Recommitting to American Founding Principles: The Founders’ Understanding of Dignity and the Constitution

Over the course of the past 100 years in my home country of the United States, there have been many complaints and criticisms of the Founding Fathers and the American government, particularly the Constitutional structure. One commonly hears criticisms of the electoral college being an “undemocratic system,” or that there are forces at play, like the “top 1%,” who are trying to undermine and erode our “democracy.” “Power to the people” is a common phrase many political activists use. Because the system was created by the Founders and written into the Constitution, people blame the Founders for creating an inherently unjust and oppressive system; according to such folks, America is an inherently bad place, missing certain values that protect human rights. But why did the Founders structure the Union the way they did?  

Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

The fundamental principle understood by the Founders is the rights of all human beings. The Declaration reads, “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.” The Founders did not have a specific concept of dignity the way we at WYA do; the term post-dates them. However, they understood that our tie to the Transcendent, “the Creator,” came with a package of rights; our rights come from a higher source. They understood that human beings were special and that by virtue of being human, all humans, despite individual differences, are created equal. This idea was a radical departure from the common understanding of governance at the time.

From the principle of equality comes the principle of consent; government is only legitimate where consent is given for governance. Because we are all equal, no one has the right to arbitrarily rule over another without consent. For the purposes of government, consent must be ongoing, which begets the Constitution, a system of government that ensures perpetual universal consent for government.

Why did the Founders choose a representative government? They understood that power can corrupt people (e.g. King George III) and needed to impose strict limits on the ability of people to become corrupted. That is why we have a system of checks and balances between the branches of government. Representation allows for continuous consent for government by way of voting, but it also differentiates between the government and the people. Because the people give consent for government, they are the sovereign. However, they have no political power outside of voting (lobbying, free speech, the rights to bear arms, and protesting are influential and even powerful, but they are not formal mechanisms of political power). This is by design. The Founders wanted to separate the power from the sovereign so that the sovereign could not change the rules of the government like George III did. Conversely, democracy, in a classical sense, is a system of government in which the people are directly involved in the workings of government; there is no separation between government or people. Hence, America is a republic, not a democracy. The Founding Fathers, knowledgeable of their Classical history and philosophy, knew well that democracy trended towards corruption and instability.

Those who say “power to the people” do not see the current government as working “for the people” and want to make the American system of government more like a democracy. However, they misunderstand the structure and purpose of the American government. The Founders created the American government, a federal representative Constitutional republic, based on human anthropology. They saw human beings as having a will and an intellect, equal under God, capable of both tremendous good and terrifying evil, and having freedom for excellence. From that philosophical foundation, they created a system that would allow us to be ruled by the “better angels of our nature.” The American government is created for the people because it is created based on what people are. So on Independence Day, let us reflect on just how well the Founders constructed our government, and let us recommit to those principles gladly and freely.

Published: July 1, 2020
Written by Thomas Sarrouf, WYA North America Intern