What Are the Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System?
The people who led the American Revolution, which separated the American colonies from Great Britain, and who created the Constitution, which established the government we have today, were making a fresh beginning. However, they also were heirs to philosophical and historical traditions as old as Western civilization.
The Founders were well read. "I cannot live without books," Thomas Jefferson once told John Adams. Jefferson's library of approximately 6,500 volumes formed the core collection of the Library of Congress. Adams reputedly read forty-three books during the year he turned eighty-one years old. These Americans were familiar with the history, philosophy, and literature of the ancient world as well as with the ideas of their own time. They also studied English history and law, from which their constitutional traditions derived. And religion was an important part of the Founders' education. They knew the Bible and its teachings.
Moreover, the knowledge that these people possessed was not limited to what they read in books. In creating the new nation, they drew on their experiences. Many of the Constitution’s Framers had fought in the American Revolution and had served in colonial government before America won its independence. They also had experience governing the newly independent states. They used this knowledge and experience when they wrote the Constitution. An understanding of what they learned will help you understand why they wrote the Constitution as they did and why we have the kind of government we have today.
This unit provides an overview of some important philosophical ideas and historical events that influenced the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is particularly important to understand the concepts this unit because it provides a frame of reference and a basis for understanding the other units in this course. You will appreciate why our history as a people has been a great adventure in ideas and in trying to make these ideas a reality.
What did the Founders think about constitutional government?This lesson introduces the basic ideas and experiences the founding generation drew on to create the kind of government they believed would best protect the natural rights of individuals and promote the common good. Classical Greek and Roman writers, natural rights philosophy, the Bible, Protestant theology, ancient and modern European history, and the Enlightenment in Europe and America were among the sources of the ideas that influenced the Founders. The Founders also participated in self-government in the American colonies before 1776 and in state and local governments after independence from Great Britain. The Founders' ideas about society and government and their experiences were diverse. The colonies differed widely. This diversity fostered a rich dialogue about the purpose of government and how it should be organized.
What ideas about civic life informed the founding generation?People frequently make judgments about governments or acts of governments, praising them as "good" or criticizing them as "bad." Those judgments may reflect ideas about human nature, the proper function and scope of government, the rights of individuals, and other values. Political philosophers have discussed these matters for thousands of years. This lesson examines concepts such as the common good, civic virtue, the state of nature, natural rights, consent, and the social contract. These concepts are central to discussions about government.
What historical developments influenced modern ideas of individual rights?The previous two lessons explored ideas that shaped the Founders' thinking about constitutional government and civic life. This lesson examines several important historical developments that also influenced their ideas.
What were the British origins of American constitutionalism?This lesson describes the evolution of British constitutional government. It examines the early stages of English government in the feudal period, concluding with the Magna Carta of 1215. It traces the development of representative institutions in England, English common law, and the relationship between legal and constitutional structures. It also examines some of the differences between British and American constitutionalism.
What basic ideas about rights and constitutional government did colonial Americans have?This lesson describes how basic ideas of constitutional government were developed and used in the American colonies before independence from Britain. It explains how social and economic conditions in America sometimes required old ideas about government to be adapted or discarded. Occasionally the colonists needed to create entirely new institutions.
Why did American colonists want to free themselves from Great Britain?The growth of the American colonies raised issues with the parent country, Great Britain, that were difficult to resolve peacefully. This lesson describes the circumstances that produced the Declaration of Independence and the major ideas about government and natural rights included in that document.
What basic ideas about rights and governments did the state constitutions include?After declaring independence the Founders designed new state governments to protect individual rights and to promote the common good. This lesson shows how the constitution of Massachusetts in particular was designed to achieve these ends. State constitutions also contained bills or declarations of rights. These guarantees of rights, for which Virginia's Declaration of Rights served as a model, had a great influence on the development of the U.S. Bill of Rights.