In the fifth lecture of Hillsdale College’s Constitution 101 course (which you can take along with me here), Professor Thomas G. West explains how the Constitution safeguards one’s natural rights — namely religious liberty and the right to acquire and possess property.
Prior to the American Revolution, the freedom to practice one’s faith was limited to those who accepted the religion of the state-sponsored church. This changed after settlers first started to come to the United States. But religious freedom isn’t limitless, and the Founders had to grapple with what constraints upon religion are necessary to preserve everyone’s right to worship. One cannot “disturb the public peace,” or infringe upon the rights of others in the name of religion. Child sacrifices or harming others as part of a religious practice isn’t ever permissible, for that infringes upon their natural rights.
At the time of the America’s founding, the Quakers, who are pacifists, refused to serve in the armed forces if the young nation needed to defend itself. In a stern letter addressed to the Society of Quakers, George Washington told the Quakers they must fulfill their duties as citizens if the country needs to take up arms to defend itself, for to neglect the social duties necessary to maintain religious freedom is to put that very right at risk.
The liberty enjoyed by the People of these States, of worshipping Almighty God agreable to their Consciences, is not only among the choicest of their Blessings, but also of their Rights—While men perform their social Duties faithfully, they do all that Society or the State can with propriety demand or expect; and remain responsible only to their Maker for the Religion or modes of faith which they may prefer or profess.
This understanding of religious liberty — that everyone should have this freedom so long as it does not infringe upon others’ natural rights — is present throughout the Founders’ writings on the topic. In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson wrote that they could not interfere in a religious issue at the state level while he was U.S. president of the U.S..
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God . . . I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
The Right to Acquire and Posses Property Is Essential
Market freedom was a critical liberty protected by the Constitution. The right to travel and have access to common carriers — ships, trains, etc. — is important to facilitate commercial freedom. Congress was also granted the rights to regulate markets in order to ensure that everyone has the ability to acquire and posses property. The Founders understood that there must be clear title exchanges and that ownership must not be restricted to merely occupancy.
The Founders opposed monopolies, but their understanding of monopoly is very different than the general understanding today. They opposed a government’s granting one company or person the exclusive right to dominate an industry. Currently, the government’s use of licensing laws creates a barrier for many entrepreneurs to enter an industry, which would have appalled the Founders.
The Founders embraced economic constraints in a limited capacity to ensure that everyone has equal access to the right to acquire and possess property. That’s because doing away with all limits or regulation endangers the freedoms of others.
Virtue and Liberty Go Hand In Hand
The Founders thought family law should fit natural law. They understood that freedom was not merely the unbridled ability to live according to one’s appetites and desires, but being free to do what is right and to live virtuously. Thus laws restricting certain behaviors that would infringe upon the rights and liberties of others, or strain others’ right to their own property by taxing their finances to support others, were necessary to maintain freedom for all.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports,” George Washington wrote in his Farewell Address.
Washington viewed religion and living virtuously as going hand-in-hand with liberty. One cannot live in a free society without cultivating the habits necessary for that condition, and those habits are instilled by living out one’s faith and being obedient to God.
At the time of America’s founding, giving birth to a child out of wedlock or committing adultery were crimes punishable by law, because doing so taps other citizens’ resources without their consent. Consequently, birthrates among single mothers were very low. While these laws seem archaic today, it reflects the founding generation’s understanding of how families are responsible to support each other without becoming so disordered as to force others to intervene.
The integrity of the familial unit was considered a necessary component to maintain a thriving society. Marriage was viewed as an institution whose importance to the state was in producing children who would in turn become good and charitable citizens, thus preserving the country in good health into the future.