By: J. David Gowdy, President
The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute

Our second President, John Adams stated: "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." Why would Adams declare that our Constitution is made only for a moral people and a religious people? What does morality have to do with its articles? While it establishes freedom of religion, why would it be wholly inadequate to the government of a non-religious people? The Constitution itself gives us little clue; it simply states that it was ordained to "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to succeeding generations (Preamble). Is our constitutional liberty derived from morality and religion? What is liberty? How is it defined? Is it the same as freedom?

In response to these rhetorical questions, I propose that liberty is not defined in a sentence, or as a rule -- Liberty is based upon certain principles -- the knowledge and application of which are required to fully comprehend and uphold liberty, respectively. Principles, of course, are timeless and unchanging, and their applications are universal. It has been said that, "A principle in not like a rule. The rule asks nothing more of you than that you obey; a principle requires you to do your own thinking. A rule gives you credit only for being a creature; a principle gives you stature" (from FavoriteQuotations from the Collection of Thomas S. Monson). Our Founding Fathers, and the founding documents they authored, have relevance and stature because of their principles. These principles formed the basis for the raising up and establishment of our form of government, which was designed to "secure the Blessings of Liberty" to us and our posterity.

Now, with respect to the Constitution of the United States of America -- in the Constitution we have a finished structure. Like a building, the Constitution is the outward manifestation of the principles of liberty, but it does not set forth the principles themselves. Thus, in order to fully appreciate the Constitution's purpose and meaning, we must not only look at its modes and manners of construction, but at the blueprints behind it and at its underlying mission. For these answers, we of course must look to the intent of its framers. Fortunately, the Founding Fathers have left to us a rich legacy of their thoughts and convictions, providing to both past and future generations the keys of understanding these principles.

What then are the primary sources of the principles, or the "roots" of our Constitutional liberty? In the Minutes of the Board of Governors of the University of Virginia held on March 4, 1825, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States, in the year before his passing, recorded that the principles of government upon which the Constitution of the United States is genuinely based are to be found (and taught) essentially as follows (please note that this list constitutes Thomas Jefferson's definitive statement of the "genuine" sources of these principles derived from all of the classical and historical writings that he had read during his entire lifetime):

(i) With respect to "the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and society" one should primarily look to two works:

First, Locke's Second Treatise on Government entitled, an "Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government," and

Secondly, Sidney's monumental "Discourses Concerning Government";

(ii) And with respect to the distinctive principles of the government of the United States of America the best guides are:

(1) The Declaration of Independence;

(2) The "Federalist Papers" ; (deletion) and

(3) The Valedictory (Farewell) Address of President George Washington.

Many of us have heard of John Locke and that have read excerpts from his writings. How many know who Algernon Sidney was, or of the great accord that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams and others gave to him and his writings? Many of us have read the Declaration of Independence, and maybe some of the eighty-five (85) Federalist Papers -- but have we read them all? How many of us have read George Washington's Farewell Address?

Let us consider each of these sources briefly and what they offer.

John Locke was born in Somerset, England in 1632. "For fifteen years of his life he lived in close association with Shaftesbury, the fiery founder of the Whig party; for another five, which were spent in voluntary exile, he lived in Holland, among the liberal Dutch Calvinists, and in the company of Huguenot refugees who had fled there from France in 1685. When William of Orange landed in England in 1688, Locke soon followed; and in 1690 there appeared from his pen three works which [became] part of the English (and later, American) heritage." (from The Times, 29 August 1932) One of these works was "Two Treatises on Government," the second treatise of which is titled an "Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government" referred to by Jefferson. Summarizing its message:

There is, [Locke] taught, a Natural Law rooted and grounded in the reasonable nature of man; there are Natural Rights, existing in virtue of such law, among which the right of property . . . is cardinal; and finally there is a natural system of government, under which all political power is a trust for the benefit of the people . . . and the people themselves are at once the creators and the beneficiaries of that trust.
(from The Times, 29 August 1932)

Locke's thesis of natural laws, natural rights and of government by common consent was passed on through Samuel Adams and Thomas Jefferson into the Declaration of Independence.

Algernon Sidney was born in Kent, England ten years before Locke, in 1622. He lived for six years in France with his father, the Earl of Leicester, who served there as Ambassador. Later, as a Colonel in the army, he joined the fight for parliamentary government, taking up arms against King and fought gallantly in the battle of Marston Moor in 1644. Sidney was elected to the famous Long Parliament in 1646. He opposed Cromwell's reign in 1653; and in 1660, after a brief restoration to the Rump Parliament, he chose voluntary exile in Europe when the Commonwealth collapsed under Charles II. It was during this exile that Sidney penned his three volume work, "Discourses Concerning Government" -- a review of government from Biblical through Greek and Roman times to European and English rule -- written in argument against Filmer's Patrircha (which stood for the divine right of Kings).

After wandering about Europe for nearly 20 years, Sidney returned to England and soon worked in cooperation with William Penn to achieve greater freedom of religion in England. Finally, he pursued with other Whigs a strategy to restore an independent Parliament to England under the reign of Charles II. In 1681, after King Charles dismissed Parliament, Sidney joined in a revolutionary plot to restore representative government and was eventually captured and charged with treason. John Locke, who never worked closely with Sidney, was part of the same plot, and he fled from the continent when the conspiracy was discovered. Sidney was not so fortunate, and gave his head for the cause of liberty on December 7, 1683.

Sidney's writings coincide with Locke's in many respects. Sidney advocates natural rights, including liberty as a divine gift to all men. Both men advocate adherence to natural laws. Both agree that government by representation is best. However, Sidney upholds the concept of merit and virtue in leadership while Locke generally denies the right of virtue to govern. (Thomas West, Discourses Concerning Government (Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1996), p. xxiv). Sidney (like Blackstone) teaches that one purpose of government (as it was for the ancients) is to foster virtue and suppress vice. He warns of the harmful consequences to society of allowing corrupt magistrates to govern. To Locke, the ownership and control of property is akin to happiness, whereas with Sidney (as with George Washington) it is virtue that leads to happiness -- both individually and in society. Finally, with Locke political liberty is merely a "fence" protecting man's life, liberty and property, but with Sidney such liberty also includes the greater mission and responsibility of conquering society's wayward passions. (Id.)

When read together (as Jefferson did) the essential principles of liberty merge from a combination of Locke and Sidney: i.e, (1) liberty is of divine origin; (2) liberty is secured by representative government; (3) liberty is maintained by obedience to just laws; (4) liberty is dependent upon virtue; and (5) liberty leads to happiness. These principles underlie America's Declaration of Independence and are inherent in the purposes of the Constitution.

This leads us to the latter three works mentioned by Jefferson which are particular to America.

First, the Declaration of Independence itself needs little explanation, but only a renewed remembrance of the basic principles which it so clearly sets forth:

"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 . . ."

Consider for a few moments within yourself the significance of the truths proclaimed therein that we are each endowed by our Creator with certain divine, unalienable rights, among which are: the right of Life . . . the right of Liberty . . . the right of the Pusuit of Happiness . . . and, that the primary purpose of government is to secure those rights. Thomas Jefferson believed the only firm basis to secure our liberty is "a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God." Also, when we realize that our fundamental liberties are divine in nature, the term "rights" (a word much used --and abused -- by our generation) assumes its proper place and role in society, being shouldered with its permanent companion term, "responsibility."

Before we leave the Declaration, we must also remember that of those who pledged "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor" as signers to the Declaration of Independence, five were captured as traitors and tortured before they died; twelve had their homes ransacked and burned; two lost their sons in the Revolutionary War; another had two sons captured; and nine died from wounds or the hardship of the war (quoted from Ezra Taft Benson). One of liberty's principles is that liberty has a price.

Secondly, in regard to the Federalist Papers, whose authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay -- the Papers were written by these three "federalists" to the citizens of New York in support of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers have been hailed as the most important work of political science ever written in the United States (see, Clinton Rossiter, Preface to Mentor Edition, The Federalist Papers,1961). The significance of their messages centers primarily on their description and analysis of the structure and meaning of the Constitution, particularly with respect to the themes of (i) federalism, (ii) checks and balances, (iii) the separation of powers, (iv) pluralism, and (v) representation. However, more importantly, the Papers reveal that the key to the functioning of our system of governance is channelling human nature. Clinton Rossiter stated it this way:

"[T]he message of The Federalist reads: no happiness without liberty, no liberty without self government, no self government without constutionalism, no constitutionalism without morality -- and none of these great goods without stability and order." Clinton Rossiter (Preface to Mentor Edition, 1961)

The Federalist Papers instruct us that virtue is a foundation stone of American constitutionalism. Alexander Hamilton said: "The institution of delegated power implies that there is a portion of virtue and honor among mankind which may be a reasonable foundation of confidence." And, James Madison stated: "To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea."

Finally, turning our thoughts to the last source mentioned by Jefferson: George Washington's Farewell Address was carefully prepared with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Although titled as an "address" it was delivered to his cabinet and published in Philadelphia but it was never given orally. Washington's final sermon stands as a visionary beacon to all generations of Americans. His counsel to the nation is timeless. I quote three excerpts (from George Washington's Farewell Address, September 19, 1796):

On Unity: "The unity of government . . . is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquillity at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize. . . . it is of definite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness . . . accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity."

On Obedience: "Respect for [this Government's] authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. . . . The very idea of the power and the right of people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government. . . . All obstructions to the executions of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency."

On Morality and Religion: ""[V]irtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government . . . Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim tribute to patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness -- these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And, . . . whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on the minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles."

Washington's Farewell Address incorporates all of the fundamental principles of liberty. Tutored by Jefferson, Adams and Madison -- and by the Hand of Providence -- George Washington knew, taught and lived these principles. Thus, his stature is, and always will be, preeminent to the United States of America. All Americans should read his address.

In summary, these five works stand as the unrivaled sources of the principles upon which, in the words of Jefferson, our Constitution was "genuinely based." Upon review, it is evident that the "roots" of Constitutional liberty are, as Adams stated, grounded in virtue or morality and religion. As we contemplate the principles of liberty as espoused by Sidney, Locke, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Jay and others, may we realize this truth: With respect to our Founding Fathers, we stand on the shoulders of giants -- and to the degree that we diminish them, we only diminish ourselves and lose sight of the vision they provided to us. The true principles for which they fought, lived and died comprise the granite cornerstones of the Constitution and of American civilization. They spring from the very Fountain of life, and of justice and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer that through study and faith may we all come to appreciate and understand the fundamental principles of liberty, or the "roots" of our Constitution, and the sources from whence they are derived; and that we may be found not only loyal to the Constitution, but also courageously standing up in defense of the divine principles upon which it is based.

Copyright © 1997: Institute for American Liberty