In celebration of Independence Day here in the United States, we decided to take a look at where the Founding Fathers got some of their ideas. While the specific notions of democracy that inspired American liberal democracy go back to ancient Greece and Rome, their more immediate source of inspiration was the reaction against the “divine right” theory of Sir Robert Filmer (cir. 1588-1653), chief theologian of James VI/I (1566-1625) of Scotland/England.
|Sir Robert Filmer|
According to Filmer, only a government having a king appointed or sanctioned by God is legitimate. This is because the king is directly descended from Adam, who in Filmer’s interpretation of the Bible was given dominion over the entire Earth to the exclusion of all others.
In Filmer’s theory, only the king has rights, because only the king is sovereign. All other people are limited to such rights as the king chooses to grant them. Rights may be revoked at the king’s pleasure, although (being directly inspired by God and ruling in His Name), he will not do so unjustly.
Filmer’s Divine Right theory did not go unchallenged, especially by the Catholic Church in the person of Roberto Francesco Romolo Cardinal Bellarmino, S.J. (1542-1621), Saint Robert Cardinal Bellarmine. A champion of human dignity and thus a personalist (although he made a critical mistake, below), Bellarmine maintained that God created every human being with natural rights, and thus with political sovereignty. As Filmer summarized the “vulgar opinion” of his chief opponent in the opening passage of Patriarcha,
Mankind is naturally endowed and born with freedom from all subjection, and at liberty to choose what form of government it please, and that the power which any one man hath over others was at first bestowed according to the discretion of the multitude.
|Robert Cardinal Bellarmine|
In countering Filmer, Bellarmine influenced political thought and thus the concept of the sovereignty of the human person instead of an élite or a Divine Right monarch. He wrote extensively on the legitimacy, source, transmission, and application of the civil power, that is, of political sovereignty, especially in De Laicis and De Summo Pontifice.
Bellarmine declared that because the sovereign power resides in actual people, government only receives its power as a grant from human persons. In addition, distinguishing between political and social, he argued that the legitimacy of political power is demonstrated by the fact that it is necessary, man being social. Civil government would thus be legitimate even if the Fall of Man had never occurred. As he explained,
For even if servile subjection began after the sin of Adam, nevertheless there would have been political government even while man was in the state of innocence. And this is proved, firstly, because even then man would have been by nature a political and social animal, and hence would have had need of a ruler.
Algernon Sidney (1623-1683) and John Locke (1632-1704) also took up the gage against Filmer in Discourses Concerning Government (1698) and Two Treatises on Government (1690), respectively. Both Sidney and Locke were used by the Founding Fathers of the United States, with some essential corrections from a personalist standpoint.
Of these corrections, the most significant was the question whether man is by nature a political animal, or whether his natural state is outside society. In this both Sidney and Locke differed from Bellarmine, who held by the opinion of Aristotle and Aquinas. That is, man is by nature a political animal, subsisting naturally in a consciously structured social environment.
Still, the American Founding Fathers managed to take the best of Sidney, Locke, and Bellarmine, and synthesize it into a theory of liberal democracy uniquely American. Credit for this can probably be given to George Mason of Gunston Hall (1725-1792), sometimes called “the forgotten Founding Father.” Most of the Founding Fathers got Bellarmine’s thought secondhand through Locke and Sidney. Mason, however, may have read Bellarmine directly, imbibing a better understanding of natural law based on the Intellect, and thus developing a consistent theory of personalism.
|George Mason of Gunston Hall|
This is evident in how Mason, a slave owner, attempted to undermine the legal justification for slavery when he drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776.
When the Virginia Convention met in the spring of 1776, they adopted a resolution to draft a declaration of fundamental natural rights. As Mason was the most experienced legal writer in Virginia, he drew up the draft. Following his usual practice, he included a provision that implicitly destroyed the legal justification of chattel slavery by including all men without qualification:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
If all men are naturally members of society, regardless of circumstances, it logically follows that this applies to slaves. The clear implication is that slaves have the natural right to be free.
Unfortunately, the conservative (“aristocratic”) delegates to the Virginia Convention were ready for Mason. They immediately challenged the language, accusing Mason (with justification) of wanting to abolish slavery.
Mason was forced to agree to amend the language, or be faced with the possibility of losing Virginia’s support for the Revolution. As historian Robert Rutland noted,
As finally approved, the first sentence read “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; . . .” The italicized phrase, with its implicit proposition that slaves are not members of society, placated the opposition.
Possibly warned by Mason’s experience, Thomas Jefferson was able to retain the basis of natural law and inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence adopted a month later. This, however, was only at the cost of surrendering a passage condemning slavery and leaving out mention of private property as a natural right.
Still, a Bill of Rights was added to the 1789 Constitution that included recognition of private property in the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment. More to the point, the personalist orientation of the document is stated in the Preamble: “We, the People,” with the clear implication that the State only gets what rights it has from actual human beings who are, ipso facto, persons with inalienable rights.