When I try to explain the aspirational genius of the American founding, I always refer to two documents—one of them one of the most famous documents in the English language, the other far more obscure. They’re by the famous “frenemies” of the American founding, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
The first, of course, is Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The second is Adams’s very short Letter to the Massachusetts Militia, dated October 11, 1798. In two pairs of sentences these documents define the American social compact—the mutual responsibilities of citizen and state—that define the American experiment. Here’s the first pair, from the Declaration:
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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The first sentence recognizes the inherent dignity of man as human beings created in the image of God. The second sentence, nearly as important, recognizes the unavoidable duty of government to recognize and protect that dignity. While the sole purpose of government isn’t to protect liberty, a government that fails to protect liberty fails in an essential function.