If we were to grade the United States of America on how well the nation and its citizens are upholding the privileges and opportunity we inherited from the country’s founders, we’d be disappointed in where we’ve slipped to over the past two centuries. The understanding of why and how America became the world’s leader in innovation, economic growth, human rights, and personal freedoms has been lost from the majority of today’s Americans. As we forget those principles, our society increasingly loses even more of the goodness that it was born with when God made it a nation.
I am going to tell you a story about freedom in its purest form and describe the principles upon which the most perfect governmental system in history was founded. These principles were spelled out in detail by Cleon Skousen in his book The 5,000 Year Leap. In that book, Skousen identifies and explains in detail 28 principles of freedom that were understood and incorporated into the United States government by the Founding Fathers of this country.
The miraculous events that culminated in the creation of the United States of America in the 1700s changed the world with an impact that no society before then or since has come close to comparison. The technological progress led by US thought and innovation have spread throughout the world to the benefit of billions of people, and have led to the world of opportunity we experience today in the 21st century.
When the British colonists were settled in North America prior to the American Revolutionary War and the subsequent establishment of a free nation, their modes of transportation, their medicine and healthcare, their ability to communicate, and other characteristics of their society (similar to the rest of the world at that time) were not much different from the century before theirs, and the century before that. In fact, the world’s advancement in terms of human rights, innovation, and technology over the 5,000 years leading up to the establishment of a government that espoused freedom in the new world was limited.
The culture that led to the establishment of the United States and that was perpetuated by the US Constitution allowed the entire world to essentially take a 5,000 year leap, moving ahead more in a century than it had in the previous five millenia.
In The 5,000 Year Leap book, Cleon Skousen gives evidence of the Founding Fathers’ commonly held beliefs in a set of principles that would ultimately form the foundation of government for a free society. As evidenced by the unique position held by the United States of America in all human history, this entire collection of principles was not known to any governing body previous to its revelation to George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and the other true public servants who were instrumental in establishing a system of government from which billions have benefitted since its construction.
I will present these 28 principles of freedom below, including a brief discussion of how well (or poorly) our contemporary society continues to espouse those principles.
If the United States is going to continue to be a great nation, it is imperative that you, I, and others within our sphere of influence be well versed in this information, and that we be vigilant in helping others understand the principles that have done so much good for so many people.
The overarching theme of all of these principles is a belief in God. That belief is quickly deteriorating from American society as well as from many of the world’s cultures. With that context, it is no surprise that we are as a collective society not doing well with regard to the 28 principles below.
- The Genius of Natural Law: The only reliable basis for sound government and just human relations is Natural Law.
Natural law refers to the philosophy that there are certain rights granted to people by their Creator. The philosophers Aristotle and Cicero as well as the prophets whose teachings are recorded in the Bible were proponents of natural law.
The Founding Fathers were highly influenced by these people and believed in natural law. The natural law philosophy is coupled tightly with the expectation that there is a set of natural morals and behavior codes for mankind to follow.
- A Virtuous and Moral People: A free people cannot survive under a republican constitution unless they remain virtuous and morally strong.
Following the concept of natural law is the expectation that a free society and good government must be comprised of a citizenry of people who are virtuous and moral. Although all people are morally imperfect, there must at least be the commitment from the majority to such things as honesty, integrity, frugality, humility,
An example of the Founders commitment to virtue and morality can be found in Benjamin Franklin list of 13 virtues that he thought were “necessary or desirable”. He spent considerable effort and documented the process of changing his character to more fully live those principles.
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” – Benjamin Franklin
- Virtuous and Moral Leaders: The most promising method of securing a virtuous people is to elect virtuous leaders.
It makes sense that a virtuous and moral society cannot be long maintained in a scenario where its leaders are corrupt. For that reason, the election or virtuous and moral leaders was understood as necessary for America’s government.
“He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country…will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.” – Samuel Adams
- The Role of Religion: Without religion the government of a free people cannot be maintained.
The Founders knew that religion plays a critical role in society as and moral influence, with the foundational purpose of each religion being to teach its adherents good from evil and promoting moral activities.
“And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” – George Washington
- The Role of the Creator: All things were created by God, therefore upon him all mankind are equally dependent, and to him they are equally responsible.
Atheism was viewed by the Founders as a failure by anyone who professed it to apply his divine inclination to understand the existence of God and to develop a relationship with his Creator. The existence of God was understood to be the most fundamental of self-evident truths.
Most recent surveys in the United States show that there is about 3% of the population that identifies as atheist and another 3% as agnostic. While those numbers may appear low enough to indicate that most of society still knows better, the influence of atheists is demonstrably growing.
- All Men Are Created Equal: All mankind were created equal.
It was the belief of the Founders that all mankind (including women) are created equal before God, before the law, and in their respective rights, and that the ideal would be to treat them as such.
Slavery in America has been consistently noted as a significant breakdown in this concept of equality for all mankind. However, this does not diminish the commitment of the Founding Fathers to the principle that all mankind are created equal, an ideal that has continued to be targeted since the founding, including through the ending of slavery and the Civil Rights movement.
A misinterpretation and abuse of the principle that all men are created equal exists in the gay rights movement, which conflicts directly with several of the principles the Founders understood for freedom, including natural, the need for morality, and the need to protect the family. The Founders considered homosexuality a crime.
- Equal Rights, Not Equal Things: The proper role of government is to protect equal rights, not provide equal things.
This principle does not allow for the government to redistribute wealth or to manifest related socialist or communist behavior. Instead, the government’s role is to prevent the trampling of or interference with a person’s God-given rights (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) because of race, religion, or other point of discrimination.
The current progressive income tax system that we have in America, which penalizes those whose incomes are higher (often because they make better use of their time and work harder) and tends to ultimately disincentivize people from achieving more, is one example of how our current government system has strayed from the vision of the Founders. Socialism has no place in the free society envisioned and constructed by the creators of our original government.
- Man’s Unalienable Rights: Mankind are endowed by God with certain unalienable rights.
This principle focuses on the source of human rights being God rather than men. Previous to the creation of the US Constitution, human rights were considered the government’s to bestow upon its citizens. This mentality of where rights come from is highly related to Principle 1 (Natural Law), and was changed intentionally when the Founders set up their new system of government. Specifically, Thomas Jefferson pointed out when he wrote the Declaration of Independence that humans have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Bill of Rights outlines other rights the Founders thought were important to point out explicitly based upon what infringements they had seen governments make on their respective citizens.
- The Role of Revealed Law: To protect human rights, God has revealed a code of divine law.
This principle focuses on the channel of communication between God and mankind, the process of revelation. Included with this principle is the concept of duties that people owe to the state to preserve the collective society as well as individual and more uniquely personal duties that each person has towards God as it is revealed to them in their particular situations.
- Sovereignty of the People: The God-given right to govern is vested in the sovereign authority of the whole people.
This principle bestows upon each citizen of a nation the right to participate in government. Instead of there being a ruling class and a separate class of subjects with no say, this principle asserts that each person has an accountability towards the government of his society. One of the aspects of this principle is the role and responsibility of those who are governed to replace their representatives whenever they fail to correctly represent the interests of their constituents.
- Who Can Alter the Government?: The majority of the people may alter or abolish a government which has become tyrannical.
The founders recognized that the tendency of people who are in power is to seek after more control. That is why they were careful about limiting the power of all governmental entities in many different ways.
The ability to overthrow or abolish an existing government belongs to the majority, not to an individual or minority.
“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security” – Thomas Jefferson
- Advantages of a Republic: The United States of America shall be a republic.
People mistakenly refer to the United States’ form of government as a simple democracy. The technically correct form of government established by the Founders was a republic.
The Founders saw dangers with a pure democracy, including a likely violent end as the uninformed majority continues to move towards what ultimately results in a form of tyranny.
A republic form of government is able to grow with the increase in a population, whereas a pure democracy breaks down as the complexity of its citizenry grows.
- Protection Against Human Frailty: A Constitution should protect the people from the frailties of their rulers.
This principle recognizes the weaknesses of all people, including and especially leaders who are given power, and whose natural tendencies are to use that power for their own benefit, often to the detriment of others. Even when intentions aren’t necessarily selfish or otherwise evil, mistakes in judgement always abound. The Founding Fathers knew that the government of a free people had to be guarded against the natural weaknesses of those who operate it.
- Property Rights Essential to Liberty: Life and liberty are secure only so long as the rights of property are secure.
This principle concerns property rights, which are necessary in a society in order for them to fulfill the Biblical mandate to have dominion over the earth. Without property rights, the good tendency of industry and personal development that accompany the ability to own something and improve it for future benefit would disappear.
- Free-market Economics: The highest level of prosperity occurs when there is a free-market economy and a minimum of government regulations.
The Founders were influenced by Adam Smith’s book “The Wealth of Nations”, which set out the principles upon which our free-market economy is based.
The free-market economy established by the Americans, wherein people began to specialize, traded with others, and the concepts of pricing based supply and demand coupled with competition created opportunities for profits and economic prosperity. This model made the American society exceptionally prosperous. By 1905, the United States was producing more than half the world’s goods with only 6% of the world’s population.
The federal government’s role in a free-market economy is limited to responsibilities governing illegal force used to compel the sale of a product, fraud, monopolies, and products and services that undermine moral standards (prostitution, pornography, drugs, etc.).
- The Separation of Powers: The government should be separated into three branches .
The Founding Fathers were influenced by Polybius, a Greek philosopher from the 2nd century B.C., and Charles de Montesquieu, a French scholar in the 1700s. These men advocated for a separation of powers in government. Their ideas and influence made its way into the US system of government and the three-pronged division of executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
- Checks and Balances: A system of checks and balances should be adopted to prevent the abuse of power by the different branches of government.
Naturally flowing from the separation of powers principle was a way for each branch of the divided government entities to be kept in check.
These checks and balances continue to exist in the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the federal government. However, the Marbury v Madison case in 1803 gave the Supreme Court power to review and strike down laws it sees as unconstitutional, which gives that branch more power than it should have.
“It will not be denied that power is of an encroaching nature and that it ought to be effectually restrained from passing the limits assigned to it.” – James Madison
- Importance of a Written Constitution: The unalienable rights of the people are most likely to be preserved if the principles of government are set forth in a written Constitution.
Although it seems intuitive to us in our age that such an important concept as a constitutional law should be written down, prior to the establishment of the US Constitution, the prior tendency among Anglo-Saxon common law was to not have the foundational law written.
- Limiting the Powers of Government: Only limited and carefully defined powers should be delegated to government, all others being retained by the people.
There was a fear among the Founding Fathers that the federal government would tend to snap up powers that would cause it to infringe on the rights of individual citizens. That tendency has played out according to their fears. The 10th Amendment to the US Constitution deliberately gives to the states and to the people at large any power not specifically provided to the federal government.
The US federal government has obviously grown out of control since the time that the attempt was made to prevent that from happening. As a result, freedoms that were enjoyed by those who were governed by the initial application of the Constitution have been severely eroded, and important decisions that should be made on a local level (education, taxation) have been taken over by an intrusive federal government.
- Majority Rule, Minority Rights: Efficiency and dispatch require that the government operate according to the will of the majority, but constitutional provisions must be made to protect the rights of the minority.
It was recognized by the Founders that unanimous decisions are impossible to reach in legislative bodies, and that it was only practical for decisions to be made based upon the choice of the majority. At the same time, it was important that the rights of minorities also be protected.
- Strong Local Self-government: Strong local self-government is the keystone to preserving human freedom.
The Founders commitment to self-government translated into have strong local governments, who made decisions at the level closest to the constituents.
America has seen the power of local governments erode over the past 200 years, and we now find ourselves in a situation where federal laws and regulations often interfere with local needs and self-government.
- Government by Law, Not by Men: A free people should be governed by law and not by the whims of men.
This principle is yet another acknowledgement of the imperfection of mankind. Due process, trial by jury, and other elements of our law come from the understanding that a free people cannot exist when their freedoms and rights can be jeopardized by subjection to the unstable and biased opinions of any certain person. For that reason, government was to happen according to an established set of laws rather than through the whimsical judgements of imperfect people, who are often influenced by passion and short-sightedness.
- Importance of an Educated Electorate: A free society cannot survive as a republic without a broad program of general education.
Contrasted with societies previous to their establishment, the English colonies set out to educate everyone. An emphasis on teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic made the literacy rate among the colonists much higher than their English counterparts. Self-learning was also encouraged. Schools were established by the colonies, and local school boards were set up to oversee the education of the children, who were taught using the Bible. Early education also emphasized topics related to morality, politics, and good government.
Today, our education standards are established by the federal government to the detriment of local persuasion. This new approach is largely failing.
- Peace Through Strength: A free people will not survive unless they stay strong.
The need for a strong military to ward off attacks and intrusion by enemies was recognized as being important by the Founders. Seeing that attempts would be made to exploit the prosperity that naturally developed under their new system of free enterprise, it was obvious that maintaining that prosperity would need to be done through a strong defense system, a military presence that could protect the country from invasions.
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” – George Washington
- Avoid Entangling Alliances: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none.”
Thomas Jefferson made this statement during the inaugural address of his first term as president of the country. The Founding Fathers espoused a doctrine of “separatism”, which guided their foreign policy.
With their unique system of government in place, the Founding Fathers did not want undue influence from other nations, whose values could conflict. Keeping arms length distance from all foreign governments was seen as necessary to maintain its unfettered sovereignty.
We have not been good at following this principle, as the US has made military alliances and entered into economic and other agreements that cost us a great deal of money and that usually end up not being beneficial to the country.
- Protecting the Role of the Family: The core unit which determines the strength of any society is the family; therefore the government should foster and protect its integrity.
The family unit, consisting of father, mother, and children, was understood to be the fundamental organizational unit in society. The only way to preserve the expectations of society with regard to morality, education, and other aspects of prosperity and stability was to keep the government from interfering with the family.
Modern society, including government, is failing badly on this front. Successful attempts are being made consistently to undermine the traditional family unit and replace it with unworthy substitutes, including “marriage” between two people of the same gender despite clear evidence of the damage those policies have on the family and ultimately the civilization.
- Avoiding the Burden of Debt: The burden of debt is as destructive to human freedom as subjugation by conquest.
Although they recognized there were extenuating reasons for the federal government to borrow money, the Founders were very leery of debt. They were especially concerned with the idea that one generation could burden the next with debt it incurred, considering that activity immoral. Wars and other financial emergencies were the only reasons the federal government to ever borrow money.
We do not see any hint of this Founders guiding principle in our federal government today. Spending is out of control. Increasing debt is seen as normal and necessary to finance government programs that are wasteful, expensive, and absolutely unnecessary.
- The Founders’ Sense of Manifest Destiny: The United States has a manifest destiny to be an example and a blessing to the entire human race.
The European settlers on the American continent sensed the magnitude of what they were doing. Even in the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, there was a feeling (which inspired extraordinary sacrifice and led to miracles) that something divine was under construction, and that it would ultimately affect the entire world.
This inherent obligation to spread the message and mission of the United States of America is known as Manifest Destiny.
When she was finished being assembled, the United States of America understood her role as ambassador of freedom and holder of the most perfect form of government ever developed under such unique circumstances as to merit a missionary approach towards the rest of the world.
Restoring the 28 Principles Among Our Society
It doesn’t take much scanning of the 28 principles discussed above to notice that our country has largely abandoned the Founders’ ideals. The economic and social value that comes packaged with those principles may be at risk of disappearing, which means that American society may be living on borrowed time with respect to prosperity and greatness.
The only way to restore those principles to our society is to spend time understanding them ourselves and then evangelize them within our spheres of influence. I hope this article helps you with your responsibility to do just that.