The Rule of Law: 8 Principles of Government

This lesson in the Rule of Law series is an excerpt from The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, W. Cleon Skousen, The National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1985. pp.27-28.

Thomas Jefferson’s “Ancient Principles” Discovery led to the Statement about Government in Declaration of Independence

T-Jefferson1“By the time Jefferson had reached early adulthood, he had gained proficiency in five languages. He had studied the Greek and Roman classics. He had studied European and English history. He had carefully studied both the Old and New Testaments.

While studying the history of ancient Israel, Jefferson made a significant discovery. He saw that at one time the Israelites had practiced the earliest and most efficient form of representative government. As long as the Israelites followed their fixed pattern of constitutional principles they flourished. When they drifted from it, disaster overtook them. Jefferson thereafter referred to this constitutional pattern as the “ancient principles”.

Jefferson was also surprised to find that the Anglo-Saxons somehow got hold of some of these “ancient principles” and followed a pattern almost identical to that of the Israelites, until around the eighth century A.D….It is interesting that when Jefferson was writing his drafts for the Virginia constitution he was already emphasizing the need to return to the “ancient principles.”

Writing the Declaration of Independence

For seventeen days Jefferson composed and revised his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence. The major portion of the Declaration is taken up with a long series of charges against King George III. However, these were nearly all copied from Jefferson’s drafts of the Virginia Constitution and his Summary View of the Rights of British America. To copy these charges into the Declaration would not have taken him more than a single day. What was he doing the other sixteen days?

It appears that he spent most of the remaining time trying to structure into the first two paragraphs at least eight of the “ancient principles” which he had come to admire. His views on each of these principles are rounded out in other writings, and from these various sources we are able to identify the following fundamental principles in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.

  1. Sound government should be based on self-evident truths. These truths should be so obvious, so rational, and so morally sound that their authenticity is beyond reasonable dispute.

  2. The equal station of mankind here on earth is a cosmic reality, an obvious and inherent aspect of the law of nature and of nature’s God.

  3. This presupposes (as a self-evident truth) that the Creator made human beings equal in their rights, equal before the bar of justice, and equal in His sight. (Of course individual attributes and personal circumstances in life vary widely.)

  4. These rights which have been bestowed by the Creator on each individual are unalienable, that is, they cannot be taken away or violated without the offender coming under the judgment and wrath of the Creator. A person may have other rights, such as those which have been created as a “vested” right by statute, but vested rights are not unalienable. They can be altered or eliminated at any time.

  5. Among the most important of the unalienable rights are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue whatever course of life a person may desire in search of happiness, so long as it does not invade the inherent rights of others.

  6. The most basic reason for community or a nation to set up a system of government is to assure its inhabitants that the rights of the people shall be protected and preserved.

  7. And because this is so, it follow that no office or agency of government has any right to exist except with the consent of the people or their representatives.

  8. It also follows that if a government, either by malfeasance or neglect, fails to protect those rights — or, even worse, if the government itself begins to violate those rights — then it is the right and duty of the people to regain control of their affairs and set up a form of government which will serve the people better. “

 

The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, W. Cleon Skousen, The National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1985. pp.27-28.

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