This blog provides educational material taken from session one of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.
The Founders’ Dream: A Nation of Free People
In the late 1700s, the Thirteen American Colonies were in turmoil. King George III of England was a harsh ruler and disrespected the colonists’ rights as English citizens, so American colonists known as “Patriots” opposed British tyranny. Although some Blacks and Native Americans were Loyalists, others also fought on the side of the Patriots.
The American colonies were first settled by those escaping religious persecution in Europe. Thousands of English Puritans left the Church of England because they believed it was insufficiently reformed, and they were abused because of their views. Their Puritan attitudes of self-reliance, frugality, industry, and energy established a strong foundation for the success of the United States.
The Patriots longed for liberty. They believed in what is called “natural law” - the idea that God created all people equally, that everyone has natural rights no government can take away, and that governments’ authority comes from the consent of the governed.
Although women, slaves, and men who didn’t own land lacked full rights of citizenship during the Revolutionary War and at the founding of our nation, most of our Founders supported natural rights for all. In the Constitution, they therefore included a process that would allow future generations to amend (change) U.S. laws.
These principles inspired the Patriots to revolt against Great Britain. They were also the basis for the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance, and the U.S. Constitution. In this blog, you’ll learn about the significant ideas in these Organic Laws that advanced the cause of freedom. No matter what our background may be, we have all benefited from the system of government the Founders gave us.
History that Inspired the Founding of A Nation
The leaders of the American Revolution and the Founders didn’t think history was boring or useless. In fact, the big ideas they learned from history led to the Revolutionary War, shaped the founding of our nation, and advanced human rights and progress like never before.
These leaders had a classical education. They studied ancient Greek and Roman scholars, read the Bible, and were thoroughly familiar with English history and law. They were philosophers and historians who studied various types of government – current and past. They also were practical men. They wanted to know what worked and what didn’t, which systems of government ended in tyranny, and which provided some measure of freedom, peace, and prosperity. Here’s a summary of what they and many American colonists knew!
Ancient Greek Democracy
The Founders studied ancient Greek history and philosophy. The Greeks formed many independent city-states with different forms of government. Democracy was born in the city-state of Athens in 507 BC and existed for many years. Citizens of Athens participated in “direct democracy” by meeting in local assemblies, debating issues, and voting. A simple majority determined how the city-state would operate. Citizens highly valued their freedom to speak and right to vote. But direct democracy often resulted in instability and wars.
The Founders recognized the benefits of freedom and self-determination under Athenian democracy. But they also saw the pitfalls. They rejected direct democracy because of its tendency toward mob rule, often descending into anarchy, and trampling of the rights of those in the minority.
The Republic (509-27 BC) wasn’t a direct democracy like Athens’. Each year Roman citizens elected two chief officials. Usually, they were generals who led armies to war. The Republic was governed by the Assemblies and the senate – similar to the bicameral Congress with its U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Citizens directly elected Assembly members to approve laws. At first, the Senate was an aristocracy and the dominant branch of government. Senators managed the government and foreign policy and advised the chief officials. The Senate often overturned the Assemblies’ decisions. This weakened the citizens’ direct voice in how the government operated. Eventually, the Roman Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire, which was ruled by a dictator – the emperor. The Senate’s influence and power weakened, and it finally dissolved.
The most important Roman politician and writer during this time was the brilliant and wise Cicero. He wrote two classic books based on natural law. He believed that there was a god who created the universe and natural law. He also believed that people are able to reason correctly, form civil governments, and rule justly.
The Founders agreed with Cicero’s principles of natural law. The term “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” appears in the Declaration of Independence and in their writings. Our constitutional system is based on natural law (as defined by Sir William Blackstone). We see it in the ideals of inalienable rights, consent of the governed, limited government, checks and balances, and the republican federal system.
Familiarity with Judeo-Christian civic and moral law as written in the Bible was widespread in colonial America. Many of the colonists who fled England because of religious persecution compared their plight to the Israelites who fled slavery in Egypt. They found constitutional principles of separation of powers, checks and balances, limited government, due process, and unbiased justice in the Hebrew books of law.
Included are commandments against murder, physically harming people, stealing their private property, and oppression by rulers. The constitution can be understood more fully by realizing the importance of those Judeo-Christian laws at the time our nation was founded. But, of course, they were far from the only influence.
English History & Law
The Founders also studied the people’s political rights in England that developed over the centuries. In fact, this knowledge contributed to the colonists’ decision to revolt against England because King George III was violating their natural rights as English citizens.
- Magna Carta
One of the most significant advances in political rights was the Magna Carta, the first written constitution. King John had deprived the nobles of their rights as Englishmen and imposed heavy taxes to pay for his failed policies. So, when civil war broke out, the barons forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
This great charter listed and protected the rights of free Englishmen, restricted the power of the monarchy, and established the principle that no person, including the monarch, was above the law.
The English Parliament advanced citizens’ voices in the government. Parliament arose over time as a way to handle national issues. It was made up of the unelected House of Lords (the aristocracy) and the House of Commons, elected by the people. English monarchs regularly went to war and had to find a way to pay for it. To raise taxes, they needed the permission of Parliament. This established the principle of no taxation without representation.
The authority of Parliament and the rights of the English increased after three English Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. King James II ruled by tyranny, believing he was not accountable to the law of the people. The English overthrew him for disregarding English law and liberties. After being crowned king, William of Orange signed the English Bill of Rights in 1689. It limited the powers of rulers, laid out the powers of Parliament, and safeguarded individual rights. The English Bill of Rights inspired the American colonists to demand their rights from the English government.
The Great Awakening
A Christian revival swept through the American colonies in the 1730a and 1740s. English preacher George Whitefield and American preacher Jonathan Edwards challenged the established church standards and old clergy throughout New England. Their preaching stirred the population, and Christianity grew dramatically. As a result, many colleges were founded, such as Princeton, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth. Their preaching inspired a wave of missionary work in the colonies among Native Americans and Black slaves. Looking back, the most important effect of the Great Awakening was the sense of national unity that the colonists gained as a result. Most scholars say this was key in uniting the colonists to separate from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.
A Nation Founded So We Can Have Life, Liberty, & Private Property
After studying all the types of government, the Founders decided that no current or past system was ideal. Leaving the country to anarchy certainly wasn’t an option. Direct democracy, Roman-style republicanism, aristocracy, and monarchy all had serious flaws. None provided the structure of basic rights necessary for freedom, peace, and prosperity to thrive. So, the Founders created a new system by improving on the ideas of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, and the more recent English. They gave us a Constitutional Republic.
To learn more on this topic, a full text with more information about our historical foundations is provided in Session 1 of FreedomCivics® – Foundations of American Government.
FreedomCivics® is a 20-session curriculum that includes discussion questions, activities, resources, quizzes, and a final exam. For more information about the course, please visit or contact us with the information below.
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