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Universalism In the Thought of the Founding Fathers

ISSUE:  Summer 1976

John Adams once wrote: “Know thyself is as useful a precept to nations as to men.” If the celebration of the Bicentennial anniversary of our American republic is to have any meaning and not be merely flag-waving, one-minute TV spots, and patriotic July 4 lip service, it should lead us in a search for national self-knowledge. The Bicentennial setting directs us to look to the past, and whatever our present political failings, we can do this with pride and joy. Moreover, if we look backwards to the universal principles inherent in the foundation of the United States, we may find vision and strength to face the tasks of the present and future. Is it not a mistake to believe that the strength of a nation is embodied in its power? National strength, it seems to me, resides as much in principle and vision, as in power. Moreover, power when misused is destructive, and it may be more destructive of the user than the victim. In fact, the more powerful a nation, the greater the danger that abuse of power, both in internal and external affairs, may be self-destructive.

Our Founding Fathers, certainly the leaders among them, were intellectually men of the age of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was characterized by its universalism, the affirmation of universal principles in human affairs, and a cosmopolitan vision of mankind. This universalism is manifestly evident in the Declaration of Independence, and hence in our origin as a national state.

This American republic was founded in a highly exceptional way. Most nations and states have deep ethnic, linguistic, and territorial roots in a remote and obscure past. Their nationality has mythical sources. They were not born in a blaze of rationality and of dedication to universal principle. The Declaration of Independence was the first application of the rational political concepts of the 18th century in the world of reality. With its Constitution and Bill of Rights, its republican form of government with a federative character, this nation embodied a universal idea.

The only other state in the world based in its inception primarily on an idea, to my knowledge, is the Swiss Republic. In August 1291, representatives of three communities in the Swiss Alps met and swore an oath of mutual assistance; under attack from the Austrian King they swore to fight together to maintain their institutions and independence. This oath, set down in a treaty, founded the Swiss confederation. Such an oath is a clear expression of an idea, the idea of mutual self defense. The original confederation grew partly by conquest, but more importantly by the voluntary association of adjacent cities and communities. Thus people of diverse ethnic extraction, language, and religious confession were brought together in the Swiss community. The Swiss confederation, with its ancient democratic forms modernized by the Constitution of 1848, which was modeled, in part, upon our Constitution, has endured for 700 years. Ideas are enduring, and states born of ideas are hence likewise enduring.

The idea of mutual self-defense is, of course, a very limited one. The idea behind our own republic is more general, broader, and with universal aspects. It is not one simple idea, but a manifold of interrelated ideas. Liberty under law; such inalienable rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; equality before the law; government by consent, with participation of the people rather than acquiescence—these are all aspects of the American idea. Three of its major sources are to be found in the English heritage and tradition, the Christian tradition, and the 18th-century philosophy of the Enlightenment. These three sources are not separate; they are interrelated and in practice intermingled.


In 1776 seven in ten colonists were of English descent; English was the common language; and nearly all the customs, institutions, laws, and ideas were English. In his speech on conciliation with the colonies in March 1775, Edmund Burke reminded Parliament that “the people of the colonies are descendants of Englishmen . . .they are therefore not only devoted to liberty but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles.” In the same speech Burke pointed out that the spirit of liberty was “stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.” The American colonies did not revolt because they were oppressed, but because they were free in the English tradition. In fact, since there was an ocean between them and the mother country and since frontier conditions of life influenced their attitudes, they were more free in many respects than the English at home. During the critical period of 1765-76, and up to the eve of independence, the colonists argued as Englishmen demanding English rights. They appealed to their rights confirmed by the Magna Charta, common law principles, the royal charters, and the British constitution. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and other memorable events in the development of English liberty were invoked for support. When the English Parliament and King sought to impose greater authority in the administration of the colonies, the Americans revolted, to seek greater freedom in independence.

The Christian tradition was another major component of the American idea. From the earliest days of the colonies, the preachers were leaders in political thought and argument, particularly in New England, but also in the other colonies to a lesser degree. By 1765, the lawyers had become the largest group in political thought, but the preachers constituted the second largest. The pulpits were used unabashedly to thunder God’s word on controversial issues. A sermon in 1774 by Reverend William Gordon of Roxbury, Massachusetts began:

“The pulpit is devoted, in general, to more important purposes than the fate of kingdoms, or the civil rights of human nature, being intended to recover men from the slavery of sin and Satan, to point out their escape from future misery through faith in a crucified Jesus, and to assist them in their preparation for eternal blessedness. But still there are special times and seasons when it may treat of politics.” The decade before 1776 was such a special time and season.

It has been estimated that the sermons of the revolutionary ministers were responsible for nearly one fourth of the volume of political thought in this decade. Their thought followed the general line of the Founding Fathers, with more mention of God, but no less of John Locke. The Massachusetts clergy were requested by the Provincial Congress to “make the question of the rights of the colonies . . .a topic of the pulpit on weekdays.” They did so on Sundays as well. Hundreds of ministers in country churches reached people who did not read pamphlets and newspapers. For those who did read, the printed sermons competed with the political pamphlets and newspaper articles for influence.

The third major component of the American idea is the 18th-century philosophy of the Enlightenment. The 18th century did not produce a set of novel ideas, but revitalized old ones. The basic concepts particularly of natural law, natural rights, and the unity of mankind, were ancient ideas going back to the foundations of Western civilization in the Hebraic-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. The theory of natural law is the oldest of libertarian philosophies. Affirming the reality of moral restraints on power, it was a part of the Anglo-Christian heritage. The colonists who were seeking to limit the power of Parliament, sought limits more fundamental and more universal than those expressed in laws, charters, and constitutions; they turned to the universal principles of natural law and natural rights for this purpose.

In revolutionary America, all the political thinkers assumed the existence and applicability of “the Laws of Nature’s God.” “Higher law,” another term for the “laws of nature,” was found by colonial thinkers in three sources: God, nature, and the history of liberty.

The definition of natural law most widely cited by the colonists came from the high British Tory Sir William Blackstone, who declared: “Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, . . .(and) in all points conform to his maker’s will.

“This will of his maker is called the law of nature . . . when God created man, and endowed him with free will, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that free will is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself conforms; and which he has enabled human reason to discover. . . . Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due; . . .

“This law of nature . . . is binding all over the globe in all countries, and at all times: No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid . . .derive all their authority from this original.”

It is important to realize that liberty is not licence, and that the freedom of the Founding Fathers was under the regulation and restraint of natural law. There is a contemporary popular tendency to conceive of freedom as arbitrary choice, the right of an individual to do as he pleases. This is not the freedom of the Founding Fathers; they believed in freedom under the law of nature. They subscribed to John Locke’s interpretation of natural law, namely, “reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind . . .that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions . . .”

Most important, natural law was the source of natural rights. Jefferson wrote that a free people claim “their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate,” i. e., not from the government nor the community. While still a student at King’s College, New York, in his first pamphlet in 1774, Alexander Hamilton wrote, with a student’s enthusiasm: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself.” In the final analysis, natural law came to be equated with natural rights, and the two expressions were used interchangeably.

Natural rights meant to the colonists the rights of man qua man, that is, those which are intrinsic to man as man. He cannot divest himself of these rights, if he is to remain a man, and not become a beast; therefore these rights are inalienable. The inalienable rights which Jefferson listed in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence were “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It may be that Jefferson, as other colonists, included property in his definition of liberty. One other right was accorded the same primary value, namely, the right of conscience, the right of an individual to worship God freely in his own way.

In the revolutionary literature there was a proliferation of declared human rights. Even the right to brew beer at home was alleged natural, unalienable, and essential. However, to the five primary natural rights, generally seven other civil rights in addition were affirmed: the freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition; civilian supremacy over the military; free election and representative legislature; trial by jury and other judicial safeguards. The best statement of all the pertinent rights is contained in the Virginia declaration of rights drafted by George Mason and adopted by the Virginia convention June 12, 1776 nearly a month before the Declaration of Independence. The substance of many of its articles has been incorporated in the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

Aside from the theory of natural law and natural rights, there were other features of the Enlightenment which entered prominently into the thought of the Founding Fathers. Among these were a sense of human progress in history, a conviction of the perfectibility of man, and an acknowledgment of the underlying unity of mankind, of the brotherhood of man. In a letter to Lafayette in 1786, Washington wrote: “I indulge a fond, perhaps an enthusiastic idea, that, as the world is evidently much less barbarous than it has been, its melioration must still be progressive; that nations are becoming more humanized in their policy, that the subject of ambition and causes for hostility are daily diminishing; . . .” Ten years before his death, Jefferson wrote: “Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to a state of perfection as that there shall no longer be pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and, most of all, in matters of government and religion; and that the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.” The colonists had always believed in the value of education and the revolutionists reasserted this view strongly.

The men of the Revolution were very history-conscious, but while they may have looked to the past for the basis of defense of their rights and their liberties, they looked to the present and the future for their more essential reality. In a letter to John Adams in 1816, Jefferson wrote: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”


The government of the United States was not established, nor was the American nation formed, by an exclusivist idea, but rather a universal idea. When the argumentation of the Founding Fathers shifted from its emphasis on the rights of Englishmen to its ultimate stress on the natural rights of man, of man as man, it gave the United States a foundation so universal in character and appeal that men of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds could be assimilated and included in it. The melting pot was a reality even at the time of the revolution.

As men of the Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers based their revolutionary appeal on reason. Reason is a universal, a common attribute of all men, in so far as they are men, and not beasts. When the Founding Fathers set forth their aspirations for liberty and happiness, they were not proclaiming a narrow American aim, but fundamental goals applicable to all mankind. When the patriot preachers supported the revolution from the pulpit, they based their appeal on universal moral and religious principles. In 1765 John Adams wrote: “I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder, as the opening of a grand scene and design of Providence for the illumination of the ignorant, and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth.”

Jefferson likewise believed that the United States was chosen by Providence to lead mankind in a common task, namely, to fight against privilege and for individual liberty, animated by faith in the perfectibility of the common man, and to accomplish this task by establishing a government which embodied the liberal, rational, and universal ideas of the Enlightenment. In 1802 when President, Jefferson said in a letter; “We feel that we are acting under obligations not confined to the limits of our own society. It is impossible not to be sensible that we are acting for all mankind; that circumstances denied to others, but indulged to us, have imposed on us the duty of proving what is the degree of freedom and self-government in which a society may venture to leave its individual members.”

The sense of mission had deep roots in America. It antedated the revolution. The Puritans in New England, like those in England, felt themselves to be the chosen people, ordained by God to found the new Israel. This idea was secularized by 18th-century rationalism and natural rights concepts. It re-emerged with full force at the time of the revolution, and thereafter. The Founding Fathers were convinced that our nation had been singled out for a destiny much higher than our own prosperity. In his first inaugural address, Washington spoke in this sense as follows: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” This sense of higher destiny as well as the rational and universal character of American revolutionary thought led to its great influence in England, and particularly in France, in the last three decades of the 18th century.

Nevertheless, the new American republic had a unique and threatened position when all Europe was governed by conservative monarchies. Jefferson believed that the reactionary European governments hated the United States as a reproach to themselves and would destroy it if they could. In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers established an isolationist foreign policy for the United States, a wise policy for a weak young republic in its formative years. By avoiding entangling alliances, the United States stayed out of European wars and conflicts and gained time to expand across the continent and acquire economic and industrial strength. In this way the hallowed experiment was protected. Nevertheless, the sense of mission, the desire to witness the spread of democracy, was never lost. However, up until the end of the 19th century, aside from the Monroe Doctrine, there was no serious consideration given in the United States to a policy of United States intervention to support democratic strivings elsewhere in the world. At the time of the 1848 revolutions in Europe there was some discussion of the issue. In particular, there was great sympathy for the Hungarian bid for independence. Words of encouragement were expressed, and after the Hungarian revolution was crushed, a warship was placed at Kossuth’s disposal for travel to the United States and a warm welcome was arranged, but no assistance in the form of men, money, arms, or even diplomatic support was given.

The prevailing view was that the United States should seek to influence mankind by the excellence of its institutions and democracy, by shining example, not by force nor even explicit persuasion, but by an example which elicits emulation. President Fillmore stated in 1851: “Our true mission is not to . . .impose upon other countries our form of government by artifice or force, but to teach by example and show by our success . . .the advantages of free institutions.”

Woodrow Wilson was a man profoundly versed in American history. Under his influence the universal message of America was revived in the circumstances of World War I. In his address to Congress of April 2, 1917, Wilson declared that the world must be made safe for democracy, that we are one of the champions of the rights of mankind, that the right is more precious than peace, and that we shall fight for democracy, for the rights of small nations, and for a universal dominion of right by a concert of free peoples that shall bring peace to all nations and make the world itself at last free.

No longer was the American message to be spread merely by example, but now by force and might, by participation in a most terrible war, in Wilson’s words, “civilization itself seeming to be in the balance.” The treaty of Versailles was not the just and lasting peace that Wilson sought; the League of Nations was established, but the United States Senate rejected participation by the United States.

Under even more difficult conditions, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to revive the American aspiration during World War II, Deliberately avoiding Wilson’s errors, he separated the establishment of an international organization from the peace treaties, and astutely maintained bipartisan support in Congress for his foreign policy. The United Nations contains elements of universalism in its Charter and in its development. However, in its essential core the Charter is primarily a collective security pact. Ironically it has not been fulfilled as such, in so far as no agreement has ever been reached on the establishment of international armed forces under the Security Council, as provided for in article 43. This lack of agreement resulted from the political and ideological conflict which arose between the Soviet Union and the Western powers soon after the end of World War II hostilities.


In the last 200 years, there have been three great revolutions, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. The United States still lives under the Constitution resulting from the American revolution, France had a more tortured history, with revolutionary terrorism, Napoleon, the Restoration, the Revolution of 1848, etc. but in the end the principles of the French revolution bore fruit in the French political structure. The American and French revolutions also bore fruit during the 19th century in the development of the diverse western European democracies. In contrast, the Bolshevik revolution had roots and sources very different from the American and French revolutions. These sources were the Russian autocratic tradition, 19th-century materialism, Marxism, with its economic determinism, the class struggle view of history, and the proletariat as the vanguard of mankind, Although claiming Communism is the wave of the future for all mankind, the Communist ideology is not really universalist, but rather exclusivist, inasmuch as it is based on a narrow materialist class conception, the proletariat, and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Exclusivist ideologies leave little room for freedom of the individual or human rights. National Socialism was another exclusivist ideology, based on race, the German race, which also denied individual freedom and human rights. Both ideologies have led to totalitarian and autocratic political regimes. Communism is more enduring, for one reason because its ideology is less exclusivist than National Socialism: the working class is broader than the German race.

In 1786 Washington foresaw that commerce might connect mankind in one great family; in 1868 President Andrew Johnson foresaw that the increased facilities for intercommunication might bring together all portions of the earth. What was vision then has become now established fact. Technological and industrial developments of the past 150 years have united mankind in one world society. The unity, albeit not the fraternity, of mankind has been achieved. The economic interdependence of the nations of the earth is now generally recognized. They are also politically interdependent in diverse ways, but most importantly, in the primal sense that the survival of all mankind depends upon the political conduct of the major powers with their massive nuclear armaments.

Not only is all mankind threatened by the quick death of strategic nuclear warfare, but also by the slow death of ecological maladjustment. Industrial expansion and the population explosion, both made possible by modern technological developments, have created a host of transnational problems, for instance, environmental problems, such as, air pollution, water pollution, thermal pollution, possible depletion of the ozone. Also resource exhaustion is threatening the food supply of the burgeoning world population and the supply of raw materials for our modern technological civilization.

Since the end of World War II, there has been a proliferation of international organizations seeking to deal with general problems of human society. The most important organizations have been established under the auspices of the United Nations, and, in my opinion, the prime importance of the United Nations lies today in this field. Nevertheless, in the United Nations organizations and elsewhere, the voices of national difference and narrow national interest are clamoring loudly. Perhaps the voice of reason is always faint in human affairs, but at critical times we should seek to amplify it. Does not reason tell us today that the survival of the human species is dependent on the widespread recognition of the brotherhood of man? As we have seen, the Founding Fathers of the United States had a sense of the unity and brotherhood of man, and they conceived their creative task as in relation to all mankind.

Is the United States just one nation among others? Yes, if we look at the contemporary nation-state world political scene. No, however, if we look to our origins; the American nation was born of an idea with a universal message. This message of the Founding Fathers is relevant to the American present, and it should be heeded both in our national domestic as well as our foreign policy.


In past years, it has occurred to me that our origins were perhaps too specific and particular: the English heritage, the Hebrew-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions. How could our message speak to peoples in Asia and Africa with different spiritual traditions? Hence it has seemed to me that we could not remake the world in our own image, for instance, create a democratic nation in South Vietnam, and hence we should not have tried. Certainly we should not have tried by force, as our Founding Fathers well knew. Yet all the nations of the world are in one process of modernization, some very slowly and spottily, to be sure, a process stimulated by technology and leading most likely to a world civilization, if not to a planetary graveyard. The American idea was grounded in a sense of all mankind, and were we worthy of our forefathers, it would still speak to all mankind.

Having been bruised by the costly venture in Southeast Asia, the American people have been turning inward in their concerns, to domestic problems long neglected by the political leadership. Seen from a historical perspective, the internal disorders and dissent of the past decade, which were obnoxious to so many of us at the time, may appear as a sign of the intrinsic soundness of a people, finally rebelling against the mistaken foreign policy of an inadequate leadership. If these disorders have had the effect of turning American attention to internal problems, they may prove as beneficial in this regard as in their influence on foreign policy. No country can long play a leadership role on the world scene without maintaining its inner strength. In my opinion, we would do well to devote our energies primarily to our domestic problems: crime and violence, civil rights, corruption, economic and social justice, public welfare. We would do well to seek to lead mankind by the example of domestic success in institutions, order, and quality of existence.

The world now is much less safe for democracy than in 1917. We will have to carry a big stick for a long time, but we should speak softly. If the message of the Founding Fathers were to give framework and direction to our foreign policy, we would avoid the arrogant use of national power, military or economic, and the arrogant intellectualism which seeks to impose its views by force or coercion. Prudence, restraint, and humility should be the attributes of a foreign policy which seeks to fulfill a profound universal message.

To affirm the primacy of domestic success for the great American experiment does not mean a return to isolationism, a rejection of foreign aid, nor a repudiation of participation in international organizations. In the contemporary world, characterized by the interdependence of nations and the growing unity of world society, isolationism makes no sense. As the leading technological, agricultural, and industrial power in the world, we have a responsibility to help the less developed countries modernize their societies. Foreign aid should not run counter to, or diminish, domestic public well-being—and in my opinion it never has. As to the existing international organizations, including the United Nations, they may be very imperfect in structure and composition; they have certainly developed beyond our control. Nevertheless, the United Nations is in a real sense our creation, and we played a major role in the development and support of the whole United Nations system of specialized agencies and other international organizations. Imperfect as the existing international organizations may be, they merit our continuing, albeit selective, support inasmuch as they represent an effort toward fulfillment of the American message in its concern for all mankind.

As to our foreign policy, we should continue to develop, as we have been doing for nearly 20 years, the network of common interests with the Soviet Union in the fields of arms control, trade, tourism, and scientific, technological, educational, and cultural exchange; in recent years we have even reached the stage of joint efforts in space exploration, medicine, science, and other fields. The same policy has been applied even longer to the Eastern European Communist countries, but unfortunately only in the past few years to Communist China. The ultimate security of mankind may lie in the strength of this network, and the mutual recognition of the overriding value of these common interests. When political strife, however caused, rises to an intense pitch, involving the major nuclear powers, what shall stay the hand of power and pride from wreaking destruction? A sense of the possible consequences, the likelihood of mutual self-destruction—this should be a powerful factor, but it is negative, and it might not affect suicidal tendencies in men. It must be buttressed by a mutual recognition of the positive value of the common interests and a mutual desire not to let political conflict jeopardize or rupture these common interests. We are at present far from reaching such a stage, but we are on the way.

While we seek to cultivate common interests with the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, we need not deny nor obscure the antithetical relationship between Communism and a libertarian democracy. Communism offers oligarchy, party dictatorship, and the subjection of the individual to a totalitarian system. It offers a splendid disparity between image and reality. It does present a model for modernization which has some appeal for developing societies, even though as yet the results have lagged far behind the economic development of free societies which provide material incentives to all the population. Communism may triumph in many parts of the world, but it is not likely to triumph throughout the world. In any case, as a world movement, Communism is already profoundly fragmented.

If it is true, as I believe it is, that the quality of ideas are a determining factor in their survival, then institutions and nations born of ideas are the beneficiaries of this quality in their survival. However, it is necessary to strive unremittingly to remain true to these ideas. The world has changed greatly in 200 years; the American nation has changed. Perhaps it has become harder to live up to the aspirations of the Founding Fathers, but those aspirations can still light the way.


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