If The Founding Principles Were So Great, How’d We Get To Where We Are? Part I

If The Founding Principles Were So Great, How’d We Get To Where We Are? Part I

First, the founding principles of America were whatever they were; that is, there were principles stated and then there were principles actually adhered to (and these might be the same): the principles adhered to were the actual founding principles. Second, we are where we are; that is, accelerating on the slippery slope to Hell wearing greased shoes supplied and mandated by the State.

If you want to argue that we are where we are because of what the founding principles were, you have a case. We started from somewhere, and we ended up here. We did not start from some point other than the point we started from. That starting point was the actual founding principles, by definition. We are where we are, by observation. Therefore, there is a path from the actual principles to the point at which we now stand.

If you want to argue that we are where we are in spite of the founding principles, you can still make a case, but you have a much harder time of it. You can say that at some point we abandoned the founding principles, and so necessarily adopted other guiding principles in their place, and from those foreign guiding principles we ended up where we are now. But then you have to explain how the founding principles could not possibly have given way to the foreign principles. But the founding principles did in fact lead to the foreign principles. Even if it is not so the founding principles are exactly synonymous with our current degrading situation, the founding principles did allow the entrance of the foreign principles. The founding principles may not rhyme with our current state, but there is assonance.

Another way is to say the foreign principles were imposed by force, as in a war, by invaders who Believed Differently. There is no historical justification for this. Saying people through time came to a different understanding, and saw a gradual abandonment, of the founding principles is the same as saying the founding principles gave rise to foreign principles, etc. You can also argue, with some force, that no matter what founding principles are started with, any government instituted by men will come to a bad end. But that doesn’t explain how so many governments who have adopted principles which seem to be like ours have come to the same bad end, arriving from more or less the same path.

You can say the founding principles were not really the founding principles, but were something else. This could be so. We adopted as a definition of founding principles the principles that were in place at the founding, whatever they were. But those actual principles might be difficult to tease out. We don’t know what everybody then was thinking. What we do have are direct statements from the founders which say, “These are our founding principles.” That does not mean, of course, that these statements were the actual principles used by the government and people. But they could be, or there could only be overlaps.

That tortuous introduction was necessary to bring us to the current debate on the right about “liberalism”, which is said to be one of the declared if not actual founding principles. If “liberalism” (as yet undefined) was an actual founding principle, then there is a path from liberalism to where we are now. If instead liberalism was only a stated but not actual founding principle, then there was no path, and so it may be a good thing to actually try it.

Vincent Philip Munoz’s NRO article “Defending American Classical Liberalism” is as good an entry point to this deabte as any other. He contrasts “‘radical’ Catholics” (I lost count of the number of times he put scare quotes around radical) with classical liberals like himself. Patrick Deneen, Adrian Vermeule, and others say liberalism was an actual founding principle, and thus the path from it to here necessarily exists and is plain. Munoz, and many others, also say liberalism was an actual founding principle, but that liberalism did not have to lead to where we are. This is a counterfactual argument, meaning any number of premises can make it true. But the problem is, as our second premises insists, we are where we are and we are not where we are not. So really what Munoz has in mind, without understanding it, is that true liberalism was not an actual founding principle.

Munoz says the radicals deny that one of the founding principles was objective truth, and for evidence against this cites the Declaration of Independence which states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights.” From this it is obvious the founders held the principle of objective truth. Munoz asks “In what sense are men created equal?” and answers quoting Jefferson:

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

From this tortured (and generally untrue) paragraph, Munoz concludes “Both the Declaration and Jefferson in his commentary on it ground the truth of human equality in the created order of nature.” Equality and rights are thus claimed to be actual founding principles and to be true.

The radicals agree that equality and rights were actual founding principles, but disagree that those principles are true. Men are not created equal. No set of observations has yet verified equality; it has to be believed by theory alone. Radicals also say that it is more proper to speak of men endowed by their Creator with a certain inalienable nature or essence. This emphasizes duty over rights.

If insisting on equality and rights are what liberalism is, it is also clear that the path from liberalism to now is self-evident. Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the path as well as anybody. The end of the path is reached at Anthony Kennedy infamous words: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Munoz calls this (what it is) an “abomination”. But it is obvious to radicals, as it is not to Munoz, that Kennedy began with equality and rights and ended at an abomination. Munoz does not offer which principles he believes whence this abomination sprang.

Munoz next claims that it was an actual founding principle, and a theorem of equality and rights, that “consent is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of legitimate rule of man over man.” In support, he quotes Virginia’s Declaration of Rights: “All men are born equally free and independent…” and thus consent follows. Munoz says “To reject the necessity of consent, which some ‘radical’ Catholics seem to do, is to reject natural equality.”

A radical Catholic would say Rousseau himself could have written Virginia’s Declaration. A radical would therefore agree that consent is a theorem of equality and rights, but disagree that consent is necessary, or even attainable or desirable. Rousseau was wrong: men are not born free nor independent. Children do not (necessarily) consent to be ruled by their parents, nor do the aged, infirm, inducted, imprisoned, mentally feeble always give consent, and the rest of us do not always (and with decreasing frequency) consent to the rule of the State. Yet ruled we still are. Try standing on the street tomorrow and say “I withdraw my consent” and see what happens. (Hint: nothing.)

A difficulty here is it is now next to impossible to envisage a state that is not all-powerful, as ours is becoming. So when you try to imagine a different political system, such as, say, a monarchy, in which consent in the classical sense is absent, you are liable to see it as also all-powerful, and therefore tyrannical. This is an understandable but bad habit that colors all political discussions.

Munoz next claims it was an actual founding principle to distinguish “liberty from license.” The founders, he said, “understood liberty to be the exercise of freedom consistent with the precepts of the natural law; license was understood to be the exercise of freedom contrary to the natural law’s precepts.”

Allowing for differences in interpretations of natural law, radicals agree with these definitions of liberty and license. Radicals say, though, that these were not actual founding principles. They couldn’t be because there is no way to derive equality and our obsession of “rights” from natural law. The two cannot co-exist at the same time and in the same place. It’s one or the other, and the actual choice was equality and rights. Of course, since the natural law is true, and equality are rights are false, the natural law will time and again assert itself, just as gravity does to the man who claims it’s not fair that physical laws restrain him. This is why we can hear the Founders scorn license, but why we everywhere see it. The Founders could claim to adopt natural law as a principle, but without a rigorous explication of what the natural law was and meant, people were free to apply equality and rights to it, and we end up with Kennedy’s definition—which I’d bet he argues follows from what he means by “natural law.”

In Part II, obligations and religion and constitutionalism.


  1. Exring

    I will start with something short. I see the principles of the Founding Fathers as an address of “Human Nature”. That is an attempt to understand and give us the tools to protect ourselves and, at the same time, ban together when it is important to protect our way of life, to accomplish that end. They could NOT put limitations on the individual without taking Freedom away. In that way we needed to accept responsibility for our selves (or we would not be Free). This will leave a percentage to “bad choices” but that is their responsibility. My only responsibility is to participate if I see fit but not compel anyone else to do so unless they chose.

  2. The founders assumed that the players (American citizens) would have a solid grasp of the fundamental rules of the game–citizenship, civics, history, God, duty, freedom, etc.

    The founders assumed, or aspired to, that voting citizens would be well-educated and understand the value of their freedom, liberty, and republican democracy.

    “[F]or avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy . . . the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”

    Gouverneur Morris, Penman and Signer of the Constitution.

    “All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”

    George Washington

    “A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district–all studied and appreciated as they merit–are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.”

    Benjamin Franklin

    The destruction of our culture, which Solzhenitsyn (thanks for that link, never appreciated him before) observed and predicted, required the destruction/subversion of our American-citizen system of education.

    That destruction is very nearly absolute now.

    Combine the subversion of education with like-minded messages promulgated in the media (including entertainment/music) and Hollywood, and you have injected poison into the lifeblood of a formerly free, proud, and self-regarding culture.

    And there’s the answer to your question: That’s how we got to where we are today.

  3. Sheri

    How did we get where we are: affluence. Having it all leads to throwing it all away every time.

  4. “Having it all leads to throwing it all away every time.”

    Any case studies to support that assertion?

    How about case studies that disprove it?

    Saudi Arabia: culture built on Wahabbi principles of religion.

    Economic changes: In 50 years, went from one of the poorest nations in the world, to become one of the richest.

    Cultural changes? Culture is still built on Wahabbi principles of religion. They have not “thrown it all away.”


    Brunei. Culture built on a foundation of Malay traditions overlaid with Islamic practices.

    Economic changes: In 50 years, went from one of the poorest nations in the world, to become one of the richest.

    Cultural changes? Culture is still a foundation of Malay traditions overlaid with Islamic practices. They have not “thrown it all away.”

    Affluence does not lead to “throwing away” traditional culture every time, or even usually. Both of the above example, and many others, carefully and assiduously rejected foreign cultural influences that came with their new-found affluence. Their cultural and education efforts are focused on nurturing and promulgating their traditional cultures.

    Rejection of traditional culture requires aggressive attacks from the inside against the foundations of the culture. These aggressive attacks must be prolonged, targeted, and never-ending in order to succeed in destroying the normal culture. Nothing to do with affluence.

  5. Ken

    BRIGGS SAYS: “Therefore, there is a path from the actual principles to the point at which we now stand”

    AND: “We are where we are, by observation.”

    He goes on to talking about what the ‘founding fathers’ had in mind, and as one expects by now weaves in religion — we can conclude the ethical state of affairs in the country is part of the concern.

    The U.S. was founded on an undefined notion of “all men are created equal” — by founders that, at that time, undoubtedly considered “men” unequal from and superior to “women.” That aside for the moment, their primary focus was on forming a republic with the government’s powers checked by the structure of government (so called “checks and balances”) and a federal government with limited enumerated powers.

    Morals and moral values were something they had, but were not so much anything they put into formal law. This is where Briggs has “gone off the rails” — the “principles” that started the country ONLY matter in the form of actual laws that resulted.

    So how did we get to where we are?


    Case in point: Wickard v. Filburn (SCOTUS case)

    In Wickard v. Filburn the Supreme Court determined that crops a guy grew on his farm affected interstate commerce because the guy didn’t buy crops from across a state border, and because of this the amount of trade occurring across state borders was affected. And because of this, the SCOTUS ruled that the Federal government, with an enumerated power limited to the regulation of interstate commerce, could regulate what this guy did within the confines of his farm located entirely within the border of a state.

    Many of us consider this a travesty of judgement and judicial overreach enabling federal overreach.

    But it was but one such decision. One that is at the core of the relatively recent ability of the Feds to impose the Affordable Care Act on the entirety of society. Not to mention many other powers that exceed the original intent of the Constitutionally ill-defined enumerated powers.

    The absence of definitions of what they meant when they wrote the laws guaranteed that redefinition was sure to come. Consider some harsh & capital punishments — clearly the founders, some of whom participated in or witnessed duels, etc. had a certain idea. There was a “principle” there taken for granted. Today, what we know they accepted is now “cruel and unusual” — a new principle.

    The founders never envisioned how technology would speed the transfer of ideas and how very succinct words in a document (Constitution, Bill of Rights) could be perceived so differently from what they took for granted. Even the need for the Bill of Rights was debated — many thought this to be superfluous.

    Add up the impacts of numerous incremental legal decisions and incremental nibbling away at old notions for new notions in the form of new laws, usually unnoticed except by a very few, with such court decisions in a Common Law system building on precedents, and things incrementally get different. Social influences like education and so forth create such notions … but its the lawmakers and case law precedents that impose those in some form with real staying power.

    And here we are. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

    There was a case in the last decade or two (I forget which) where a SCOTUS justice argued that overturning a much older wrong SCOTUS decision would have such a far-reaching and disruptive ripple effect that maybe they shouldn’t…and maybe they didn’t. That indicates that lawmakers and the judiciary — at least two-thirds of the branches of Fed’l govt — will be at times disinclined to correct, or refuse to correct, old wrongs … so not only “here we are” but “here we might stay”….

  6. Gary


    Right. Lawyers when they were elevated to the judiciary. Lawyers might (and do) only argue for a warping of principle. Judges make it law and empower the State to enforce their decisions.

  7. Exring

    To Kent Clizbe-I see your points but, in my opinion, it all comes back to the simplest explanation that the attempt was to make the entire system address “Human Nature” and that doesn’t get complicated by education, politics even religion. The attachment to the Christian Religion was going to be the choice of the “FREE” but the Responsibility was attached to every member of the Genus and Species (Homo sapiens, to address the person that suggested that it was a gender issue, which it was not)!

  8. Leo

    Munoz is not convincing. For example, he doesn’t provide any details about how Justice Kennedy got it wrong in Casey. Or a second example, there are no details about how consent works. If someone doesn’t want to support some of the subsidies (say Solyndra) how is consent withdrawn? What would that mean?

    If that’s the best defense, I’m inclined to pessimism.

  9. John B()

    “Norms have changed about what you can do to someone against their will” – William Jefferson Clinton

  10. We used to tar and feather politicians and judges who ruled against common sense and the best interests of the the nation. We stopped doing that. Then we started importing millions of foreigners. They brought their native cultures and attitudes with them.

    For every drop of vinegar poured into wine, the wine becomes more vinegar and less wine.

  11. Gary in Erko

    Don’t blame your US Constitution. Western Europe, Canada, Australia – we’re all going through the same stupidity. If you remove the golden rule, “thou shalt do unto others”, from its context of being a divine decree and let unrestrained ‘enlightened’ sophistry build whatever it dreams upon it . . .
    The result – a tyrant can force you to bake a gay wedding cake.

  12. Glenn Ellmers

    This is a very interesting essay, but elides too quickly over one explanation. Briggs writes, “Another way is to say the foreign principles were imposed by force, as in a war, by invaders who Believed Differently. There is no historical justification for this. ” Why not? And who says foreign principles have to be imposed by force? (Meaning, presumably, military force.)

    Machiavelli shows that it is often easier to conquer through the back door.

    Foreign principles (mainly German, mainly expounded by Hegel) — which sought to replace nature with History, elevate “the State,” establish an independent bureaucracy, and embody the popular will in a “leader” — were absorbed by influential Americans such as Woodrow Wilson, and were spread through academic programs in political science explicitly modeled on the German approach.

    Now… WHY this foreign invasion of bad ideas was so successful, and why the Founders’ plans were not more resistant to it, is a more interesting and much more difficult question.

  13. Exring

    I continue to submit that the price of FREEDOM is the assuming of Responsibility by the Individual. Without that we are NOT truly FREE. First, the removal of responsibility takes place, say in the form of “free stuff”. Then Freedom is replaced, piece by piece, with control from outside our lives by others.

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