The principles of the Declaration of Independence constitute the soul of the American Founding and form the moral basis of government in the United States. The Declaration is a clear and concise statement of the principles that drove the American Revolution, and served as the basis for the Americans’ appeal from British rights or law to the natural law. 

The first principle of the Declaration is equality, which means no one is by nature the ruler of another. Equality gives rise to natural rights, which are inherent and inalienable, and include life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, property, and religion. To secure these rights, human beings consent to leave the state of nature and form a government, which protects our rights through such means as national defense, criminal laws, civil laws, and minimal support for the poor. 

The right to consent requires the unanimous agreement of the individuals forming the government to give up some natural liberty in return for the security of rights, which is the government‘s sole purpose. The majority rules in everyday politics, and consent is maintained through elections. Should a government become unjust, violating rather than protecting rights, the people may exercise their right to revolution.

The Constitution is a product of these ideas and the experience of the Founders. The Founders’ experience of government under the Articles of Confederation—which led to legislative tyranny of the majority and the general incompetence of government—taught the Founders that consent must be structured, that good government requires something more than a legislative branch.

The key feature of the Founders’ constitutionalism is separation of powers, which produces two important results. First, separation of powers links constitutional means and personal motives in order to prevent one branch from dominating the other two. By connecting personal motives or ambition to constitutional means such as checks and balances or the presidential veto, separation of powers works to prevent tyranny. Second, separation of powers recognizes the existence of three powers in nature—executive, legislative, and judicial—and by keeping them effectively separated allows each one to do its job well. The separation of powers fosters good government—a deliberate legislature, an energetic executive, and a judicious judiciary. A government founded on the basis of these principles secures and fosters a republican way of life that brings about peace, justice, safety, and happiness.

Below you'll find a list of Hillsdale's best resources from Imprimis, the Kirby Center's lectures, and the College's faculty; key primary sources from The U.S. Constitution: A Reader; a selection of books for further reading; and a timeline of critical events in American history.

 

Latest Videos

 


Fundamental Writings and Videos  |  Primary Sources Further Reading  |  Constitutionalism in History

 

The Theory of the Declaration and the Constitution

 

This lecture is  part of Hillsdale College's free, 10-part online course, Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution.

 

FUNDAMENTAL WRITINGS AND VIDEOS

Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution 
Hillsdale College Politics Faculty  |  2014

The Three Branches of Government
Timothy W. Caspar  |  The U.S. Constitution: A Reader

Rethinking the Nature of Union and the Structure of Government
Timothy W. Caspar  |  The U.S. Constitution: A Reader
 

Constitutional Myths and Realities
Stephen Markman  |  August 2005  |  Imprimis

 

PRIMARY SOURCES

 

Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle

Written in the tradition of Aristotle's teacher, Plato—and of Plato's teacher, Socrates—the Nicomachean Ethics addresses the question, "What is the best life for man?" An extended reflection on virtue, happiness, and friendship, it helped to inform the moral and political thought of America's Founders. There are echoes of it, for instance, in President George Washington's First Inaugural Address, when he states "that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness."

The Declaration of Independence

With the War for Independence over a year old and hope for a peaceful resolution nonexistant, the Continental Cogress appointed a Committee of Five—including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin—to draft a document "declar[ing] the causes which impel [the American colonies] to the separation." Thirty-three-year-old Jefferson composed the initial draft, completing it in seventeen days. The committee submitted its draft to Congress on June 28, 1776, and on July 2, Congress voted for independence. Two days later, after numerous edits, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence by unanimous vote.

The Constitution of the United States of America

Fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island declined to participate) traveled to Philadelphia to attend the Constitutional Convention, which began in May 1787. They quickly scrapped the existing Articles of Confederation, and after four months they concluded their business by adopting a new frame of government. On September 17, thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution. It was nine months before the requisite nine states ratified the Constitution, putting it into effect. The thirteenth state, Rhode Island, did not ratify it until 1790. Subsequently, it has been amended twenty-seven times.

Fragment on the Constitution and the Union

Abraham Lincoln

This never appeared in Lincoln's public speeches, but it is possible that he composed it while writing his First Inaugural Address. It draws upon the King James translation of Proverbs 25:11—"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver"—to describe the relationship between the principles of the Declaration and the purpose of the Constitution.

Federalist 9

Alexander Hamilton

If too powerful, the central government would be tyrannical. If not strong enough, the Union would not hold together. In pointing out these problems, Publius argues that a solution has been found through a "great improvement" in the "science of politics."

Federalist 10

James Madison

Whereas democracy entails direct rule of the people, in a republic the people rule indirectly, through their representatives. A republic can therefore encompass a greater population and geographical area. This difference is decisive in the American experiment, Publius argues, for an expansive republic is able to control the inherent danger of majority faction.

Federalist 23

Alexander Hamilton

Publius argues that the Constitution creates a government limited in the objects it can pursue, but largely free to choose the best means to achieve those ends.

A House Divided

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln delivered this speech upon his nomination as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, where he would square off against incumbent Senator Stephen Douglas. Drawing the leading metaphor from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Lincoln held that pro-slavery forces—Douglas, Franklin Pierce (president when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was adopted), Roger Taney, and James Buchanan (president when Dred Scott was decided)—were working in concert to effect a national policy legalizing slavery in all states and territories. Papers throughout the North reprinted the text of the speech, propelling Lincoln to new prominence.

Second Inaugural Address

Abraham Lincoln

The South's surrender was a month away when Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural. Lincoln looks back on the war and ahead to the task of rebuilding the nation. A little over a month later, he was assassinated.

 

 
 
 

FURTHER READING

 

 

The U.S. Constitution: A Reader

Hillsdale College Politics Department

The Founders' Key

Larry P. Arnn

We Still Hold These Truths

Matthew Spalding

   

The Heritage Guide to the Constitution

Edwin Meese III, Matthew Spalding, David Forte

   

 

 
 

CONSTITUTIONALISM IN HISTORY

 

Massachusetts Constitution
1780

The Massachusetts Constitution is the oldest written constitution continuously in effect. Drafted primarily by John Adams, it influenced the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. Its declaration of the equality of all human beings contributed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s outlawing of slavery, making it the first state to declare slavery unlawful.

Annapolis Convention
1786

Amid dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation, five states sent delegates to Maryland's capital, but their small number kept them from reaching a lasting accord. Alexander Hamilton, certain of the need for a new government, called for a second meeting the following year—what would become the Philadelphia Convention.

Constitution Convention Convenes in Philadelphia
1787

The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia with 55 delegates from 12 states in attendance (Rhode Island refused to participate). Originally tasked by the Continental Congress with drafting amendments to the Articles of Confederation, James Madison, George Washington, and other leading Founders convinced their fellow statesmen to abandon the Articles entirely, instead proposing a new form of government.

The Federalist Papers
1787

Published under the pen name “Publius” in three New York City newspapers beginning in October 1787, The Federalist was called by Thomas Jefferson “the best commentary on the principles of government which was ever written.”

Bill of Rights
1791

The Bill of Rights was formally ratified by three-quarters of the states on over two years after it had first been proposed in 1789. This marked the first successful use of the Constitution’s Amendment process.

Election of 1800
1800

This presidential election is dubbed the “Revolution of 1800” as it marked the first peaceful exchange of power between political parties in human history. In the election, fiercely contested between the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, Thomas Jefferson succeeded his political rival John Adams as president of the United States.

Marbury v. Madison
1803

Despite the elction of 1800's pacific character, the election’s aftermath was marked by partisan rancor. Before Jefferson took office, President John Adams commissioned fifty-eight Federalist judges. Upon assuming office, Jefferson ordered their commissions be withheld. One of the judges, William Marbury, brought a case that eventually reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Marshall wrote an opinion that established the power of judicial review.

Missouri Compromise
1820

The sectional struggle over slavery came to a head in 1820. With eleven free states and eleven slave states, Missouri's impending statehood would disrupt the balance. After  months of debate, a compromise emerged: Maine would enter the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state. Additionally, slavery was prohibited in the territory of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border.

Kansas-Nebraska Act
1854

Proposed by Stephen Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned the Compromise of 1850 and established the principle of “popular sovereignty.” The act, which infuriated anti-slavery Northerners, led to Abraham Lincoln's return to politics and prompted the formation of the Republican Party.

Dred Scott v. Sandford
1857

Supreme Court Chief Justice Taney's ruling in Dred Scott v. Sandford threw the country into even greater turmoil. Asked to rule simply on whether Dred Scott’s residency in a free territory meant that he should be granted freedom, the Court ruled that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories and that persons of African descent could not be citizens, rendering the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 unconstitutional.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates
1858

A series of seven debates between Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and his Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln-Douglas debates showcased the growing political and philosophical differences between the two partiesand propelled Abraham Lincoln to national prominence.

Election of 1860
1860

The presidential election of 1860 was contested by four political parties. The Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as its candidate. Lincoln won forty percent of the popular vote and the electoral college by winning the majority of the Northern states.

 

14th Amendment
1868

Passed in the wake of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment defined American citizenship (overruling Dred Scott v. Sandford in the process), prohibited state governments from depriving their citizens of “life, liberty, and property” without due process of law, and required all states to provide their citizens with “equal protection” of the laws.