American Political Thought

Before turning to the Constitutional Convention, it is important to note that the Framers of the document were entering uncharted territory. The early objections of some Convention delegates notwithstanding, they were gathering not to make minor adjustments to a flawed confederal government, but to create an entirely new form of government. As they did so, they expanded a growing body of knowledge collectively known as American Political Thought. With roots in the writings of numerous "Old World" authors and in the experiences of the colonies before and after the war, the concepts and precepts the Framers brought to Philadelphia with them were at the same time deeply philosophical yet utterly practical; thousands of years old, but as new as the sunrise that dawned on the delegates as they arrived to participate in the Convention.

The American Founders were well-versed in the political writings of their day and most had at least a passing acquaintance with the arguments presented by a wide range of political philosophers. But they were not simply thinkers. They were, as one historian has described them, "statesmen--men of action and practical wisdom."1 Moreover, the American Revolutionaries were not simply "unconscious puppets of the presuppositions of their age." Rather, they were "thinking revolutionaries" who were determined to reshape existing concepts of government and sovereignty by "replacing old intellectual precepts and societal purposes with new precepts and purposes of their design."2

Their legacy would be the creation of the most enduring constitution in modern history. Blending philosophy, religion and practical experience, they created a government which derived its authority from the people and which was kept in check by the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial), auxiliary precautions and federalism.

Who Influenced the Founders the Most?

While there is no doubt that John Locke was one of the most influential writers of the Founding era, there is some deal of controversy about which authors and which texts had the greatest impact on the Framers of the Constitution. Indeed, Locke's contributions were primarily influential in the pre-Revolutionary era when the Framers were revolutionaries seeking justification for their war against the crown. In pamphlets, books and newspaper essays written during the 1760s, references to Locke accounted for more than 10% of all references to political or philosophical authors, a greater percentage than any other author.3 (Montesquieu is second at 8%, after which the percentages taper off significantly.) The frequency of references to Locke drops off very quickly though, falling to 7% in the 1770s and then just 1% in the 1780s.

So who was the most influential author on the Framers as they drafted and debated the Constitution in Philadelphia? By a wide margin, the most cited author of that period is Montesquieu who had much more to say about the practical arrangement of governments than did Locke. Montesquieu's greatest contribution to the American Founders was undoubtedly his emphasis on the separation of powers. During the 1780s, references to Montesquieu accounted for 14% of all references to political authors or philosophers.4 However, it would be misleading to suggest that Locke or Montesquieu or any other author had an overwhelming amount of influence on the Framers. Indeed, a sampling of more than 3,000 political writings from the United States between 1760 and 1805 included references to more than two hundred and thirty different authors.5

What is most striking, however, about the references the Framers and other politically active citizens made during that time period is the importance of religion. Fully 80% of the political pamphlets written in the 1770s and 1780s were written by ministers and when all references from the political writings of this time period are taken into account, a staggering 34% of references made are to the Bible. In fact, Deuteronomy by itself ranks as the most cited book during this era.6

The Need for Civic Virtue

Clearly, religion played a significant role in the development of the ideas and philosophies that formed the basis for the American Constitution. However, religious freedom--and hence diversity--was one of the primary reasons people had left their homes across the ocean to come to America. The references to the Bible notwithstanding, it was to be a nation that had no official religion and placed no limitations on civic participation on the basis of religious beliefs or practices. In the place of a national religion, the Framers envisioned a new civic religion that could bind the people together in support of the principles championed by the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution and the new Constitution.

While much has been made of the lack of references to morality or virtue in the United States Constitution, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Framers did not believe civic virtue was necessary to the survival of the republic. On the contrary, Madison argued that in the republic to be created by the Constitution, civic virtue was of central importance.  In The Federalist No. 55 he argued that:

As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.  Were the pictures which have been drawn by the political jealousy of some among us faithful likenesses of the human character, the inference would be that there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government; and that nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another.

In Madison's view, without civic virtue, all of the structures and precautions of the Constitution, as important as they were, would not be sufficient to safeguard liberty.

In The Federalist No. 64, John Jay further emphasized the importance of internal checks on individual behavior.  Speaking of the trustworthiness of those who would be Senators, he remarked that "every consideration that can influence the human mind, such as honor, oaths, reputations, conscience, the love of country, and family affections and attachments, afford security of their fidelity."  It is when such considerations fail, he concluded, that the constitutional provisions must be brought to bear on those who violate the public trust. However, it was presumed and hoped that such violations would be rare. If the precautions in the Constitution were the only means of preventing such violations, the Framers would have been much less optimistic about the nation's future.

Recommended Books on American Political Thought

American Compact: James Madison and the Problem of Founding, by Gary Rosen
The Thinking Revolutionary, by Ralph Lerner
Novus Ordo Seclorum, by Forrest McDonald

1. Thomas Pangle, The Spirit of Modern Republicanism: The Moral Vision of the American Founders and the Philosophy of Locke (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), 1.
2. Ralph Lerner, The Thinking Revolutionary: Principle and Practice in the New Republic (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979), 18.
3. Donald S. Lutz, A Preface to American Political Theory (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1992), 138.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 135-6.
6. Ibid.