Roots of American Democracy
"Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god."
The philosophical roots of America's government are as complex and as old as civilization itself. Philosophers and political leaders alike have grappled with the question on the nature of man, and consequently, the type of leader and government necessary to govern man. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the ideas that shaped the beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution.
The English Tradition
- Common Law
- Developed in England during the Middle Ages
- Common Law is the principle that states that law should be based on custom and previous court decisions.
- This means that the law is fair and should be applied equally to all cases that are similar
- The Magna Carta
- King John of England continually taxed the people of his nation until there was virtually no money left.
- He then tried to tax the nobles, barons, and lords.
- They forced the king to sign the Magna Carta.
- This document listed the rights that even a monarch should not be able to take away.
- Once the king’s power had been limited, the people began putting together a representative form of government.
- In England, the nobles established Parliament as a law-making body.
- Eventually, Parliament would become more powerful than the monarch.
- English Bill of Rights
- In 1689, England became a constitutional monarchy
- Parliament passed the English Bill of Rights, which further limited the power of the monarch.
- Included in this document are rights such as:
- Free speech
- Taxes could not be collected without Parliament’s approval
- Everyone, including those in government, must obey the law.
- Trial by jury
- Petition the government for change
The Enlightenment Era
- Thomas Hobbes
- A Strong central government is necessary in order to keep people in line.
- Social Contract Theory
- The government exists to protect people, in return, people surrender some of their freedoms.
- All members of society submit to one absolute, central authority for the sake of maintaining the common peace
- The sovereign (ruler) is given power to run the government, to determine all laws, to be in charge of the church
- John Locke
- The purpose of the government is to protect the natural rights of the people.
- Natural rights – rights such as life, liberty, and property, that all humans are granted at birth, and no government should take away.
- If the government isn’t working for the people, then they have the right to abolish it
- Government gets its power from the consent of the governed
- Individuals agree to join together equally under a common law for protection and to achieve a common good
- Jean Jacques Rousseau
- The only legitimate political authority is the one the people chose to have govern them.
- A government rules by the consent of the governed
- The people and their government enter into a social contract for the sake of their mutual preservation
- Government is based on a collective, unified will of the people
- The will of the people informs the laws that are passed
- Some form of government is necessary to enforce laws impartially (fairly) and oversee day to day functions of the country
- Baron de Montesquieu
- Separation of Powers - The government’s power should be divided among a legislative, executive, and judicial branches
- This would prevent any government official or branch from having too much power.
- Creates a system of checks and balances
- Adam Smith
- “Father of Capitalism”
- Believed that the economy should not be run by the government.
- Lassiez faire – “let it be”
- The people, as producers and consumers would set prices
- "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer."
- "The real and effectual discipline which is exercised over a workman is that of his customers. It is the fear of losing their employment which restrains his frauds and corrects his negligence."