Lesson 1: What Did the Founders Think about Constitutional Government?


Adams, John (1735-1829) Adams was the second president of the United States. He was a lawyer, revolutionary leader, and leading Federalist. As a member of the Continental Congress, Adams served on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. He was minister to the Netherlands and Great Britain. Adams was elected vice president in 1789 and president in 1796.

Aristotle (384-322) Aristotle was a student of the philosopher Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great. Considered one of the great philosophers in the Western intellectual tradition, he wrote treatises on subjects as diverse as government, logic, rhetoric, ethics, poetry, and biology. Aristotle continued an effort begun by Plato to place objects and ideas in categories based on similar properties. After Alexander's death, Aristotle fled Athens.

Blackstone, William (1723-1780) William Blackstone (originally pronounced "blextun") was an unsuccessful lawyer who became a lecturer on law at Oxford. He wrote Commentaries on the Laws of England, placing the history of English common law into four categories: rights of persons, rights of things, private wrongs (torts), and public wrongs (crimes). Written to be understood by non-lawyers, this work became an important source of legal information for the American colonists. Blackstone, among others, famously articulated "the Rights of Englishmen" held dear by American colonists. Statutory as well as common law, he argued, guarantees the sanctity of an Englishman's life, liberty, and property. These rights include due process of law, the attorney-client confidentiality, equality before the law, habeas corpus, the right to confront accusers, and forbidding bills of attainder and forced self-incrimination.

Cicero (106-43) Marcus Tullius Cicero was an orator, a lawyer, a politician, and a philosopher whose life coincided with the decline and fall of the Roman Republic. Elected to each of the major offices in Roman government, including senator and consul, Cicero was exiled in 58 BC. During his eleven-year exile he wrote extensively about politics and philosophy, much of his work focusing on the defense and improvement of the Roman Republic. Cicero's De Officiis, a profound meditation on morality and moral duty, including moral principles as applied to public life, deeply influenced Western civilization since its writing in 44 BC. De Officiis was so influential that when the printing press was invented, it was the second book to be printed after the Bible. Cicero, echoing the views of Stoic philosophy, argued for self-restraint and limits to action for the sake of self-interest. He argued that what is honorable and what is expedient cannot ever rightly be said to conflict. What is honorable must always be chosen, and some actions, even to save the state, are so morally abhorrent that they must be rejected. In the sixteenth century Machiavelli directly contradicted these ideas and argued that to establish, maintain, and expand their power, rulers must be taught "how not to be good."

Franklin, Benjamin (1706-1790) Franklin was the oldest delegate to the Philadelphia Convention. With the possible exception of George Washington, Franklin was the best-known man in America. Born into a poor family, Franklin became an inventor, scientist, diplomat, and publisher. His Poor Richard's Almanac was read nationwide. His career in public service was long and varied, and included service as ambassador to England and France and as governor of Pennsylvania. At the Philadelphia Convention, Franklin was a compromiser, using wit to bring delegates together. A staunch advocate of colonial rights, he helped draft the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Paris (1783). He played an important role in creating the Great Compromise. He favored a strong national government and argued that the Framers should trust the judgment of the people. Although he was in poor health in 1787, he missed few sessions, being carried to and from the meeting place in a special chair. Although he did not agree with everything in the Constitution, he believed that no other convention could come up with a better document.

Hamilton, Alexander (1755-1804) Hamilton was a senior aide-de-camp to General Washington and an artillery captain during the Revolutionary War. He was a delegate from New York to the Philadelphia Convention and one of three authors of The Federalist, written to urge ratification of the U.S. Constitution. He later served as the first secretary of the treasury, put the nation's finances on a firm footing and advocated a strong national government.

Hobbes, Thomas (1588-1679) Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher of materialism, fled to France during English civil war (1642-1651, which pitted Parliament against the Crown), where he wrote Leviathan. This book argued that humans without government live in a "state of nature," which is a "state of war" of against all. Life in such conditions is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Thus in a state of nature all fear violent death, and violent death is what people fear most. To avoid violent death, they agree to set up a state with strict authority and the power to protect life. People agree to leave this state of nature through "social contract" and to give all power to the Leviathan state, which Hobbes characterized as a "mortal god." Hobbes was accused of atheism for the views he expressed in Leviathan, where Hobbes pilloried various theological ideas. The English Parliament asserted that Leviathan helped cause the plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666. The book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Catholic Church because it undermined the theory of divine right of kings.

Jay, John (1745-1829) Jay was the first chief justice of the United States, serving from 1789 to 1795. He wrote New York's first constitution. Jay served as president of the Continental Congress and as minister to Spain and England. He was a strong supporter of the Constitution and one of the authors of The Federalist. Jay was appointed chief justice by President Washington but resigned in 1795 when he was elected governor of New York.

Locke, John (1632-1704) John Locke, a physician and philosopher, worked with famous scientists, including Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In contrast to Hobbes, Locke used state of nature and social contract theory to justify limited government and the preservation of individual rights, particularly life, liberty, and property. Locke is sometimes called "America's philosopher" because his Second Treatise of Government (1690) was widely read by the colonists and important ideas found in it (as well as in works of English republican writers) are found in the Declaration of Independence, especially his theories of natural rights and his defense of violent revolution after "a long train of abuses" of power by rulers. Two verbatim phrases of Locke's are found in the Declaration.

Mason, George (1725-1792) Mason was the author, in 1776, of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He was a delegate from Virginia to the Philadelphia Convention but refused to sign the proposed Constitution because it contained no bill of rights. He argued against ratification for same reason.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brede et de Montesquieu) Montesquieu was a French lawyer, nobleman, author, and political philosopher. He is recognized as one of greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu first gained fame for a satire, The Persian Letters, in 1721, which pointed out the absurdities of modern European, especially French, life. He also published Considerations of the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline (anonymously) in 1734. His masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), greatly influenced political thought in Europe and America and was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by Catholic Church because of its "liberal" views.