Wednesday, July 3, 2013

3 Secret Founding Fathers of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson.  Benjamin Franklin.  Samuel Adams.  Many Americans, students of American History, and/or drinkers of beer recognize these names as Founding Fathers of the United States of America.  These brave souls, along with fifty three other patriots, are rightfully recognized as the individuals who put pen to paper and sent a message to the world—that it was the beginning of the end for repressive, unrepresentative governments everywhere.

However, did the ideas and political thought that inspired the historic Declaration of Independence magically pop into the heads of these Americans on July 4, 1776?  Of course not.  But who were these men of mystery that inspired Americans to both dissolve the political order under which they lived, and seek to establish a new order that would strike the appropriate balance between liberty and civil society?  Two Brits and a French guy.  Go figure.

Thomas Hobbes
Life:  1588-1679
Nationality:  English
Hairstyle:  Long and Luxurious
Contribution:  Social Contract Theory

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

This line from the Declaration of Independence reflects the direct influence of Social Contract Theory, which was first developed by Thomas Hobbes, and later expounded upon by John Locke.

Hobbes argued that, in our natural state, humankind tends towards concern only with the self and fulfilling selfish needs.  Thus, we lack incentive to cooperate, and the security of knowing that we can cooperatively work towards bettering our positions in life.  Anyone doubting this need look no further than the trampling of shoppers at American malls during Thanksgiving Day sales.

In response, Hobbes claimed that all of us enter into a “social contract.”  We give up absolute freedom to a government, and in return we receive protections of our other rights—such as the right to pursue a better life.  In other words, when we get hungry, we cannot steal a delicious cheeseburger that we want, as this violates the laws of that govern us.  However, through buying the cheeseburger and paying its costs and associated taxes, we are contributing to a society in which we may one day be able to own the delicious hamburger shop ourselves.  Or something like that.

The concept of the social contract is one of the most powerful instances of Western philosophical and political thought, and laid a strong foundation upon which America’s Founding Fathers based their dissolution of association with Britain.

John Locke
Life:  1632-1704
Nationality:  English
Hairstyle:  Proto-mullet
Contribution:  Natural Rights, Social Contract Theory

“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.”

One of the most famous lines from the Declaration of Independence details the direct influence of the thinking of John Locke.   Like Hobbes, Locke was an Englishman who devoted much thought to considering the role of government in promoting general welfare and protecting the rights of the individual.  Specifically, Locke helped establish the concept of “natural rights,” as in rights that were endowed to humankind by God, and thus are beyond the reach of any government to take away.  Locke noted three specific natural rights:  Life, Liberty, and Property.

In this view, we all have the right to life once created, we have the freedom to live as we see fit, so long as it does not violate the right to life of others, and we have the right to gain rewards from our work and keep it, so long as it does not interfere with the previous two rights.  In the modern era, we tend to take these freedoms for granted, but in the context of a world in which traditional rulers were born into power and ruled as they saw fit, without the input of the governed, this was revolutionary thinking.

Locke also championed the concept that all persons were created free, so governments require the consent of the governed in order to function.  Because governments take away our natural rights by their very existence and functioning, they must at least exist with the agreement of the people they are ruling over.

Baron de Montiesquieu
Life:  1689-1755
Nationality:  French
Hairstyle:  Traditional Caesar
Contribution:  Defined Structures of Government, Separation of Powers

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Through his definition of differing structures of government, Baron de Montiesquieu provided the philosophical underpinning that America’s Founding Fathers used to base their dissatisfaction with the rule of Great Britain, and the new form of government they were struggling to define.  Montiesquieu laid out three basic forms of government:

-Monarchy:  a hereditary ruler is head of state and works in conjunction with a free government.  This system relies on the honor of the hereditary ruler to function.

-Republic:  a popularly elected ruler is head of state and works in conjunction with a free government.  This system relies on the virtue of the elected ruler.

-Despotism:  a dictator controls an enslaved government.  This system relies on fear of the dictator in order to function.

Our Founding Fathers clearly alleged that Britain was ruling America as a Despotism, and derived their right to rebel due to their belief that Britain had violated the social contract with its American colonies.

On July 4, 1776, fifty six Americans, armed with the philosophical power of two Brits and a French guy, walked into a hall in Philadelphia and authored the most powerful, revolutionary work that the world has ever known.  In declaring our independence from Great Britain, and recognizing the natural rights of humanity, our inherent equality, and establishing that the government consists of the people for the benefit of the people, the United States of America set itself on a historic journey.  Over and over again, we have struggled to ensure natural and civil rights for different groups who were historically and actively discriminated against, yet we continue to look to our Declaration of Independence and Constitution as our guides in perfecting our democracy.  As we celebrate the Fourth of July this year with our Nigerian friends and colleagues, let’s all reflect on how our governments are living up to their social contract with us, work towards a more peaceful future, and consider just how special those fifty six Americans that founded the United States of America were.  Just don’t forget the Brits and the French guy.

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