Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

"The Theory of the Declaration and the Constitution"

Overview

The principles of the Declaration of Independence constitute the soul of the American Founding and form the moral basis of government in the United States. The Declaration is a clear and concise statement of the principles that drove the American Revolution, and served as the basis for the Americans’ appeal from British rights or law to the natural law. 

The first principle of the Declaration is equality, which means no one is by nature the ruler of another. Equality gives rise to natural rights, which are inherent and inalienable, and include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, property, and religion. To secure these rights, human beings consent to leave the state of nature and form a government, which protects our rights through such means as national defense, criminal laws, civil laws, and minimal support for the poor. 

The right to consent requires the unanimous agreement of the individuals forming the government to give up some natural liberty in return for the security of rights, which is the government‘s sole purpose. The majority rules in everyday politics, and consent is maintained through elections. Should a government become unjust, violating rather than protecting rights, the people may exercise their right to revolution.

A government founded on the basis of these principles secures and fosters a republican way of life that brings about peace, justice, safety, and happiness.

Lecture

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Recommended Readings

Discussion Questions

  • What did the Founders mean when they said “all men are created equal”?
  • What are natural rights?
  • Why is consent required for the founding and continuing operation of just government?
  • When is a people justified in revolting and forming a new government?

Q & A Session

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Thomas G. West is the Paul Ermine Potter and Dawn Tibbetts Potter Professor in Politics at Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Cornell University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University.