By Dr. Chris Hammons, Director of the Morris Family Center for Law and Liberty at HBU
The mission of the Morris Family Center for Law & Liberty at HBU is to promote an understanding and appreciation of our nation’s history and founding principles. We want our students to learn that our country is based on a unique set of principles. These principles – natural law, popular sovereignty, liberty, limited government, the rule of law – aren’t exclusive to America. Many are found in the English common law tradition and have roots as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. But it was the combination of these principles – in one place and at the same time – that is unique and makes our nation exceptional in the annals of human history.
The first of these principles is natural law. Natural law is the idea that we owe our lives and liberties to God. As such, no mortal may lay claim to own us, use us, infringe on our liberty, or harm us without our consent. No government can violate or take away our rights, because these rights – life, liberty, and our right to pursue our own destiny – exist prior to government, not as a result of it. Natural law was at the heart of our Declaration of Independence.
The second principle of the American Founding is popular sovereignty. Enshrined in the opening words of our Constitution is the concept of “we the people.” Power in our political system does not belong to kings or nobles, but to all of us. While we might get frustrated with the policies, behavior, and bickering of those in Washington, ultimately, we control who goes there and holds those seats.
The third important principle of the American founding is liberty. Indeed, if there is a principle associated with the American Founding, it is this one. It is our right to speak, think, worship, demonstrate, read, write, and live as we see fit. As our Founders would remind us, however, liberty isn’t license. We can’t just do whatever we want. But unlike the old world where kings or ruling families could control our lives – and sadly, many people on the planet still live in that world today – the only limitations on us are those that do not violate the natural law and to which we consent as a people.
Limited government – the fourth principle of the American Founding – is something that we too often take for granted. In order to protect our liberties, our government has only those powers that we the people give it. And we only give it those powers that do not violate that natural law or threaten our liberty. The later addition of a Bill of Rights was an effort to clarify what our government was forbidden to do.
Limited government is not the norm. In most parts of the world today – look at South and Central America, the Middle East, Africa, China, North Korea – people live more as subjects than as citizens. Their governments have unlimited power and can do to them basically whatever they want – fine them, imprison them, torture them, even kill them. Freedom of speech, the press, assembly, religion is nonexistent. Trials are rigged. Justice is elusive.
The fifth principle of the American founding is the rule of law. It’s an idea that goes back as far as the Magna Carta in 1215. It was brought to the shore of North America by the Pilgrims in 1620. They pledged to follow the rules established by the people of the Plymouth colony in a short compact that bears the name of their little boat – the Mayflower.
The rule of law is the idea that the law applies equally to everyone and that following the rules matters because it protects our liberty. John Adams said ours is a nation of laws, not men. The purpose of a written constitution is so that the rules are made evident to everyone, so they can be applied equally to everyone. Written rules and procedures don’t care how old you are, what skin color you have, whether you are male or female, what religion you practice, or your political affiliation. The rule of law treats us all the same – as long as we follow the law.
Alexander Hamilton wrote very astutely in the first of the Federalist Papers that our nation was presented with a unique opportunity: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
In other words, Hamilton said that we were presented this rare chance to do something no one else had ever done – to create a new nation and live under rules of our own making. And if we failed at that, people would say, “See, democracy doesn’t work.”
And this is why the American Founding is important to study and is still relevant in our lives. The story of the American Founding isn’t really a story about old guys in funny wigs writing on parchment paper. It’s a story about us. About how we see ourselves. About what kind of people we want to be. About what kind of nation we want to live in. And whether we are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice.
We want our students at HBU to understand that no matter where they are from, or who their parents are, or what they look like, that these principles are important and relevant to their future. And while it’s okay to disagree among ourselves about the best means of upholding them, we should never forget the vision which our Founders placed before us. And together, we can continue the goal of the American Founding – of building a more perfect union.