In the lead-up to the American presidential election, politics play out in real time on our screens and TVs every day. Young and old debate the issues, argue points, and share perspectives. Opinions clash on nearly everything— including the best way to govern, the limits of government, and the way the country should be run.
Unsurprisingly, these are debates that have gone on for centuries, from the days of our Founding Fathers. In honor of the election, we’ve put together some of the ideas of famous Americans from The Politics Book, all but one of whom were presidents themselves.
The third president of the United States, and a key figure in the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson was appointed as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence in June 1776, while serving as a delegate from Virginia to the Second Continental Congress.
The Declaration was drafted during the American Revolution, a revolt of Britain’s 13 American colonies against rule by the Crown.
In drafting the Constitution, Jefferson was influenced by thinkers such as English liberal philosopher John Locke, who stressed the “natural rights of humanity,” and the need for government to hold a “social contract” with the governed.
Born in 1706 in Boston, Benjamin Franklin played a leading role in the long process that brought the United States into being. He is considered one of the most important Founding Fathers of the United States.
Following the Independence of the United States from British rule, the Founding Fathers set out to design a new system of government. They opposed centralized, absolute authority and aristocratic privileges. The view of human nature that underpinned this new system of government stemmed from classical republicanism, which saw civic virtue as the foundation for a good society. In the view of Franklin, individual entrepreneurs made good, virtuous citizens. In this, Franklin articulated the future capitalist spirit of the United States.
The foundation of the United States of America after the Revolutionary War against Britain left the nature of the new republic unresolved. Although the county was formally committed to the equality of “all men” though the Declaration of Independence, slavery saw millions of Africans transported across the Atlantic to plantations throughout the Southern states. The 1820 Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in the northern states, but not in the South.
Abraham Lincoln’s statement that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent” comes from a speech of 1854. He argued against the right of states to maintain their own laws, by contesting that the foundation of the United States on the right to individual liberty overrode the right to “self-government.” The republic was built on liberty and equality, not on political convenience or as a compromise among states that retained their own authority.
Even as the Founding Fathers were putting the finishing touches to the US Constitution in 1788, demands came for the addition of a Bill of Rights. The architect of this bill was James Madison, and the idea that the people have a right to keep and bear arms appears as its Second Amendment. The correct interpretation of this amendment has been a much-debated through history and to present day.
Like most of the Founding Fathers, Madison was nervous of the power of the majority. A Bill of Rights might help protect the minority against the mass of the people.
Curious for more politics? Try 12 Fool-Proof Tips for Talking Politics At a Dinner Party. Or better yet, pick up The Politics Book. From ancient and medieval philosophers to the voices who have shaped modern politics today, The Politics Book clearly and simply explains more than 100 groundbreaking ideas in the history of political thought.