I’m going to begin with my two favorite quotes from two American founders—the two quotes that I believe set up the fundamental nature of the American social compact. The first is the most famous. It’s Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
He didn’t stop there, however. The very next words are key: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The meaning is clear. Each and every human being possesses God-given rights, and a fundamental purpose of government is to protect those rights. That’s the government’s side of the social compact, and these aspirational words were operationalized in the Bill of Rights. The Declaration is the American mission statement. The Constitution made it law.
But there’s another side to the American social compact. We know the obligation of the government, but what about the obligation of the citizen? Here’s where we turn to Thomas Jefferson’s rival, John Adams. And Adams gives us the second quote that frames our constitutional republic. Writing to the Massachusetts militia, he says, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
But that’s not all he said. In a less-famous section, he wrote, “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net.” Our government wasn’t built to force men to be moral. Instead, it depends on man’s morality for the system to work.