Foundations of American Government

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

The American colonies began developing a democratic tradition early on. Over 150 years later, they had gained the experience and confidence to refuse to recognize the British king. The American Revolution and the domestic instability of the early national government led to the need for a new type of government with a constitution to guarantee liberty. The U.S. constitution defining the independent American republic has endured longer than any in human history.

The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic was influenced by the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, the Protestant Reformation, and Gutenberg's printing press. But the Enlightenment had the most immediate impact on the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

The Philosophes

17th century Europeans had emerged from the "darkness" of the Middle Ages. Exploration introduced them to world civilizations, and trade had created a prosperous middle class. The Protestant Reformation encouraged free thinkers to question the practices of the Catholic Church. The printing press quickly spread new ideas. The time was ripe for the philosophes, scholars who promoted democracy and justice through discussions of individual liberty and equality.

One of the first philosophes was Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman who believed that humans are naturally self-centered and quarrelsome. People are incapable of ruling themselves and need the iron fist of a strong leader. Later philosophes, like 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, similar to the system in the U.S. Constitution.

John Locke

The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States was John Locke, a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government. Locke was optimistic about humans’ ability to use reason to avoid tyranny. According to Locke, in a legitimate government 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.

Source: Foundations of American Government
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