Was America’s Founding Revolutionary Or Conservative?

Was America’s Founding Revolutionary Or Conservative?

Dr. Larry Arnn poses the question in the first lecture of Hillsdale College's free online Constitution 101 course.
Bre Payton

Was America’s founding merely revolutionary? Or in breaking with England, did our Founding Fathers seek to safeguard, conserve if you will, ancient values and truths?

To answer that question, one must view American history through three national crises — its founding, the Civil War, and the rise of progressivism, which still rages on. Increasing hostility to religious freedom and a misguided understanding of the separation of powers prevalent throughout government threaten to unravel America’s constitutional fabric. To keep our freedoms, Americans must understand their true source. We must also understand how our nation’s Founders drafted a Constitution and a system of government devised to protect these liberties.

To Keep Our Freedom, We Must Know Who We Are

In the first lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online Constitution 101 course (which you can take along with me here), Larry Arnn poses a question: “Was the American founding revolutionary or conservative?” He argues that it is both. In seeking to overthrow the rule of the oppressive British government, a revolutionary act, the founders sought to conserve natural law — the highest and oldest source of law.

To understand America, one must understand the country’s four “causes,” the ancient notion that everything man makes has attributes that help explain what a thing’s purpose is. These four causes are: material cause, or the substance a thing is made out of; the efficient cause, or the entity which crafts a thing; the formal cause, a pattern or type something is modeled after; and the final cause, or a thing’s purpose.

America’s material cause is the geographic area of land and its people. Its efficient cause are the men who drafted the Constitution, who fashioned our government and led the revolt against the British crown. The formal cause is the Constitution and our governmental structure. The final cause is the idea of self government as outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration Says Legitimate Rulers Must Subjugate Themselves To Natural Law

The opening words of the Declaration of Independence appeal to an authority higher than the king of England, who these patriots were rebelling against.

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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

This document puts forth the idea that all men everywhere in the world are equal in the eyes of God and that they are each endowed with rights which no ruler can infringe upon. These ideas, Arnn explains, are ancient ones. Natural law, truth, beauty, the ideal, transcend any one leader or moment in time. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and other ancient thought leaders affirmed natural law’s unchanging nature — a nature that holds supremacy over human lords or masters.

The American Revolution Sought To Conserve Ancient Truths

Writing in approximately 51 B.C.E. Marcus Tullius Cicero states that true law knows not the bounds of time nor space. Natural law does not stop at geographic borders, but is imprinted upon everything in nature itself and is discernible to all men. Cicero states that the source of these laws does not come from man, but from an eternal unchanging source that authored the laws of physics, truth, beauty, and morality into existence.

True law is right reason, consonant with nature, spread through all people. It is constant and eternal; it summons to duty by its orders, it deters from crime by its prohibitions. Its orders and prohibitions to good people are never given in vain; but it does not move the wicked by these orders or prohibitions. It is wrong to pass laws obviating this law; it is not permitted to abrogate any of it; it cannot be totally repealed. We cannot be released from this law by the senate or the people, and it needs no exegete or interpreter like Sextus Aelius. There will not be one law at Rome and another at Athens, one now and another later; but all nations at all times will be bound by this one eternal and unchangeable law, and the god will be the one common master and general (so to speak) of all people. He is the author, expounder, and mover of this law; and the person who does not obey it will be in exile from himself. Insofar as he scorns his nature as a human being, by this very fact he will pay the greatest penalty, even if he escapes all the other things that are generally recognized as punishments.

Cicero’s words echo throughout the Declaration, in which the Founders state it is man’s right to reject a leader who does not subjugate himself to natural law — laws which require a leader to acknowledge the equality of man, his right to¬† worship, and to speak freely without fearing government interference.

These objective realities and the laws of nature are not subject to human rulers, the Founders wrote. Those in authority must submit to these laws. These notions set forth in their Declaration to revolt against the crown were an effort to conserve the ancient principles — truths that had been trampled on by kings who were emboldened by bad theology.

The Founders argue that everyone, even the king, is subject to the laws of nature. In order to be a legitimate ruler, the Founders assert that those in power must recognize and adhere to the laws of nature. If a king or a system of government thwarts these laws, he or she does not posses a legitimate right to rule.

While the American Revolution certainly was revolutionary by definition in that it overthrew the British government in a violent, bloody war, it was not one that threw out tradition and ancient values only to start from scratch. The Founders fought and broke from England in order to preserve these truths and to subjugate themselves to the laws of nature.

Bre Payton is a staff writer at The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter.

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