How the Great Experiment Came About (and How We Keep It)
A brief history of America, its founding documents, and what we can do to keep the flame of liberty burning bright.
Lawrence W. Reed November 09, 2018
I am an economist and a historian, not a lawyer nor a politician nor a constitutional scholar, but I revere America’s founding documents and the people who crafted them. In the long struggle of men and women against tyranny, what that generation accomplished stands without comparable precedent.
Judge Them within Context
As we survey what they did, I caution you from the outset to avoid the sin of intertemporal bigotry—judging those of the late 18th Century by standards and conventions of the early 21st. This ought to be seen as fair and commonsensical, yet I see people commit that sin all the time. The more extreme say, “Thomas Jefferson was a bad man and shouldn’t be listened to because he owned slaves,” for instance.
Every time I hear that, I think to myself, “Just like this critic, Thomas Jefferson wasn’t perfect but he did more for liberty in a week than that forgettable critic will likely do in his lifetime.” It may make you feel good for the moment to engage in some self-righteous breast-beating or sanctimonious virtue-signaling, but you betray your ignorance by displaying such bigotry.
Imagine if we could bring the Wright Brothers back to life for an hour so the critic could berate them. He would say, “You dummies! You two made this rickety flying machine and didn’t even install seat belts and tray tables, let alone in-flight movies. What good were you?!”
Or it would be like attacking Adam Smith because he didn’t give us all there was to know about economics. He completely left out the Austrian trade cycle theory, for example.
To a considerable degree, all of us are shaped by our times and the prevailing ideas that came before, into which we are born. Lots of people who have lived left little mark on anything when they departed. The movers and shakers of history, however, are those who challenged the status quo—in some ways, if not all—and pricked the consciences of others. They gave us the tools to carry good ideas further. And that’s what Jefferson and his generation did.
Don’t forget that 200 years from now, people will look back on you and me and find that we weren’t perfect either.
America’s Historical Significance
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 had a profound impact upon the world at the time, and it still resonates. It hadto be written before there could even be a Constitution, for obvious reasons. And the ideas that went into it were very much on the minds of the men who gathered in Philadelphia 11 years later to create the Constitution.
The Founding generation’s dissatisfaction with the mother country stemmed from a renaissance of ideas about individual liberty and the role of government. As the 18th Century rolled on, American colonists increasingly felt that Parliament and the monarchy were denying them the traditional rights of Englishmen.
When it came to ideas, the men who wrote the Declaration in 1776 were products of the Enlightenment. Because they demanded rational thought, they came to reject the facetious and pompous claims of governments—that citizens existed to serve the state. The writings of scholars like John Locke and David Hume imbued in them a healthy respect for the individual. Around the middle of the 18th century, the British government exacerbated matters by its callous treatment of its subjects on the other side of the Atlantic.
A Series of Tyrannical Events
In 1760, George III became King of Great Britain. His determination to exert British authority effectively ended a long period of “salutary neglect,” during which time colonial America benefited from British protection but was not bludgeoned by micromanagement from London. The 16-year period from George III’s ascendancy until the Declaration was punctuated by a series of conflicts and controversies, some of which I will mention here:
In 1761, Britain exerted its authority by issuing “writs of assistance”—nothing less than searches of private property without warrants. Colonial attorney James Otis led Boston merchants in protesting this action as a denial of a right that Englishmen still had back in England.
In 1763, the King vetoed a law of Virginia, which set salaries for parsons in the Anglican Church in that colony. George III felt the parsons were deserving of higher pay than Virginians wanted to pay them. A case could be made that the parsons were under-compensated, but to the colonists, this became an issue of distant meddling in local affairs.
The Seven Years’ War, known also as the French and Indian War, came to an end in 1763 with the defeat of the French and their expulsion from most of North America. Americans paid a heavy price in lives and treasure but Britain insisted after the war that the colonies pay more of Britain’s share of the conflict. The British imposed taxes not just for that purpose, but also for the continued presence in the colonies of a large military force. With the French gone, the colonists didn’t see the need for such a presence or its price tag.
In 1764, Britain imposed the Sugar Act—intended to raise revenue for Britain and discourage colonial trade in the Caribbean. But the most objectionable aspect of the Sugar Act was its provision for violators (smugglers and tax evaders) to be tried not in normal courts of law as other Englishmen, but in “admiralty” courts—military tribunals often held on ships at sea.
In 1765, the infamous Stamp Act was passed in London. It required the colonists to purchase stamps for placement on certain documents and publications. The revenue was to pay for the stationing of British troops on American soil. From New England to the deep South, the cry of “No Taxation Without Representation!” was heard. To be taxed by a Parliament 3,000 miles away, a legislature in which the colonists had no elected representatives, was regarded as odious by increasingly principled and liberty-minded Americans.
Doubling Down on Tyranny
A boycott of British goods and widespread resistance to British tax collectors prompted the repeal of the Stamp Act within a year—but Parliament quickly followed up the repeal by passing the Declaratory Act in 1766. It asserted the British government’s authority to impose upon the colonies any and all measures it deemed appropriate.
Ignoring the colonists’ objections to taxation without representation, Parliament also passed the Townshend Acts—import duties on glass, lead, paper, and tea.
[Americans] asserted that London had no right to tax people who did not have elected representatives in its Parliament.
In 1767, Parliament suspended the New York legislature because it refused to provide British soldiers with all of the provisions London had ordered. Americans responded with objections embodied in what was known as the “Massachusetts Circular Letter” in which they asserted that London had no right to tax people who did not have elected representatives in its Parliament. The Letter earned enough support among legislators in Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina that London responded by suspending the legislatures of those three colonies.
Controversies continued to flare until a major escalation with the famous “Boston Tea Party” of 1773. Objecting to both the tax on tea and a British government grant of monopoly to the East India Tea Company, American patriots in Boston boarded three of the King’s vessels at night and tossed his tea into the harbor.
Britain responded by closing the port of Boston until the tea was paid for. In 1774, the Quartering Act was passed in London. It meant that the British governor of any colony could order private property owners to make their homes available to British troops. General Gage was made military governor of Massachusetts, which meant that Massachusetts citizens were to be governed by military, not civilian, rule.
The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
The situation degenerated quickly until that fateful day in April 1775 when “the shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington. The British were on a march to apprehend two colonial patriots, John Hancock and John Adams, and a reported stockpile of arms at Concord. The skirmish at Lexington prompted an eloquent address in the Virginia House of Burgesses by a young firebrand named Patrick Henry. The following is an excerpt from that famous speech:
. . . If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained—we must fight! I repeat, sir, we must fight! . . . Gentlemen may cry ‘Peace, Peace’—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!
In early 1776, the British government hired 12,000 German mercenaries (known as “Hessians”) to go to America and fight against American colonists. For many Americans, that was the last straw.
A one-month debate in the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, produced a unanimous vote on July 2 in favor of independence from Britain. The Declaration itself was approved by the Congress on July 4. Amid peeling bells, the firing of cannon, and cheering mobs, it was read aloud to public gatherings from north to south. The ideas expressed in the document were revolutionary, and everyone knew that they were treasonous as well.
What ideas? All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Premier among those rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government must be limited to protecting the peace and preserving our liberties and doing so through the consent of the governed. It’s the right of a free people to rid themselves of a government that becomes destructive to those ends, as our Founders did in a supreme act of courage and defiance when they endorsed this magnificent statement to the world.
It would take seven long years of arduous conflict before the Treaty of Paris ended the war and Americans gained Britain’s recognition of their new nation. Following that were four more years of trouble and uncertainty under the Articles of Confederation.
Forging a New Order
Then came the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. No greater assembly of genius, wisdom, accomplishment, and experience has ever been held for the purpose of creating a government and securing for its people the blessings of liberty.
The sagacity of George Washington, who presided over the Convention, was never more apparent than when he said, “If, to please the people, we offer what we ourselves disapprove, how can we later defend our work? Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”
Here, in a nutshell, is what the delegates to the Convention did—and they did it not just for themselves and their generation, but for all generations of Americans:
- They reaffirmed that America would be a republic, not a majoritarian democracy. They understood that there are many things that simply should not be subject to popular vote, like basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- They fashioned a government of limited functions and powers. Their intent was to bind it down with the chains of a Constitution. They inserted dozens of “thou shalt nots,” as I call them, all aimed squarely at government.
- They crafted an ingenious “separation of powers” that takes two major forms:
- A system of federalism in which many powers are dispersed to the states;
- Three distinct branches of a new federal government, each with its own prescribed powers and limitations (executive, legislative, judicial)
- They created a network of checks and balances throughout the new government. Accordingly, the authority and powers of the three branches are balanced and checked by one another. For example, the President can veto laws passed by Congress. Congress, on the other hand, can withhold funds from executive agencies. Although Congress can pass legislation, the Supreme Court has the power to declare certain laws unconstitutional, making them null and void. The President appoints federal judges and various civil servants, but the Senate can refuse to ratify major appointments such as those to the Supreme Court. The federal judiciary can find individuals guilty of crimes, but the President has the power to grant pardons and reprieves.
- They added a Bill of Rights, guaranteeing basic freedoms including speech, press, assembly, and the right to bear arms. To make sure everyone knew that the individual has other rights besides those listed (or “enumerated”) in the Constitution, they added a Ninth Amendment, which states that “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” To maintain the sovereign integrity of the states, they included numerous provisions throughout the Constitution, including the important Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
For more on the Bill of Rights and a woman whose efforts were indispensable to its adoption, I refer you to these two articles: “The Holiday That Isn’t” and “Mercy Otis Warren: Conscience of Great Causes.”
Have We Lost Our Way?
In the more than two centuries since the Constitution was written, the federal government in America has grown far beyond what our Founders ever intended. That raises an important question: For the purpose of keeping government limited, has the Constitution failed us, or have we failed the Constitution? That’s a discussion I think we definitely ought to have, and the deeper the better. I don’t believe even the Founders themselves would argue that assumptions should never be questioned. I for one would love to be able to turn the clock back to 1787 for a moment and add some additional strictures on government the Founders didn’t incorporate or envision.
Nonetheless, in the pantheon of documents of governance, the Constitution surely must rank as one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed by one generation upon the next and future generations. With liberty as their watchword, these brave and wise men, who had been through the crucible of war and who had put their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the line, produced a document unlike any other ever crafted before or since. But the words of Benjamin Franklin as he was leaving the Convention should remind us that it isn’t enough to sustain liberty to simply declare it in writing. A woman supposedly asked, “Mr. Franklin, what form of government have you given us.” His reply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
Can we keep it? True, it’s lasted more than two centuries already, but not without injury and frequent assault. Whether it survives and is strengthened for two more centuries, or becomes weakened, neglected, and overruled all depends, as Franklin implied, upon us. Liberty is never guaranteed or automatic. It won’t be there for the next generation just because it was there for the last. It will be there if—and only if—the people themselves live it, breathe it, teach it, and defend it at all costs.
(This article is based on a speech delivered in several venues by FEE’s president Lawrence Reed to audiences of high school and college students.)
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education.