A Nation Founded on Universal Principles:
The American Founders appealed to self-evident truths, stemming from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," to justify their liberty. This is a universal and permanent standard that cannot be undone by man (except under tyrannical conditions). These truths are not unique to America but apply to all men and women everywhere. They are as true today as they were during the founding, and will forever be.
Based on the founding principle of equality, the American Founders asserted that men could govern themselves according to common beliefs and the rule of law. Throughout history, political power was often held by the strongest. But if all are equal and have the same rights, then no one is fit by nature to rule or to be ruled.
As Thomas Jefferson put it, "The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." The only source of the legitimate powers of government is the consent of the governed. This is the cornerstone principle of American government, society, and independence.
These core principles also inescapably mean that everyone has the right to the fruits of their own labor. The fundamental rights to acquire, possess, and sell property is the backbone of opportunity and the most practical means to pursue human happiness. This right, along with the free enterprise system that stems from it, is the source of prosperity and the foundation of economic liberty.
Because people have rights, government has only the powers that the sovereign people have delegated to it. These powers are specified by a fundamental law called a constitution. Under the rule of law, all are protected by generally agreed-upon laws that apply equally to everyone.
The ultimate purpose of securing these rights and of limiting government is to protect human freedom. That freedom allows the institutions of civil society—family, school, church, and private associations—to thrive, forming the habits and virtues required for liberty.
Liberty does not belong only to the United States. The Declaration of Independence holds that all men everywhere are endowed with a right to liberty. That liberty is a permanent aspect of human nature everywhere is central to understanding America's first principles. Here is a brief discussion of these principles:
The Rule of Law
First Principle that mandates that the law governs everyone equally
The Founding Fathers believed that the rule of law is a fundamental First Principle of a free and just government. John Adams explained the Founders’ understanding when he wrote that good government and the very definition of a republic “is an empire of laws.”
Theoretically, in America, the government governs the citizenry according to the law, not by the whims or fancies of our leaders. By requiring our leaders to enact and publish the law, and to adhere to the same law that applies to each citizen, the rule of law acts as a potent barrier against tyrannical and arbitrary government. Notice that I inserted the word “theoretically” because leaders and courts have increasingly violated this sacred creed over the past century, thus weakening the pureness of our governmental system.
Founding Father Samuel Adams observed that the rule of law means that “There shall be one rule of Justice for the rich and the poor; for the favorite in Court, and the Countryman at the Plough.”
By requiring both the government and the people to adhere to the law, the rule of law serves as a key foundational First Principle for protecting our liberty.
Recognizing that everyone is naturally endowed by their Creator with certain rights that cannot be infringed or given away
The Declaration of Independence proclaims as a self-evident truth the First Principle that “all men are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Thomas Jefferson explained the essence of the Founding Fathers’ understanding regarding the First Principle of unalienable rights when he wrote that“a free people claims their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as a gift from their chief magistrate.” A basic maxim of American government is the recognition that some rights derived from Nature may not be taken or violated by the government.
The recognition and protection of unalienable rights is perhaps the centerpiece of America’s First Principles.
Recognizing that all persons are created equal
Equality is a First Principle of America’s free and just government. As explained in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers believed that “all men are created equal.”
The Founding Founders embraced the Judeo-Christian understanding that the Creator created all individuals, that each person arises from His handiwork, and that every person embodies His blessing. Regardless of physical, mental, and social differences between individuals, each individual is equally precious in His eyes.
While this First Principle originally arose from a belief in the nature of the Creator, the laws of nature lead to the same conclusion. To compete in a state of nature, each person possesses the same opportunity – the same right embedded in his or her very nature – to maintain his or her survival and to pursue happiness.
By embracing the First Principle of equality, America rejected the deliberately inequitable regimes dominating the globe in their time. Inequality codified in the law was a cornerstone of government throughout world history. Hereditary nobility and other special classes were almost universally granted special privileges unknown to the common person.
From its very founding, however, America aspired to embody the First Principle that all men are created equal. The First Principle of equality sparked abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and the great civil rights movements. Combined with the rule of law, this First Principle requires that each person be treated equally under the law, and that the equal protection of the laws be afforded to all.
The Social Compact
Social Compact recognizes that governments are instituted by the people and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed
The Declaration of Independence recognizes as a self-evident truth that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .” There are two aspects to this First Principle of the Social Compact. First, that legitimate governments are instituted among the people; second, that the just powers of the government are derived from the consent of the people. The Founding Fathers derived much of their understanding of this First Principle from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and other like-minded philosophers.
The Founding Fathers believed that because conflict is inevitable in a state of nature, individuals united in civil societies and established government to secure the peace. James Madison reflected that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men are not angels, Alexander Hamilton noted, and government becomes necessary to restrain “the passions of men.” Thus, paradoxically, legal restraints are necessary to preserve liberty. The alternative is vigilantism – which Hobbes aptly termed a “war of every one against every one.”
The second aspect of the Social Compact is that the people must consent to give the government its authority. Robert Bates, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, explained that “In every free government, the people must give their assent to the laws by which they are governed. This is the true criterion between a free government and an arbitrary one.”
The Limited Government
Protection of unalienable rights is the legitimate purpose and limit of government requires the government to be strong enough to fulfill its purpose yet limited to that purpose
Rejecting the belief that governments possess unlimited power, America was founded on the First Principle that the protection of unalienable rights is the legitimate purpose and limit of government (referred to limited government). The Declaration of Independence recognized this as a First Principle when it explained that “to secure these rights . . . governments are instituted among men. . . .”
Founding Father Thomas Paine expressed the American sentiment when he wrote that “Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, not to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.” Thomas Jefferson explained, “our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them.”
Because individuals relinquished some of their rights solely to secure their life, liberty and property, John Locke wrote, the government “can have no other end or measure when in the hands of the magistrates but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions; and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes which are so much as possible to be preserved. . . .”
Thus, directly opposed to the proposition that the government is all powerful, because we have consented to the government to protect our unalienable rights, the government only has the power it needs to perform that function and auxiliary supports thereof – nothing more.
From its founding, America embraced as a First Principle that the purpose and limit of the government is protecting the unalienable rights of its citizens.
Thus is the flawless and inarguable logic of our Founding Principles.
A Foundational Consequence: American Exceptionalism:
First, an explanation before I expound on this section: Believing in American Exceptionalism does not simply mean everyone else is second class citizens of the world. American Exceptionalism is the idea that the “United States and the American people hold a special place in the world, by offering opportunity and hope for humanity, derived from its unique balance of public and private interests governed by constitutional ideals that are focused on personal and economic freedom”. I like to call it a quality that directly and indirectly enhances the human condition all around the world – not inhibit it.
Although the current President would take an issue, we have proven our Exceptionalism continuously for over two centuries by defending liberty with our own blood and treasure all around the globe; opening up our shores to the downtrodden and the oppressed; and as a byproduct by our innovative and productive leadership and our charity in general.
What makes us unique as a nation? Are we geographically blessed more than anyone else? Have we had thousands of years of shared history or common religion as people to build our nation on? Are we a homogenous people who might be somehow superior to others? The answers are obviously NO!
More fundamentally, what makes us unique is our exceptionalism emanating from having broken away from European feudalism and forming a nation, based on a collection of founding documents that were inspired by natural law (as historically ascribed by Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and others) that placed utmost importance on the concept of civil society.
As the English writer G. K. Chesterton observed, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." That creed is set forth most clearly in the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies announced their separation from Great Britain. The Declaration is a timeless statement of inherent god given rights, the proper purposes of government, and the limits on political authority.
Just think for a moment. This collection of men, who based on the norms of their era could have created any type of government and given themselves any amount of power, chose to create a republic that would be effectively governed by people, with limited, enumerated powers reserved for the government. An amazingly enlightened course of action as likes of Chesterton would extensively write about. Perhaps the best summation, still, is as Alexis deTocqueville observed: “America is exceptional because of our uniquely American ideology based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism and laissez-faire – all working in harmony.”
In sum, America is an exceptional nation, but not because of what it has achieved or accomplished. America is exceptional because, unlike any other nation, it is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded on the truths that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights.