Average Joe starts explaining, Sis being dismissive.
When it comes to political theory — what government is for, how it ought to work, and all that — the Framers’ ideas were strongly influenced by philosophers of the Enlightenment…
*Pff* Not this trope again.
Joe makes a “come on, seriously?” gesture. Sis responds with her own.
*ahem* …by Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Montesquieu, and others who, in the world of scientific revolution, believed that politics and other human behavior obeyed inherent “natural laws” which could be discovered through reason.
Weird Renaissance-looking dude with a sword.
But before reason came resistance.
By the time Columbus was discovering the New World, the kings of England were no longer the chief warlords of a feudal system, but the chief executives of a powerful centralized government.
WEIRD-LOOKING… KING, I GUESS?
I… have… the power!
Gilded illustration from a medieval book.
The new arrangement brought a new problem: Now that political authority no longer came from swords, land and loyalty… where did the government’s authority come from?
Well, all power is ultimately God’s.
I have the power now, so God must have delegated it to me.
It’s what God wants, he’s entitled me to rule… in other words, I rule by divine right!
As the sovereign’s authority to rule and the legitimacy of his rule came from religion, you did get a certain level of stability…
After all, disobeying the government was practically a sin!
But not everyone agreed this was a good idea.
Especially when it wasn’t their denomination.
Henry VIII portrait.
For one thing, religious tolerance was now a threat to national security. Dissenting views weren’t mere difference of opinion, but an existential threat to the regime (and ruler). Repressing other doctrines was a matter of self-defense.
So I persecuted Protestants when I was a Catholic…
and Catholics after I became a Protestant!
When Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter became queen, she quickly earned the name “Bloody Mary,” burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake. After fleeing to continental Europe, Anglican bishop John Ponet had some words to say about all this:
JOHN PONET (haranguing from deck)
Kings do not rule by divine right!
The right to rule comes from doing the job properly!
And government has one job: to ensure justice, for the people’s benefit.
If the government isn’t doing its job well, then the people have the right to fire it, and get a better one!
And if the ruler has harmed the people, they’re allowed to execute him like any other criminal…
John Adams portrait.
Ponet wrote his “Short Treatise on Political Power” in 1556, far away in Strasbourg, and his ideas got zero traction with European sensibilities. But 200 years later, they were avidly studied by some of America’s founding generation.
JOHN ADAMS (1787)
Ponet’s work contained all the essentials of liberty. Guys like Locke were just fiddling with the details. Hell, Ponet even said government should have three equal branches!
Joe talking head.
That last bit’s a little misleading. He wasn’t talking about separation of powers. He meant a mixed government — the decisiveness of a king, the wisdom of a ruling elite, and the popular voice of democracy.
The best traits of each would balance out, and ensure the best government its society could produce.
Hugo Grotius portrait
A lifetime came and went, and in 1625, Hugo Grotius started the ball rolling again with his concept of natural law.
That’s “law” as in “the law of gravity” (not yet discovered).
I thought all our moral and political norms emerged from basic truths — axioms of the universe, you know?
And if there are natural laws, he reasoned, then naturally we must have the ability — the power — to obey them.
In other words, we must have natural rights.
So! Because it is our nature to be self-preserving, we must therefore have the right to self-preservation!
Sis and Joe talking heads.
So a “right” is something that’s inherently right to do!
By its very nature, it couldn’t be considered immoral or illegal.
Nowadays, we are so used to having rights, that it can be difficult to grasp that this was a new idea!
Grotius portrait with Sis talking head.
Grotius further reasoned that, if rights are something people possess, then they’re something that people can give away.
In other words, rights are alienable!
You wanna sell yourself into slavery? Sure, go right ahead.
Thomas Hobbes portrait.
Writing at the end of the English Civil War, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes took those ideas to the next level.
Not surprisingly (given the, y’know, civil war and all) he decided it is a natural law that people want to be safe from each other.
What you think yer doin’ with that gun, son?
Engraving of violent state of nature.
He argued that, without government, you’ve have unlimited liberty, but so would the next guy. In this State of Nature, you could kill that guy, or he could kill you, and none of it would be “wrong.”
For safety, therefore, he reasoned that people left the state of nature by entering into a social contract.
People gave up their liberty to a sovereign “common wealth” — giving it unlimited authority to rule over them — in exchange for security and protection.
Sis and King talking heads.
So what’s the people’s remedy if the sovereign breaches the contract, and oppresses the people?
“Breaches…?” What part of unlimited authority did you not understand?
During that same civil war, some thoughtful people — calling themselves Levellers — started saying people are born with certain inherent rights: The right to liberty, to freedom of religion, and to equal protection of the law.
It all just seems so true!
Uh, I’m pretty sure the whole of history says it isn’t.
They also had this crazy notion called popular sovereignty. Government doesn’t have power because it’s in power, they said. Government only has whatever powers the people allow it to have. Specific, limited powers. And all other powers still belong to the people.
Wow, you really don’t know how the world works, do you?
The Levellers’ ideas did not catch on.
English Civil War soldier helmet.
The civil war ended with England’s monarchy overthrown… A brief experiment with republicanism (the “Commonwealth”) shut down at gunpoint… and a military dictatorship called the “Protectorate” running the country.
It was tyranny.
The dictatorship based the legitimacy of its rule on a radical ideology, so once again dissent from the correct thinking was violently suppressed. England suffered a reign of terror.
The English didn’t put up with that for long, though, and in 1660 the monarchy was restored.
When it turned out that the new king’s successor would be yet another Catholic, however, many in Parliament opposed his succession.
Sis in a big pompadour wig.
This new “faction” (or political party) was derisively called the Whigs.
Ooh! I like this party already!
No, not “wigs.” “Whig” was an old insult meaning “yokel” or “horse thief.”
The Whig party (which attracted many former Levellers) believed in individual liberty — in tolerance of dissenting views, and that government is accountable to the people.
They also believed that corrupt or arbitrary government was a threat to liberty — it only served whomever paid the biggest bribes or was owed the biggest favors, or served an official’s personal interests.
And so they said the people have the right to replace bad government with good.
John Locke portrait.
The Earl of Shaftesbury was the leader of the Whig party, and living in his household was his young protégé, John Locke.
Strongly influenced by Shaftesbury’s ideas, Locke would in turn influence Which philosophy with some ideas of his own.
It was the early days of the Scientific Revolution, and Locke was good friends with men like Newton and Boyle. And Locke wanted to explain political behavior scientifically.
Nevertheless, the scientific method had yet to replace philosophical logic. (And psychology and anthropology were a long way off.) So Locke still explained human behavior with the idea that there are “natural laws,” and fundamental moral truths, which one can discove purely by mental reasoning.
Sea of stick figures.
For example, Locke reasoned that no matter whether you’re born to a baron or to a beggar, all people are created equal.
ONE OF THE CROWD
A king’s got no more rights than me!
Man assaulting a woman, shoving her in the chest.
He said you’re born with inherent rights, which all stem from the fact that you “own” yourself. Which meant, for example, the right to protect yourself: to life.
Hey! Get off my property!
The man putting his hand on the woman’s boob.
It also implied a right to liberty — the freedom to act as you wish, so long as you don’t harm someone else.
I said get off my property!
The man running off with the woman’s purse.
Because you own your own life, you also own your own labor… and the fruits of your labor.
Which meant you have the right to make something or take something (so long as it’s not stealing). …A right to get property.
You jerk! Come back with my property!
Hands exchanging liberties for a present.
In the absence of government (Locke’s definition of the state of nature), he was like Hobbes in saying everyone was equal, with the same rights.
And like Hobbes, he said that people form governments by giving up liberty in exchange for protection of their rights.
But unlike Hobbes, Locke said people couldn’t give up their fundamental rights entirely, even if they wanted to — he said these rights were inalienable.
Therefore, unlike Hobbes, Locke’s social contract theory only gave government limited powers — only what it needs so it can protect the people’s rights to life, liberty, and property.
17th-Century depressed dude, and Locke.
I’d like to sell myself, please.
Sorry, no can do.
Government doesn’t have rights, it only has powers.
The man hopefully placing his hand on the woman’s boob again.
Also unlike Hobbes, Locke’s version of the social contract was all about consent. (Not affirmative “agreement.” He meant passive “acquiescence” — the absence of opposition.)
Ugh. If you must.
Crown over people.
So government is only legitimate when it has the consent of the people it governs. That is, it only has authority so long as the people allow it to have that authority.
Ugh, fine. Whatever.
And it can’t exceed its contractual authority to protect their rights.
Old painting of a mob
Therefore, Locke argued, if government breaches the social contract by abusing its power, violating the people’s rights, or exercising its power arbitrarily…
Then the people have the right to overthrow that government, by rebellion if necessary, and set up a new one.
Portraits of Algernon Sidney, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.
Then there was Algernon Sidney, barely remembered now, but who was just as influential to the Founders as Locke, if not more so!
SIS (eyeing the word “Founders” suspiciously)
And of course, closer to their own time they had Rousseau‘s new-and-improved social contract ideas… not to mention Montesquieu’s ideas of-
You’re talking about what the Founders were thinking?
We’re supposed to be talking about the Framers!
…The ones who wrote the Constitution.
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
The Founders are the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Different document! Different purpose!
These Enlightenment ideas mainly helped the Founders justify their rejection of British rule — helping them argue they were entitled to break free, because the sovereign had breached some sort of contract.
“No” symbol over the exchange of liberties for a present
But the Framers were making a Constitution, not a contract. They weren’t drafting an agreement saying “we’ll give you A, if you give us B…“
And they were assembling the structure of a government, not rationalizing whether its authority was legitimate.
“No” symbol over a 1780s man thinking “I say, what if…”
The Framers weren’t looking for theories of how the world works or ought to work… they were trying to design a practical system that would actually work, in real life!
No enlightenment philosopher said a word about the nuts and bolts of a functioning political system, much less getting them to work together.
1780s political cartoon of Thomas Paine tightening Liberty’s corset, “Fashion before Ease: or A good Constitution sacrificed for a Fantastick Form”
And just as the Founders didn’t propose a system that fit their enlightenment philosophy… …neither did the Framers try to fit their system into any particular philosophy.
Average Joe and Sis
What do you mean?
I mean the Framers did share a common idea of what government is, and what it’s for.
You could say that even their most divisive arguments weren’t over what they believed, so much as best way to apply that belief!
[Suggested edit: change “as best way” to “as the best way”]
Theirs was an unspoken — and uniquely American mindset…