As the Twin Towers fell on September 11th, 2001, the event united Americans in ways never before seen by the non-World War II generations. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 also shattered the natural divisions within the United States. In the aftermath of both conflicts, all that mattered was that Americans, not simply human beings, were killed. Patriotism, the flame that ignites a political community, is seen time and time again during national crisis and tragedy. But what is mandatory to a political community is trust, which allows the motto e pluribus unum to have meaning. Trust must be the foundation of any society that wishes to form a government based on consent of the ruled. Peaceful transition of power, which is the cornerstone of Western representative democracies, is completely dependent on the trust the minority has in the majority of the same community.
In the book A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, Harry V. Jaffa details how it is possible to have an American political community. The Founding Fathers understood that within a free society, the risk of an overbearing majority will always be apparent. But trust, which politically means that the ruled believe the ruling will adhere to the laws that protect all including those absent from power, always falls at the feet of the minority who must choose to accept their own political weakness. Therefore, the standard cannot simply be sentiment or sympathy. It must be rooted in the ideas perfectly expressed by Thomas Jefferson as “the laws of nature and nature’s God”. From the natural right doctrine, the American political community is cemented in the idea of equal rights in the law, i.e., the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln understood this best as he attempted to appeal to the South’s mind after his ascension to the presidency. In this instance, he would fail practically but theoretically succeed. Relying on both the Founders and Abraham Lincoln, it can be affirmed that the social compact, understood through natural law and imperfectly realized in the Constitution, underlies all that allows for an American political community.
Trust, without a doubt, is the prerequisite for any political community to take form. The American political community is based upon the principle of popular government, which resonates from the ground up through universal voting rights. However, during the American Revolution, it was a difficult proposition to explain and implement. It was incumbent on the Founding Fathers and the American people to first create a semblance of trust within the nation. Practically, Tories, which were Colonists loyal to the British Crown, were victims of “mob violence” and driven from the colonies. But this merely eliminates declared enemies of the Revolution. The question of trust is still left unanswered. Therefore, it is necessary to draw from “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Summary View of the Rights of British America where he explains the natural right doctrine as it applies to those in America. Unlike the views expressed by some such as Russell Kirk, Jefferson’s argument against the British government’s abuses of the Colonies is not pointing to “the rights of Englishmen.” Jefferson is in truth arguing that British Americans possessed rights that pertain to all men, equally and always. Jefferson first argues that nature had endowed all British Americans, as their Saxon ancestors did before them, with the right “of departing from the country” where they were born. But, as Jaffa points out, rational decisions are made as to where one will later be located. And this migration was ultimately guided by the objective of “promoting public happiness.” If civic happiness is the goal of one’s location, which was guided by rational choice given by nature, then it is necessary to have government based on the conditions that protect the natural rights of man.
“[W]hen… it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands…” is the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, also written by Thomas Jefferson. The great uniting document of America explicitly outlines the rights of all men. These rights derive from “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” which could more readily be expressed as natural law. According to Jefferson, writing for all Americans, “[A]ll men are created equal… and endowed… with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The idea of equality, which flows from the natural right doctrine, is penned here to show that men are born free and therefore own themselves. If one is born free, one therefore consents to be ruled, since all are in sole possession of themselves from birth. In the Summary View, Jefferson notes that the king is “the chief officer of the people” and is part of the government which is “erected for [the people’s] use.” Jefferson assumes that all power and authority first begins among the people who compose society. Then government only has certain “definite power” that are used to the people, thereby working for the people’s “happiness.”
Government derives from the consent of the people, and the government’s objective is to defend the “life, liberty, and… pursuit of happiness” of the people, and if government becomes “destructive of these ends,” it is necessary and a “right” of those who are ruled to change the government. Rule is not an immediately natural existence. Through society, men gather into a political community. But it is only through the consent of the people, may government be proper. Jefferson would see the right of revolution being succeeded by the “right of free election” with his election in 1800. And the right of revolution is the base of which all the right of the people derive. To summarize, all men are equal because of “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” Since this is so, government is only legitimate if it is created through consent. The right of revolution is the guardian of these rights. Only through this understanding can a social compact, i.e., the Constitution, be successfully implemented.
The American government is one that resonates from the people, or society. In debating the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton asks the readers of The Federalist if they would accept such a proposition: Americans must decide “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” The operative word is “choice,” meaning the people of America are to decide their fate, much as Jefferson recalled the migration of the Saxons and later the Pilgrims and other British Americans. The Constitution is the social compact of the American people. But the election of 1800 is the culmination of the social compact which allows for power to derive from the people. Only then the will of society can be seen in government.
Thomas Jefferson, who defeated John Adams in the election of 1800, fulfilled the idea of the social compact. Jaffa compares the election of 1800 with the election of 1861 in that the winner had to persuade the public, both majority and minority, that the loser of the election was not the loser of “a war.” Jefferson says in his inaugural, “We are all republicans-we are all federalists.” This statement alone hammers out what it means to have a social compact. The “federalists,” represented by John Adams, had become the minority of America. But they, being part of the American political community, were in a sense, republicans. This appears to be improbable on the one hand, but Jaffa explains how this can be possible. Drawing from Aristotle’s definition of friendship, justice is an inherent quality of friendship. American citizens can be seen as friends of a community. Lincoln would also appeal to friendship in his first inaugural address, attempting to stop Southern succession.
James Madison, who wrote the Virginia Resolutions attacking the Alien and Sedition Act, argued that the social compact is understood through the Constitution. Here, the states were used as a vehicle to defend individual liberty, but the states were not used in a manner to defend a “state’s right” as such. It is of interest to note that Madison used the state of Virginia to uphold the social compact, e.g., individual liberty, but discourse in pursuant of ballots, not bullets, were used for political change. Lincoln, writing to Congress, states that, “[B]allots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets….” This is to say that clearly, the social compact was set concretely prior to 1860 and succession is not permitted. Madison, in an essay entitled Sovereignty, states that the will of the majority must be seen as the will of the entire society. The social compact was unanimous, as any political community must be prior to its formation. After formation, the great balance of majority and minority rights begin to fester. But, as stated above, the right of revolution defends all who are bound by the social compact and the natural rights that were present before and during.
The social compact, which binds together a political community, is realized through the Constitution. However only through the natural law embodied perfectly in the Declaration of Independence can there be a social compact to be entered in. The natural law doctrine comes before the social compact, but the natural rights of man are defended by the right of revolution on which America was founded on. Both the Founders and Lincoln understood the importance of the social compact and its affirmation through majority rule. However, trust is the linchpin of the American political community. It was this breakdown of trust that allowed the American Civil War and the crisis that almost destroyed a nation. Soldiers, however, saved the nation through their individual sacrifices. What civilians do to a political community is unfair to the soldiers who have payed the ultimate price. It is why Lincoln will dedicate America in the Gettyburg Address to the fallen Union soldiers who "gave the last full measure of devotion."
References (e-mail for exact page numbers):
Jaffa, Harry V. A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Peterson, Merrill D. The Portable Jefferson. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Rossiter, Clinton. The Federalist Papers. New York: A Signet Classic, 1961.
Strauss, Leo and Joseph Cropsey.