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.

Thomas G. West holds the Paul Ermine Potter and Dawn Tibbetts Potter Ermine Potter Endowed Professorship in Politics at Hillsdale College.