Continuing The Founding Project Series on The 28 Founding Principles, TFP writer, Tony Wyman, covers Founding Principle #2, Universal Truth.
The Founders’ Universal Truth:
A free people cannot survive under a republican constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong.
It might strike students of history as odd that Ben Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers best known for his carousing and imbibing, joined his fellow Founders in believing that a free society could exist only if its people were moral and virtuous, the universal truth. But, like many men since whose appetites sometimes conflict with their philosophies, he recognized that his personal behavior wasn’t always in line with what was best for the nation he helped created.
“[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters,”
“[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters,” said Franklin. And he was right. If we assume that a truly “free” society is one in which its members can choose their own course in life within a framework of laws that are just, moral and applied equally to all those who live under them, it is easy to see how a republic such as our own can survive only so long as its people are, themselves, virtuous and morally strong, the universal truth.
As we know, the right to be free is “self-evident,” as the Founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence, a gift to us from God, not from a king or any other man. It is an inherent right that we possess simply due to being human. Since it came from God, no man can deprive us of that freedom, without due process of a just law. The state’s role, as it pertains to freedom, therefore, is to protect and defend it for all citizens, rather than to grant it or take it away capriciously. This concept, that freedom and the laws that protect it, are gifts from God was, essentially, the basis of the American experiment in self-governance.
Universal Truths and Civic Duty
A Constitutional republic, the political manifestation of freedom, requires a great deal from the people it serves. Not only must they be informed about issues concerning society, not only must they participate in the resolution of conflicts, the allotment of resources and the determination of the direction the country should go, they must also be capable of making choices that serve not only the self-interest of individuals, but also the interests of a society of individuals, as a whole. In other words, citizens of a democratic and free society must be capable of making moral choices.
Freedom Requires It
For a free society to work for all, the people must possess strong character and an understanding of the guiding foundational principles of their nation. If the people lack virtue or are morally weak, if they are ignorant of their nation’s history and the philosophies upon which it was built, they will be incapable of differentiating politically between what is right and what is wrong for the country, holistically.
When faced with complex issues requiring wisdom and allegiance to the principles of a free country, citizens of a corrupt and immoral society will make self-serving and unjust decisions that marginalize groups that are out of power. Over time, this results the collapse of freedom as the rights of the politically weak are subjugated to the desires of the politically powerful or to a majority rule scenario without benefit of the individual rights of our republic.
When faced with complex issues requiring wisdom and allegiance to the principles of a free country, citizens of a corrupt and immoral society will make self-serving and unjust decisions that marginalize groups that are out of power
How, then, does a society protect itself from falling prey to immorality and a lack of virtue? The answer is to have a set of guiding principles and absolute truths that are both inherent in their laws and steeped into the very fabric of their society. The Founding Fathers knew this when they composed the documents upon which this nation was built. “All men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence boldly stated; “…they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” rights not granted by a king or any other living man, but by God Himself. These statements set the tone for the society that emerged after the retreat of the British forces, a tone that recognized the necessity of having a set of laws based on fundamental, moral truths.
These fundamental truths, the Founders believed, would be the beacon of morality around which American society would evolve. Giving the people a set of defining and irrevocable truths endorsed the idea that God exists, that a value system could be created for all people to follow based on His word, on the guidance of the supreme being from which they, as individuals, derive their inalienable rights.
Trends Versus Truths
The Founders believed an absence of fundamental truths and the virtues and morality they encourage, would lead to chaos, because the people would be unable to consistently determine right from wrong.
Instead of looking to guiding principles that do not change with the fashions of the age, the people would regress to determining virtue based on the morality of those in political power.
Instead of a nation ruled by natural law, a system of laws of morality, derived from the natural order of things to which all humans are ethically bound, America would become a nation ruled by whims and fancy, a rudderless nation whose fortunes rested on the virtues of the men in power, not on a set of truths handed down from God.
Without fundamental truths, the nation would be adrift, zigging this way and then that way, blown on the seas of nationhood by whatever political winds caught its sails.
When Citizens Fail Universal Truths
There are many examples in the modern age of once great nations collapsing in upon themselves. These nations that were not the victim of outside aggressors, but ones that destroyed themselves by abandoning the core principles around which the country was formed, and replacing them with the corrosive ideas of a dictator.
Today, countries like Turkey, The Philippines, Austria and perhaps even Japan, are ruled by men who seem willing to replace the principles of freedom and democratic republic with the brutal simplicity of dictatorship. Each of these nations is going through an existential dilemma that started with a crisis in confidence in the fundamental truths of human dignity, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights gifted to them by God.
If we in America wish to avoid the same threat to our republic and freedom, we must always protect the moral foundations of our nation, remember the core principles and universal truths upon which our nation was founded, and keep a very close eye on any politician who tries to divert us from the path that has made America the greatest free nation this world has ever seen.
Editors Notes: Keep visiting The Founding Project to learn more about the 28 Founding Principles upon which our freedom and Constitution is based.
(Note for understanding: The use of the word, democratic, in this article refers to a government by the people. The United States is a Constitutional Republic, not a pure democracy, but its ideals are based on the idea of a government by the people, which is a part of the premise of basic democracy. A pure democracy is a government by the people, but a majority of the people without consideration for the minority. A republic, briefly, is also a government by the people, while focusing on individual rights and representational government.)
Quotes of the Founding Fathers: The Importance of a Moral Society http://www.free2pray.info/5founderquotes.html
On the Place of Virtues in a Pluralistic Society, Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University https://www2.gwu.edu/~ccps/etzioni/A222.pdf
Hoover Institution, “The Moral Basis of a Free Society,” https://www.hoover.org/research/moral-basis-free-society