Hey, Cypher here.
So, I’m sure you guys have heard someone spouting off about what the founding fathers intended
or whatever kind of rhetoric you want. Now, guessing anyone’s future intent about
200-some-odd years after that supposed intent is foolish enough, but let’s divest the squabble
entirely. Today, I’m going to show you that the founders did not come up the declaration
or constitution in an ideological vacuum, and in many ways implemented the ideas of
others from a century before them. The glory for the idea ought to go to the philosophers.
It’s fairly easy to see the Roman influence on the constitution. Look around DC and you’ll
see more Roman styled pillars than are left in Rome itself. We still call one of the houses
of congress the senate, but that is pretty much parody, not re-creation.
The ideology that the founders derived everything stems from the political philosophy of the
last century and half, before the revolution. Specifically, social contract theory made
it all possible. You see, the constitution is the first instance
of intended governmental structure for a large country. Before that, the rules were created
as people went along. Britain, for instance, still lacks a constitution to this day. She
is made up of smaller documents starting from the Magna Carta all the way to the most recent
bills passed by parliament, no single constitutional document to be had.
Philosophers started trying to make sense of the mess of how governments form and what
rules them, since the divine right explanation had been thrown out along with the English
Civil War (in 1642-51). At the end of that war Thomas Hobbes wrote
the Leviathan, a fiery (somewhat hard to read) book which created social contract theory.
He guessed that man was naturally disposed to have every individual try to fight one
another, and it was only through the agreement of the populous to follow a great leader that
this war of all against all could be stopped. Essentially he advocated kings by social contract.
This may seem like Hobbes was arguing for the status quo, but in 1651-1660 England had
no king. John Locke was the next important philosopher,
if not the most important philosopher. He has been likened to the bible for the USA’s
founding fathers. He was notable for a lot of philosophy including the underpinnings
of modern science and its epistemology, but we are only interested in his political philosophy,
which is normally called classical liberalism. Locke’s book, the Two Treatises on Government,
gave us much of the ideas that the founders followed. He scrapped Hobbes’ idea about the
war of all against all, because his epistemology said that we started as blank slates (or tabula
rasa) and could have no natural inclination for war. This tabula rasa made all men equal.
This is where we get ‘all men are created equal,’ which was a direct quote of Locke.
Locke then theorized what property rights really were. He thought one had to put something
into the land to own it, not simply buy the rights. I’m oversimplifying here, but In his
view, it is the house itself that let’s someone claim a place as their own. Kinda different
from what we have today, but politics always get in the way of ideals.
To Locke, that property was the reason why governments formed. People gathered together
to keep their natural rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of property’ (which Jefferson
changed in his second draft of the declaration to ‘pursuit of happiness’).
Locke gave us the essential ideology of why governments should function, but a Frenchman
named Montesquieu gave us how. Montesquieu essentially wrote the constitution
for the founders. He was the one who came up with the separation of powers, and how
they checked and balanced. His theories were in many pamphlets and books of his, but his
book ‘Spirit of the Law’ is most important. He rooted his idea in how the English parliament
had developed after the Glorious Revolution, but he changed the formula to what we would
recognize in our own government. The three branches of government and who holds what
powers come from Montesquieu. The conjunction of these theories is often
called liberalism. People misuse the term today, but it was somewhat close to what we
call libertarianism, but liberalism isn’t as radical, though it was plenty radical in
comparison to the 1770’s tory government. That about covers everything one needs to
come up with a liberal form of government: a social contract, natural rights, and the
separation of powers. Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu created these ideals. The founders implemented
them. So when one asks what the founders intended, maybe we should ask what the philosophers
intended. This is just one of many ways that philosophy
affects us in inescapable ways. As John Keynes once wrote, “the ideas of philosophers, right
or wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little
else. Men who believe themselves exempt of intellectual influence are usually slaves
of a defunct philosophy.” So be sure to like, share, and subscribe.
Watch some of my other videos too, while you’re at it. See you next time.