[Read Part I: HERE.]
What type of ethos and mindset equipped the Founding Fathers to arrive at the correct moral and political systems that would result in a Constitution that so aptly matched the nature of man? The answer lies in their deepest perception of the nature of existence.
What emotional projection did they enact upon the universe, and how did the ethos they each commonly held translate into a rational philosophy of life? I believe that the Founders held a passionate love for this earth and of humanity. The most blatant expression of their love of man was to be found in the recognition and defense of him as a rational and autonomous, sovereign individual and all that was entailed in the recognition and affirmation of this truth—that he was deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of his own individual conception of happiness. Their love of man took the form of a deep respect for him, such that he should choose his own conception of the good life for himself with the explicit understanding that it was impermissible for the state to regulate, coerce, or encourage one conception of the good life over another; each man, based on a rational observation and analysis of his station in life and his values, was to be left alone to determine what was good for him and his life.
The discretionary power to choose from a broad array of values was his and his alone. The Founders started with a civic love for humanity and man that they translated via a political system that secured the individual rights of persons.
The rights, which secured life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were unassailable. Their proclamation of man’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness was a reversal of traditional Christian rejection of this earth and this world and the idea of suffering as man’s proper existential fate. Happiness was man’s natural end, and this earth—not heaven or some ineffable notion of an afterlife—was the place where he could successfully achieve it. The theological implications of this philosophic system were vast. Despite the theistic commitments of many of the Founders in creating a secular nation in which the state could establish no formal religion, they were the first political eugenicists in recorded political history. The American man or woman was to be the prototype for a new type of human being—one who needed no redemption, no religious atonement and/or salvation. Reversing the mythology of Edenic man, America was its own Edenic paradise where the new and first people could achieve happiness and fulfill their purpose and meaning right here on earth.
The Founders of a consciously created secular nation where the primacy of the individual supersedes that of faith, church, and even God are not those who—protestations to the contrary—believed in the concept of man as born with the stain of original sin. Their actions in the creation of America spoke louder than any of those among them who were Deists. Unlike their historical predecessors who had terrorized man, sought to rule and coerce him, and subordinate him to the wishes and whims and fiats of society, the Founding Fathers saw men as their moral equals, with each possessing no greater share of humanity than any other and with an equal apportionment of moral value. Indeed, it was this recognition that would be the moral foundation for the emancipation of slaves and abolition of chattel slavery.
The Founders, many of them aristocrats, were able to abstract from their own material status and project a benevolent ethos towards all human beings in general, largely because they saw that the concept of the indivisibility of man could only be guaranteed through his ensconcement in a constitutional republic.
It is obvious from the spirit and law of the Constitution they created that they saw America as an open country, one that would be populated by strangers and foreigners from a broad phalanx of peoples. Such individuals would retain their cultural identities if they so desired, but they would be united under a common core rubric of republican values that would give them all a common, unassailable public identity.
Unlike their historical predecessors and moral counterparts, the Founders attempted to solve the problem of man once and for all and, concomitantly, the nature of existence. With rare exceptions in human history, man had always been conceived of as a problem to be solved, overcome, or – via a curious mélange of religion and social collectivism – something in search of justification for his existence, redemption, atonement, and salvation.
The Founders projected a sense that reality was to be perceived and mastered correctly through reason and observation. Theirs was an ethos of confidence that translated itself into action yielding results coterminous with human achievement, success, and joy on earth. The Constitution that they created was both a ratification of human nature and an implacable inoculation against the nefarious forces of man to assault the physical integrity and the mind of man. When Jefferson stated: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” he was uttering an ode and a love letter to the inviolable and indubitable characteristic that marks man as man — his rational, sovereign mind.
Respecting the moral precepts of natural law translated into moral civil laws that subordinated the masses was as close to loving humanity as the Founders could come in literal terms.
Civilizations within and outside the historical process had struggled to find a political system suitable for the requirements and rules of man’s consciousness and nature. Rather than create a political system that ratified human nature and suffuse it with social inoculations against its integrity, the history of human political systems was complicated. It ranged from European despotism and absolute monarchical rule that subjugated man’s inviolable mind to the whims and caprices of kings and queens, to the Asiatic dynasties with their feudal systems and ineradicable systems of social hierarchies that trapped persons into birth-to-cradle social roles and stagnant identities, and included as well, the tribal and nomadic peoples of Africa, and what is today the Middle East and indigenous populations.
As far as the Founding Fathers go, they had solved the problem that had haunted humanity since its recorded history. Man’s fundamental problems in the world were not existential. Man had presented himself as a problem to be solved, one that possessed a being which had to be overcome, transcended, or tamed. But his fundamental problem was political. He always needed a system that would safeguard his nature as a human being.
The Founding Fathers were the first to create a vast open space in the name of unbridled freedom and to set man free to roam upon it, to exit if he wished, and to return if he so pleased. They were the first to break a graven and erroneous view that all societies and civilizations had held—that man was a reducible product of his environment, determined not by his free will, rational desires, goals, and aspirations. The Founding Fathers held that man deserved to be free because of the phenomenal spectacle that he was and because at the heart of the moral foundation of their political Constitution was the conviction that man, if he were to survive anywhere on earth, had to exist as an end in himself. Man was not an imminent threat to himself. He was someone who deserved to have the sanctity of his life protected by non-punitive rules—negative liberties that consisted not in what he had to do but what he ought to refrain from doing regarding the well-being of his fellow compatriots.
As such, their laws were not designed to curtail creative agency and imaginative capabilities—in fact, quite the opposite. It set the individual free on a course of limitless activities that would lead to unprecedented achievements.
They created a civilization in which persons could forget where they came from and in which the aspiration for economic mobility took precedence over social status. Unlike European aristocrats who looked down upon those who had to work, work was now a badge of honor and the new currency used to regulate the transactional and trader principle among human beings.
The birth of a new political man with new moral sensibilities would, over a very long period of time, create a social and political revolution—the creation of a cosmopolitan society open to all peoples, regardless of lineage and blood ties. It would be a nation that would gather foreigners and radical others into what came to be called a “melting pot,” but which really meant an alliance among strangers around the core political values of the republic. It meant that each citizen could keep his ethnic and racial identity if he chose to, but that he would develop a thin political identity that all would share, regardless of concrete political commitments. They may disagree with each other in matters of public affairs, but they would defend the right of each to uphold his conception of the good for his life.
In this endeavor, we see their absolute commitment to the right of the individual’s property in his own happiness, values, conscience, time, soul, mind, labor, body, and reason. This moral jurisdiction is an indivisible good from which one cannot be separated or alienated. Some phenomenon—like civic love—was forged in the new America.
Slavery was horrific and incompatible with the grand narratives of the new republic. It violated the Christian moral eugenics that recognized the intrinsic moral worth of each person and the inviolable dignity each bore in his or her person. But in time, America became the first country to insert itself in the world and offer itself up as a friend to humanity—a place where citizens everywhere can belong and play a role in suffusing the nation-state with an original assemblage of who one is. It is the first, full-fledged cosmopolitan state for all the reasons advanced above and more—it inclines human beings not to search for their origins but, rather, their destiny.
Jason D. Hill is professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago specializing in ethics, social and political philosophy, American foreign policy, and moral psychology. He is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center. Dr. Hill is the author of five books, including “What Do White Americans Owe Black People: Racial Justice in the Age of Post-Oppression.” Follow him on Twitter @JasonDhill6.
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