America’s Founding, Ep. 6: Creating a Country

Sarah Burns,

Release Date
July 15, 2016


Government History Liberty Rights

So we’ve declared independence (AKA committed Treason), have a small military not ready for war, and want to start America… now what?  
In July 1776, the Founders really had their work cut out for them. Not only did they have to win a war against the greatest military of the time and avoid being hanged for treason, but if they succeeded in winning the war they had to figure out how to establish a new country, of a type that had never before existed: a large, democratic republic. Prof. Sarah Burns explains some of the challenges they faced, and why it’s important to reflect on those challenges today.

    1. The Two Ideas that Made America (blog post): Blog post by Prof. Sarah Burns on Radical Whig Theory and Classical Liberal Theory influences in the founding.  
    2. The Federalist Papers (source materials): The Federalist Papers were pamphlets written under the pseudonym Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
    3. The Anti-Federalist Papers (source material): Responses to and contentions with the ratification of the U.S. constitution. 

>> July 1776, we’re small but scrappy colony of a large empire. We’ve just declared our independence and committed treason. We don’t have a large military force, we aren’t set up to fight a multi front war. And we’re trying to create new institutions based on radical ideas created by philosophers.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s important to see that all the theory in the world is not gonna save the Americans from the very real consequences of their actions. The British after all, didn’t read the declaration and say, they’ve got a good claim. They read it as a declaration of war and the founders knew this.

At the end of the declaration it reads, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor. If the founders hadn’t won, they would hang. As Benjamin Franklin quipped, we must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately.

But winning the war is just the first problem. Now that we’re free of the English yoke, we have to set up a new government, panic. How do we do this? We start with some Lockean Principles. We know that all men are created equal and that governments derive their just power from the consent of the governed.

Okay, that’s a good starting point, but what does consent of the governed mean? According to a strict understanding of Lockean Philosophy, every individual in the United States would have to say, I consent to the laws of the United States. Logistically, this is obviously very problematic, and even harder when you have the British knocking down your door.

And this where we say that the founders didn’t rely exclusive on Lockean Liberalism when they were setting things up. Whig Theory comes back to play a role when they’re trying to establish a stable and free government. For Whigs, people have to be connected to their government through a longer and older tradition.

The founders tied these two theories together in order to create institutions. That protect individual liberty without becoming so radically democratic that they threaten stability. They use these theories to tackle some of the most important questions of the day such as how powerful should the federal government be? How do you distribute the executive, legislative, and judicial powers?

How do you prosecute this war? How do you pay collectively for this war? This is the great experiment they initiated when they declared independence. It is not one they took lightly it required great sacrifice, great statesmanship and it consensus among the people that their course was just. For that reason it’s important to reflect of significance of this action both within the United States and around the world.

We decided we were not going to submit to a heavy handed government. We looked to philosophy to clarify our understanding of freedom, and to understand how it is that we can build a new democratic constitutional order. Understanding the incredible character you have to have in order In order to embark on this task is very important.

Understanding the incredible risks associated with revolution will help you see why it is they’re so rare and so often unsuccessful. I hope you spend a little time thinking about how amazing it is that the founders declared that a people suffer under an oppressive rule. It is there right, their duty to throw off that government.

We should be alive to these concerns today as we continue to think through what it means to live in a free society, and what we expect from our government. And if it happens to be that youre watching this around the fourth of July. I hope you think through these issues while enjoying hamburgers and fireworks.