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2. Foundations of American Government

In a world where people were ruled by monarchs from above, the idea of self-government is foreign. Democracy takes practice and wisdom from experience.

The American colonies began developing a democratic tradition during their earliest stages of development. Over 150 years later, the colonists believed their experience was great enough to refuse to recognize the British King.

The American Revolution and the domestic instability that followed prompted a call for a new type of government with a constitution to guarantee liberty. The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic owe a debt to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Protestant Reformation, and Gutenberg’s Printing Press. But the Enlightenment of the 17th century Europe had the most immediate impact on the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Europeans of the 17th century were in touch with many world civilizations, and trade had created a prosperous middle class. The Protestant Reformation encouraged free thinkers to question the practices of the Catholic Church, and the printing press spread the new ideas relatively quickly and easily. The time was ripe for Philosophes, who promoted democracy and justice through discussions of individual liberty and equality. Thomas Hobbes was a philosopher who claimed that people are incapable of ruling themselves, because humans are naturally self-centered and need the iron fist of a strong leader.

Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau were more optimistic about democracy. Their ideas encouraged the questioning of absolute monarchs. Montesquieu suggested a separation of powers into branches of government not unlike the system Americans would later adopt.

John Locke had the single most influence on the shaping of the United States. Locke was a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke identified the basis of a legitimate government. According to Locke, a ruler gains authority through the consent of the governed. The duty of that government is to protect the natural rights of the people, which Locke believed to include life, liberty, and property. If the government should fail to protect these rights, its citizens have the right to overthrow that government. This idea deeply influenced Thomas Jefferson as he drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The English political system also influenced the revolt of its own American colonies. The Magna Carta, written in 1215, established the belief that the monarch's rule was not absolute, and the document provided the basis for the later development of Parliament. Over the years, representative government led by a prime minister came to control and eventually replace the king as the real source of power in Britain.

The English Bill of Rights (1688) guaranteed free elections and rights for citizens accused of crime. Although King George III still had some powers in 1776, Britain was already well along on the path of democracy. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, and others took the brave steps of creating a government based on the Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and a new form of justice. The government is still intact.


Source: 2. Foundations of American Government
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