Philosophical Roots of America’s Founding
America’s founding began long before 1776. Though America’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, relied on the individual rights “…nature and nature’s God…” entitled us, the Declaration relied on the sacred and undeniable truth of natural law and self-government established by other thinkers to get to this point.
Aristotle acknowledged the existence of a divine order and first mover. Augustine of Hippo, the renowned theologian, made this “first mover” a question of theism, presupposing that this “prime mover” was none other than the Judeo-Christian God, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Thomas Aquinas built upon this presupposition, offering that the natural law acknowledged by Aristotle revealed the divine law and lawgiver explained by Augustine. If that was the case, Aquinas believed, we had a responsibility to reflect that truth in the laws of society.
A natural universe and its divine order were God’s gift to men, John Locke said, which gave him the freedom to pursue his God-given responsibilities, so long as he used his freedom responsibly, and government should aid that pursuit. Being a unique creation of God, the imago Dei, is what makes man exceptional. God, Reagan said, intended man to be free. Like Augustine, Aquinas, and Locke, Reagan believed that freedom came with a responsibility to help our fellow man, not just in America, but wherever she had influence. Government should aid self-governance with a noble aim, not replace it.
The right of self-governance was not something government could award, Reagan said. Self-governance was our God-given right. Even the discussions concerning the ratification of the U.S. Constitution affirmed pre-existent and historical rights. It was enshrined in the founding documents, inspired by the writers of history, and placed in the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson did not seek to establish or reveal any new ideas of government. He simply affirmed what was already “self-evident.” He wrote of his authorship of the Declaration in 1822, “I did not consider it part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment never expressed before.” And he didn’t. It was commonly accepted, through a philosophy that acknowledged a natural and divine law that was based in history, that men were free. That freedom came from “…nature and nature’s God…” King George simply needed to be reminded.
Freedom, though self-evident, still needed to be defined and understood for it to be truly exceptional. Man was free, but what was his responsibility? If the laws of nature and nature’s God gave him “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” what did that mean? And how did men fulfill that obligation? How was the success of government dependent on the answer? Freedom, Locke had said, could not be used as license to act however one wished.
In a strictly theological sense, freedom is the ability to live according to one’s conscience, with an accountability to God, as explained by the Apostle Paul in Romans, chapter two. There was no respect of persons with God, according to Paul, men would all be judged by the same standard. In a political sense, as Reagan said, it is the freedom to control one’s own destiny, so long as one looks out for his neighbors, an idea found in Locke’s Treatise’s on government. In doing so, he lives a life that will one day be judged by God, not men.
Each individual man will be judged by the same divine standard. In the legal context, according to William Blackstone, in describing the rights of Englishmen, this naturally leads to self-reliance and self-determination. Man was entitled to pursue his own interests and was entitled to the fruits of those efforts, but he was accountable to God. The government had become too overbearing, Reagan said, and was helping itself to that which it was not entitled. It dictated how individuals should exercise freedom, seeing citizens as dependent on government, and not government dependent on citizens. Freedom, liberty, and rights are not given to us by government. Government exists to protect freedom, not grant it. Any governmental system which seeks to encroach on this truth, does so to its own detriment.