were also the founders of the American conservative cause.
The Declaration of Independence dissolved the relationship between the American people and Great Britain and established a new, sovereign nation—the United States of America. The Declaration set out the moral vision of the new nation and articulated a theory of what a legitimate government should be. It then spoke in quite specific terms about how Britain had violated those principles.
Many of the early Americans had left Europe because they had been oppressed and wanted the freedom promised in the New World. They wanted to worship as they saw fit, to speak their minds, and to earn a living freely. But over the years, British rule began to undermine American liberty. The Declaration lists twenty-eight abuses by the king—taxation without consent, denial of trial by jury, denial of religious liberty, freedom of speech, and more. The social contract had been broken—by the king—so the colonists declared that they owed no further allegiance to him.
The Declaration’s most memorable passage encapsulates the most basic beliefs of our Founders:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Here the Founders are affirming that natural law is a higher law than that made by men, one that establishes the difference between right and wrong. The Declaration goes on to say that to secure our God-given rights, “governments are instituted by men”—in other words, natural law is the foundation on which all legitimate man-made law is built. It then says that the only legitimate governments are those that operate by the consent of the governed, and that the governed have a right—again, God-given—to change the government or abolish it.
Put another way, the Declaration says there is no divine right of kings, no absolute power of government. Instead, all rightful power in government derives only from the people. The Declaration makes it clear that we are born with these rights, which means that every person has equal rights. The only legitimate function of a government is to secure these rights, and, again, only with the consent of the people. So the Declaration limits the power of the government not once but twice: once by its purpose or ends (the securing of rights) and once by its function or means (our consent).
Eleven years later, the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified by the thirteen states. The Constitution was designed to be the supreme law of the land—the law that constructed a new government and spelled out how it would work. The Constitution reflects the principles of the Declaration. The dilemma the Founders faced was how to create a government that would be powerful enough to protect the rights affirmed by the Declaration from both internal and external threats while also providing sufficient checks and balances so the new government would not have so much power as to overrun those rights.
The Constitution establishes the three branches of the federal government—the executive, the legislative, and the judicial—and delimits the powers of each. It sets forth the role of the states, recognizing in the states a power to do things that the federal government is not specifically tasked with doing. It gives the citizens of the United States various ways of protecting themselves against abuses of government power. It clearly enumerates the powers of the federal government and gives it none that are not enumerated.
The Constitution also establishes a powerful system of checks and balances so that no branch of government would become too powerful. First, through the doctrine of the separation of powers, each of the three branches checks the power of the other two. For example, there are two houses of Congress that must agree on any legislation. Any bill passed by Congress must then be signed by the president to become law. The president can also reject the legislation through a veto, though Congress has the power to override his veto by a supermajority. And the courts can review anything that either Congress or the executive branch does and rule it unconstitutional, outside the scope of the law. To further limit federal power, the Constitution establishes the idea of federalism by recognizing the legitimate powers of the states and insisting that all power not specifically granted to the federal government belongs to the states.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, taken together, were the work not of a moment, an hour, or even a lifetime, but of two thousand years of Western thought, political struggle, and hard-won knowledge about political power and the pursuit of liberty. These two documents have rightly been called the most perfect, and most successful, conservative documents in the history of the world. Consider how these two founding documents of the United States reflect the four pillars of conservative thought:
First is the concept of liberty, and the necessity of protecting liberty from the abuses of state power. The Founders recognized that government was necessary but also recognized that unless its powers are strictly limited, government can threaten the freedoms it was established to protect. The Bill of Rights ensured that our most essential liberties could never be infringed by the U.S. government.
Second is the rule of law. To protect the freedoms recognized by the Constitution, a fixed and certain rule of law was necessary. As the Founders saw it, a system in which the ruling power could alter the Constitution and the law as it pleased, and thus expand the scope of its authority, was a system in which freedom was always imperiled. Thus, in America, there can be no rule by arbitrary decrees, and justice is settled by fixed rules and duly authorized judges. The Constitution can be amended, but to do so is an arduous and cumbersome process that requires both houses of the Congress to approve the amendment by a two-thirds majority, and three-quarters of the states need approve as well. So the Constitution was the ultimate bedrock law of the land, providing certainty and predictability to the American people, the safety of the rule of law.
And third is order and tradition. The Constitution was the culmination of nearly two thousand years of Western civilization and Western thought. Further, the Founders recognized that government was needed to provide defense, administer justice, and otherwise supply a zone of order in which people could safely go about their business. The Constitution established the idea of continuity and stability of leadership, and provided an orderly process for choosing leaders, making laws, and administering the new republic.
And finally, belief in God. Both documents reflect the great reverence of the Founders and their understanding of the Bible. The Declaration of Independence opens by proclaiming that men are “endowed by their Creator” with certain rights, continues by speaking of “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” and ends with an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the World.” The Constitution, although less explicit, recognizes the liberties discussed in the Declaration and protects them as almost sacred. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights also makes religious liberty our “first freedom,” reflecting the Founders’ view that the free exercise of religion would have a positive effect on the workings of government. Sadly, the Founders’ concept of religious liberty has now been turned on its head by a grossly errant Supreme Court.
It is no wonder that many conservatives now call themselves constitutional conservatives, why the Tea Party has adopted the Constitution as its standard text, and why the conservative legal community has resurrected the Constitution as its fundamental document. The Constitution sets forth the basic tenets of modern American conservatism in clear and unambiguous language; it is brief but complete, and still stands as the bedrock of American conservatism. If you are ever asked what conservatism in America stands for, you can say it stands for what is in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and you will have given as good an answer as possible.
Adding this Part
While the particular issues we face today may be different from those of the past, the four pillars of modern American conservatism remain robust. Conservatives universally advocate a return to limited government, for as Ronald Reagan used to say, a government that can give you everything you want can also take away everything you have. Conservatives advocate free market capitalism, less regulation of economic activity, and fiscal responsibility. They also favor entrepreneurship and lower taxes to spur economic growth. Conservatives work to restrain activist judges in an effort to restore the rule of law.
Social conservatives today work to shore up family values. They oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, and sexual permissiveness. They also advocate strengthening traditional standards in education, and a larger role for religious faith in public life.
On foreign policy issues, conservatives have recently been divided. Traditionally, conservatives have believed that war should be avoided if at all possible but that a strong national defense is nevertheless vital. Peace through strength, if you will. But a new strand of conservatives joined the movement in the 1970s and 1980s: the so-called neoconservatives. Many of these were former Democrats, liberals on domestic policy but anti-Communists and hawks who made common cause with other conservatives toward the end of the Cold War. Neoconservatives tend to be more willing to use military power for purposes other than simply defending American interests.
Still, there are really no clear lines of demarcation between the different branches of conservatism, and in fact most conservatives don’t fit neatly into one or another camp. Almost always there are enough genuine similarities in outlook such that, wherever they come from, conservatives can usually work together for the broader cause. As long as we remain faithful to the four pillars of conservatism, the order of liberty, morality, and justice that we have built will stand firm
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