Is America 'the child of Europe' or is it it's own creation? I need to write on the origins of the ideas contained in The Constitution. Did The Founding Fathers create the political ideas found in the Constitution?
6 Answers | Add Yours
Most definitely, European thinking, especially that of French philosophers has influenced the thinkers of the American Constitution. Such great minds as Votaire, from whom the idea of church and state and personal freedoms come; Rousseau, from whom the idea of a non-intrusive government stems, and Montequieu, from whom the concept of separation of powers comes, exerted a tremendous impact on the formation of the government of the United States.
I think it's impossible to create an idea in a vacuum. There is always some intellectual genealogy or a previous connection that allows the development of new and advanced ideas. Certainly the Constitution is influenced by European Thinkers. Montesquieu develops the principle of divided government and its practical execution of checks and balances. The emphasis on human freedom and liberty is a Voltaire. The sometimes contradictory, but always vibrant conception of the First Amendment as a tool to enhance both positive and negative freedom (the right to be an active agent in one's own world and the right to be left alone from government influence) is a Rousseauian idea. The "Senate" is a Roman idea, and the fact that the Framers made a Senator a bit more powerful and possessing a lengthier tenure than the Representative counterpart, was also borrowed from the Roman Senate. Obviously, the previous posts have talked about the British contributions. Where the framers found success was being able to take these ideas and apply them to the context of America. For example, the Framers took Voltaire's ideas of freedom and this gained a great deal of traction in America because Britain had violated the economic and political freedom of the colonists in their acts and actions. Taking Montesquieu and applying it to the post- Revolutionary setting of America, where government was trapped between being ineffective or dictatorial allowed people to understand that government can function, but within established and communicated parameters. In these and other examples, we see the Framers taking European Ideas, and shaking them up in applying them to America.
I suspect that no ideas simply just "appear"; there is almost always a long history of thought that leads to new thought. This was the case with our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution (although some of the details of the constitution were, of course, part of our thinking).
One example of this is John Locke (you can follow the link below for a more details discussion or go to Wikipedia for a general introduction, especially the section on on political theory). Some of this thought were copied verbatim into the Declaration of Independence. You can also look into Roussea whose thinking about "The Social Contract."
If you would like a more general discussion of this topic, you might want to read the link to Stanford's discussion of the concept of "Democracy" which discusses some of the famous thinkers who provided the philosophical background that our founding fathers drew on to develop our constitution.
Much of what is contained in the Constitution is based on philosophers from the Age of Enlightenment, including Rousseau and Locke, as have been mentioned; some consider it the descendant of the Magna Carta from the 1200's which first limited the absolute powers of the monarchy in England. The Founders were profoundly influenced by Enlightenment authors, but also found inspiration in the democracies of ancient Greece. Much of the Constitution spells out what powers are given to whom, and carefully segregates the offices by which those powers can be exercised; this is again reflective of England which separated government into the executive (king) legislative (Parliament) and judicial (courts) It appears the the US Constitution was the latest, but Americanized evolution of governmental theory.
While discussing the question of the influences that shaped the nature of American constitution, it is important to note that the American constitution has emerged out of attempt to balance conflicting views that were presented by different delegates assigned the responsibility of drafting the constitution in 1787. Further, the constitution has evolved over a period. For example the original constitution of 1787 did not provide for liberty of individuals - what we call the fundamental liberties or rights guaranteed by the constitution. These were incorporated only in 1791 by way of first 10 amendments to the constitution. These amendments known as Bill of Rights are very much influenced by bill of rights of European countries such as as English Bill of Rights of 1689 and French Bill of rights of 1789.
We’ve answered 319,639 questions. We can answer yours, too.Ask a question