Constitution: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

"To Secure These Rights: Economics, Religion, and Character"


The American Founders understood the right to religious liberty as an inalienable natural right and the practice of religion itself as essential to the preservation of a free society. The right to freedom of religion or conscience is limited: No reasonable religion would ask its adherents to trample on the natural rights of others. In other words, any religion whose believers demean themselves as good citizens is acceptable in a free society and should be encouraged.

Three main principles guided the Founders’ understanding of economics. The first is the natural right to acquire and possess private property. The second is the establishment and protection of free markets. The third is a stable money supply, based on a gold or silver standard.

The Founders thought the government had a role in promoting good character among the citizen body, because the liberty which it is government’s job to protect is inseparable from virtue. Moral education or character formation, which begins with the family, is necessary for the preservation of a free society.


Audio-Only Version

Download Audio


Discussion Questions

  1. Is the right to religious liberty fundamental in a free society? Why or why not? What are the limits of religious toleration?
  2. Why is government needed to establish and protect free markets?
  3. Should government have a role in the character formation of citizens? 

Q & A Session

Audio-Only Version

Download Audio

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.