Alexander's Column

The Founders' Cornerstones — Independence Day

Mark Alexander · Jun. 30, 2005

In this modern age, when we commemorate the 229th birthday of these United States, we may recite the rightness of our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain: “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. –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.”

Less often, though, do we ponder how the Founders of our nation came to this understanding of legitimacy in government.

The magnificent document from which the above passage is taken defines the basis of our Republic, but whence arose the ideas that impelled the Founders to set our nation off on the path of separation from rule by the kings of England? These precepts are a distillation of the free English laws in which the American colonists were schooled before setting foot on this land, where the colonial Americans became steeped in the experience of life in conditions of freedom. Thus, the cornerstones on which the Founders built our new country were religious liberty, sanctity of personal property, practical exercise of freedom in daily living, and necessity of self-government. These were laid deeply in the manners and principles by which the earliest American colonial settlers made their way in the New World, during the century before the Founders concluded that we must embark on a course of nationhood.

John Winthrop, aboard the ship Arbella lying off the shore of Massachusetts, wrote in 1630: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going. … Therefore let us choose life, that we and our seed may live, by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him, for He is our life and our prosperity.” (Ronald Reagan often cited Winthrop’s image of a “city upon a hill” as inspiration for his revival of fidelity to our Founding beliefs 350 years later.)

Consider Roger Williams, repeatedly hounded out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the mid-1600s, and who then founded Rhode Island as a sanctuary protecting religious liberty, freedom of conscience, and defending property rights. Similarly, the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, in 1682 presaged the ideals in the Declaration of Independence: “Men being born with a title to perfect freedom and uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature…no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political view of another, without his consent.” Having traversed the sea to find religious liberty, the colonial Americans discovered that freedom in all aspects of life best supports the exercise of free conscience in religion and morality.

Hence, the colonists felt the profound injustice of the British king’s deviation from adherence to the laws underpinning his reign, which led to the break in 1776. As the Founders noted, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

A major portion of the Declaration of Independence then lists the bill of particulars, 27 indictments of King George’s faithlessness toward British laws. Reading these charges today, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s assault in recent weeks on the U.S. Constitution – the document that implements the Declaration’s principles in practical government – we should wonder, are we indeed the heirs of our Founding generation? For at least seven of the indictments are suspiciously aligned with allegations we could, and perhaps should, lay against our U.S. courts.

The Founders wrote, “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” And: “He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.” Could these charges not as readily apply to U.S. judges striking down laws the people believe to be “most wholesome and necessary for the public good” – such as laws reserving marriage for one wife and one husband, keeping public treasury money for citizens only, and preserving religious freedoms?

The Founders further criticized the King, noting, “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.” Although more subtle and insidious, our courts have “repeatedly dissolved” the actions of our “Representative Houses” in “opposing with manly firmness” the judiciary’s “invasions on the rights of the people.”

Consider this charge: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.” Could this not as easily describe the Supreme Court’s decision permitting governments to take the private property of one citizen and bestow it on another who is expected to pay more taxes?

Our Supreme Court justices have even cited foreign law in support of their recent rulings. The British king did likewise: “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation….” Does it not follow thatwhen our judges import foreign laws to bind us, we have little recourse to resist?

Add this: “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments….” This past week’s Supreme Court decisions in regard to Kentucky and Texas governments, acting under their state charters to acknowledge God and the Ten Commandments, could be argued to have abolished their “most valuable laws” and “fundamentally altered the forms of those governments.” Finally, this: “For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” Indeed, by seizing the power to not only review laws but to create them from the bench, our courts now presume to “legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

Are these parallels remarkable? Or does growing tyranny present the same face wherever it appears? Founder John Adams made an eloquent case for both private property ownership and public religious observance: “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”

Far too many members of the U.S. judiciary have forsaken the foundations of our freedom, but we would be remiss to neglect those among us who have remained most faithful to our Founders’ legacy. For what marked the birth of our nation – even beyond the ringing endorsement of liberty – was the willingness of the Founders to sacrifice their personal blood, treasure and reputation on this new nation they envisioned. Indeed, they concluded their Independence Day statement, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Our troops arrayed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere are the legitimate philosophical descendants of these, our American Revolutionary War heroes. They are the progeny of George Washington’s Continental Army, having proven themselves equally as noble, equally as willing to sacrifice. We would do well this Independence Day 2005 to ponder them, to pray for them – and to pray that we ourselves will have the courage of purpose and strength of character to put back aright those cornerstones so carefully laid by our Founding Fathers.

Editor’s Note: For an indispensable and exhaustive resource on our nation’s founding and its seminal documentation, link to The Patriot’s Historic Documents page.