Exploring American Ideals Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice

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Exploring American Ideals
Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice

Liberty and equality. These words represent basic values of democratic political systems, including that of the United States. Rule by absolute monarchs and emperors has often brought peace and order, but at the cost of personal freedoms. Democratic values support the belief that an orderly society can exist in which freedom is preserved. But order and freedom must be balanced.

In the early days of the French revolution, the members of the third estate agreed to stick together in the face of opposition from the king and nobles. The "Tennis Court Oath" became the first step towards representative democracy in France.

The Influence of the Enlightenment

The American government has its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth century ENLIGHTENMENT in Europe, a movement that questioned the traditional authority of the monarch to rule. What gives one person the right to rule another? Enlightenment philosophes answered the question by acknowledging the importance of establishing order. They were influenced by the chaos of medieval times, when a lack of CENTRALIZED GOVERNMENT brought widespread death and destruction. Havens from invaders and attackers were necessary for survival, so weaker people allied themselves with stronger ones, and kings came to rule who provided protection in return for work and allegiance from their subjects.

John Locke was the English philosopher who theorized that government was the manifestation of a general will of "the governed" that allowed the governed to change their governors at will. His book, Treatises on Civil Government, was very influential in the American revolution.

As order was established and new economic patterns emerged, people began to question the king's right to rule. For example, JOHN LOCKE, an eighteenth century English philosopher, theorized that the right to rule came from the "CONSENT OF THE GOVERNED." MONTESQUIEU wrote with admiration about three "branches" of government that checked one another's power. ROUSSEAU believed that communities were most justly governed by the "GENERAL WILL" or MAJORITY RULE of their citizens. Though the philosophes believed that rulers were important for maintaining order, they questioned the sacrifice of individual freedom that they saw under European monarchs.
Foundations of American Government

Sea travel expanded the horizons of many European nations and created prosperity and the conditions for the Enlightenment. In turn, the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality, and justice helped to create the conditions for the American Revolution and the subsequent Constitution.

Democracy was not created in a heartbeat. 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 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 first decade was rocky. 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 constitution drafted in the early days of the independent American republic has endured longer than any in human history.

Where did this democratic tradition truly begin? 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 17th-century Europe had the most immediate impact on the framers of the United States Constitution.
The Philosophes

Europeans of the 17th century no longer lived in the "darkness" of the MIDDLE AGES. Ocean voyages had put them 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 the PHILOSOPHES, scholars who promoted democracy and justice through discussions of individual liberty and equality.

The ideas of 18th-century philosophes inspired the Founding Fathers to revolt against what they perceived as unfair British taxation. Washington Crossing the Delaware is one of the most famous depictions of the American Revolution.

One of the first philosophes was THOMAS HOBBES, an Englishman who concluded in his famous book, LEVIATHAN, that people are incapable of ruling themselves, primarily because humans are naturally self-centered and quarrelsome 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, like the Bourbon family that ruled France. Montesquieu suggested a separation of powers into branches of government not unlike the system Americans would later adopt. They found eager students who later became the founders of the American government.
John Locke

The single most important influence that shaped the founding of the United States comes from JOHN LOCKE, a 17th century Englishman who redefined the nature of government. Although he agreed with Hobbes regarding the self-interested nature of humans, he was much more optimistic about their ability to use reason to avoid tyranny. 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 would have the right to overthrow that government. This idea deeply influenced THOMAS JEFFERSON as he drafted the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

Important English Documents

Ironically, the English political system provided the grist for the revolt of its own American colonies. For many centuries English monarchs had allowed restrictions to be placed on their ultimate power. The MAGNA CARTA, written in 1215, established the kernel of limited government, or the belief that the monarch's rule was not absolute. Although the document only forced KING JOHN to consult nobles before he made arbitrary decisions like passing taxes, the Magna Carta 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 ideas of the French Enlightenment philosophes strongly influenced the American revolutionaries. French intellectuals met in salons like this one to exchange ideas and define their ideals such as liberty, equality, and justice.

THE PETITION OF RIGHT (1628) extended the rights of "commoners" to have a voice in the government. The ENGLISH BILL OF RIGHTS (1688) guaranteed free elections and rights for citizens accused of crime. Although KING GEORGE III still had some real power in 1776, Britain was already well along on the path of democracy by that time.
The foundations of American government lie squarely in the 17th and 18th century European Enlightenment. The American founders were well versed in the writings of the philosophes, whose ideas influenced the shaping of the new country. 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. More than 200 years later, that government is still intact.
The Colonial Experience

John Winthrop was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the eight colonies governed by royal charter in the colonial period.

They created and nurtured them. Like children, the American colonies grew and flourished under British supervision. Like many adolescents, the colonies rebelled against their parent country by declaring independence. But the American democratic experiment did not begin in 1776. The COLONIES had been practicing limited forms of self-government since the early 1600s.
The great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean created a safe distance for American colonists to develop skills to govern themselves. Despite its efforts to control American trade, England could not possibly oversee the entire American coastline. Colonial merchants soon learned to operate outside British law. Finally, those who escaped religious persecution in England demanded the freedom to worship according to their faiths.
Colonial Governments

Each of the thirteen colonies had a charter, or written agreement between the colony and the king of England or Parliament. CHARTERS of royal colonies provided for direct rule by the king. A COLONIAL LEGISLATURE was elected by property holding males. But governors were appointed by the king and had almost complete authority — in theory. The legislatures controlled the salary of the governor and often used this influence to keep the governors in line with colonial wishes. The first colonial legislature was the VIRGINIA HOUSE OF BURGESSES, established in 1619.

The colonies along the eastern coast of North America were formed under different types of charter, but most developed representative democratic governments to rule their territories.

When the first PILGRIMS voyaged to the New World, a bizarre twist of fate created a spirit of self-government. These Pilgrims of the Mayflower were bound for Virginia in 1620, but they got lost and instead landed at PLYMOUTH in present-day Massachusetts. Since Plymouth did not lie within the boundaries of the Virginia colony, the Pilgrims had no official charter to govern them. So they drafted the MAYFLOWER COMPACT, which in essence declared that they would rule themselves. Although Massachusetts eventually became a royal colony, the Pilgrims at Plymouth set a powerful precedent of making their own rules that later reflected itself in the town meetings that were held across colonial New England.
Trade and Taxation

Colonial economies operated under MERCANTILISM, a system based on the belief that colonies existed in order to increase the mother country's wealth. England tried to regulate trade, and forbid colonies from trading with other European countries. England also maintained the right to tax the colonies.

Both TRADE and TAXATION were difficult for England to control, and so an informal agreement emerged. England regulated trade but allowed colonists the right to levy their own taxes. SMUGGLERS soon exploited the English inability to guard every port by secretly trading against Parliament's wishes.

A proprietary charter allowed the governor of the colony to rule with great power over his lands. In William Penn's Pennsylvania, that power was used to establish a land of religious tolerance.

This delicate agreement was put to test by the FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR. The war was expensive, and from the British point of view, colonists should help pay for it, especially considering that England believed it was protecting the colonists from French and Indian threats. The new taxes levied by the Crown nevertheless horrified the colonists. British naval measures to arrest smugglers further incited American shippers. These actions served as stepping stones to the Revolution.
Religious Freedom

Religious freedom served as a major motivation for Europeans to venture to the American colonies. Puritans and Pilgrims in Massachusetts, QUAKERS in Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland represented the growing RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY in the colonies. Rhode Island was founded as a colony of RELIGIOUS FREEDOM in reaction to zealous Puritans. As a result, many different faiths coexisted in the colonies. This variety required an insistence on freedom of religion since the earliest days of British settlement.

So the colonial experience was one of absorbing British models of government, the economy, and religion. Over the course of about 150 years, American colonists practiced these rudimentary forms of self-government that eventually led to their decision to revolt against British rule. The democratic experiment of American self-rule was therefore not a sudden change brought about by the Declaration of Independence. By 1776, Americans had plenty of practice.

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