WASHINGTON – Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers of America sincerely believed that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were and are indeed self-evident and unalienable rights, given to each human being by a Supreme Being. These attributes, “attached” to each person from birth, were described as Natural Rights, and therefore something that no government could legitimately take away from any and all the individuals who collectively constitute The People.
Man is a rational creature
The Founders also subscribed to the belief, very popular in that Age of Reason, that human beings, while sometimes possessed by passions that may obfuscate clear judgment, are fundamentally rational creatures who most of the time reason and think rationally, especially so when their judgement is improved by proper scientific learning.
Therefore, it is expected that in general human beings will think and behave rationally on most issues, including matters of governance and public policy. Based on their optimistic view of human nature, the Founders also shared the belief that most human beings would be good, ethical, tolerant and just citizens and office holders, most of the time.
Self-government is impossible if people are ruled by emotions
Yes, passions at times would interfere with proper rational analysis and right action –some of the time. But, according to the beliefs of America’s Founders, emotions and factionalism, while recognized as threats to good governance, would not rule human thinking and behavior most of the time.
This is really important. According to America’s Founders, human beings are mostly good. And it is this basic human feature –deeply rooted in the foundations of the Enlightenment political philosophy embraced by the Founders — that makes successful self-government possible.
Indeed, the Founders fully acknowledged that if human beings were constantly ruled by uncontrollable emotions and irrational ideas it would be impossible for them to create and preserve a viable republican self-government. The institutions aimed at protecting freedom, however well crafted, would be easily destroyed by the uncontrolled passions of irrational people.
Optimistic view of human nature, with some cautionary notes
So, all in all, the prevailing view of human nature at the time was mostly optimistic. Self-government would be possible because most people most of the time would behave rationally. There were however some cautionary notes. How do we protect the republic from the dangers created by occasional but potentially serious irrational behavior?
The “remedy” was in establishing separate constitutional powers competing with one another, a system of “checks and balances”. This would make government more complicated, as it required agreement among different centers of power. But it would also make concentration of power and therefore tyranny unlikely, this way allowing the People to enjoy their Freedoms, granted to them by Natural Law.
So here is the antidote to human irrationality. The US Constitution of 1787 explicitly divides power among the President, the Congress or the Judiciary. According to the Founders, divided powers would make government prevarication unlikely, this way safeguarding liberty by preventing concentration of power, and therefore unjust government coercion.
The Western Frontier
Beyond this revolutionary constitution aimed at preserving Liberty, America had the unique added feature of an open Western Frontier. Thanks to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a $15 million deal between the U.S. and France engineered by President Thomas Jefferson, America almost doubled its territory, (at about four cents an acre, an incredibly good deal). Without firing a single shot, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase, America had acquired vast, mostly unexplored territories henceforth available to new, adventurous and gutsy settlers.
The open Western Frontier created an almost magic appeal for many early Americans. In their view, America was not just a great nation founded on Freedom. It was actually an ever-expanding Free Republic which offered what no European state could ever offer: almost free land for all who wanted to go West, settle there, and claim a piece of it. Old settlers and new immigrants alike could have a real chance to make their way West, legally claim virgin land as their own, and become legitimate property owners by using their own virtues of courage, stamina, and spirit of adventure.
Plenty of land
Think about it. Where else in Europe could the children of landless peasants dream of owning the land they worked on that since time immemorial had been the uncontested property of the rapacious aristocracy? Short of a revolution that would destroy the entire political and economic order, (this happened with the French Revolution of 1789; but the Old Order eventually prevailed), this was an impossible dream. But here in America this dream of owning land was quite possible, and fully legal. Difficult and arduous, of course, but nonetheless possible.
Hence the almost irresistible appeal of a Wild American West that simply needed hard working new settlers who would turn the uncultivated prairie into beautiful and productive farm land.
Adventure for the common man
And here it is important to observe how the American Frontier evoked similar deep strands existing within some old European traditions. While unevenly spread, the drive to travel, explore and settle new lands is an old European theme.
For example, centuries before the Christian Era, sailing across the Mediterranean on rather primitive ships, the ancient Greeks colonized Sicily and parts of Southern Italy. And, as we know, classical Greek literature gave us the Odyssey, the incredible tale of a hero’s adventurous journey back to his native island, after a long war in a distant land.
And in later centuries, we have countless European travelers and navigators, from Marco Polo to Columbus, from Vespucci to Vasco da Gama and Magellan. These are the people who discovered new continents and brought back exotic riches and specimens of unknown plants and animals.
This vast heritage of journeys and explorations was in large measure transformed by legends, inaccuracies and fantastic exaggerations. But it kept alive an underlying European yearning for new places, usually imagined as better than the old ones.
Well, the American Western Frontier made the prospect of discovery and adventure possible and available not just to uncommon heroes and skilled navigators, but to the common folks. Driven by the vision of “conquering” the new virgin lands, ordinary people, with no special skills or prior experience, were motivated to embark in the incredible adventure of discovery, eventually claiming new lands for themselves and their families in the American Western Territories.
The caravans of covered wagons that traveled West were driven by ordinary people often with little education and rudimentary skills. These were not captains and admirals bankrolled by kings or rich merchants. They were common people animated by the hope to find good land and settle there, this way achieving the highest aspiration of landless farmers. And it is in large part for this reason that the push West by countless pioneers has become legend. This way, the drive to the American West became a glorified Everyman’s Odyssey.
So, there you have it. Here is the exhilarating picture of America. There is this New State, founded by a Sovereign, Free People who created strong institutions of Self-Government, whose main purpose was and is to protect Individual Freedoms. On top of that, this New Blessed Land was luckily removed from backward Europe and its constant wars. Thanks to the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in this New Blessed Land people, including all newcomers, can be and are free.
And, to top it all off, people who arrived from Europe almost penniless, with some effort could figure out a way to be outfitted and travel towards the seemingly infinite West, where they would find plenty of land that they could claim as their own, according to clear laws and statutes.
Yes, this attractive picture is in large measure myth. Most likely, reality was much harsher and unforgiving for tens of thousands of ill-equipped, naive immigrants. Nonethless, the myth of a Good America became the established narrative. And this positive narrative sustained the American Republic in its early decades.
Freedom and land
Whatever the exaggerations about what America could offer, for the common man and woman for sure no other country in Europe could match such an attractive prospect. By the standards of the time, America was indeed exceptional: Freedom and Land for all well-meaning, hard-working people.
Over time, this country became successful not because of its size, resources and open land –Brazil and Russia also have size, resources and open land– but because it was founded by people who shared the firm determination to affirm a constitutional arrangement that would uphold and preserve the God-given individual liberties of its citizens.
Protection of Individual Freedom is the core principle at the foundation of America, and its most precious gift to new settlers. Over time, vast prosperity was created by millions of free people who engaged in diverse productive activities, being reassured that their government would protect their endeavors, and not hinder them.