If we truly cherish the heritage we have received, we must maintain the same virtues and … character of our stalwart forebears—faith in God, courage, industry, frugality, self-reliance, and integrity. We have the obligation to maintain what those who pledged their life, their fortunes, and their sacred honor gave to future generations.
Ezra Taft Benson
This course, American Heritage, will be an exploration of the foundational principles that underlie American tradition and culture. The material in this course covers the basic political, economic, and religious ideas that supported the founding and creation of the United States with a general, thematic, and chronological overview of its history and struggles. However, unlike American history courses taught at other universities, this course will operate with an understanding of the doctrine and teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We will examine aspects of American Heritage in light of what we can learn from Church leaders and the scriptures, as well as the ways in which those true principles contribute to the formation of good government and society.
We will begin our study in this week’s reading by answering the following questions:
It is our goal that the answers to these questions will provide you with a solid foundation that you can build on throughout this semester. We know that “it is [God’s] will that [we] should hasten to … obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man.” Therefore, we encourage you to think critically about these principles and test them through personal observation and by studying them out in your mind. Like the New Testament prophet Paul instructed the Thessalonians, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
The first Puritan settlers to the American continent borrowed the phrase “a city that is set on a hill” from the New Testament to describe their venture into the New World. The Puritan religious mission was to purify the Church of England and to stand before the world as an example of a true religious community. Their mission, which involved the land that would become the United States, has remained to this day. During America’s revolutionary period, the 1620 Mayflower Compact idea evolved into one of the first examples of liberty and self-government. This mission can be seen throughout the history of the United States, including in America’s continuing efforts to spread peace and democracy throughout the world. Throughout its history, the United States has stood as a beacon of hope for a better life. Hillsdale College Professor Wilfred M. McClay had this to say on the subject:
The western hemisphere was inhabited by people who had come from elsewhere, unwilling to settle for the conditions into which they were born and drawn by the prospect of a new beginning, the lure of freedom, and the space to pursue their ambitions in ways their respective Old Worlds did not permit. Hope has both theological and secular meanings, spiritual ones as well as material ones. Both these sets of meanings exist in abundance in America. In fact, nothing about America better defines its distinctive character than the ubiquity of hope, a sense that the way things are initially given to us cannot be the final word about them, that we can never settle for that. Even those who are bitterly critical of America, and find its hopes to be delusions, cannot deny the enduring energy of those hopes and are not immune to their pull.
Many people may think that the United States has a divine mission as a light unto the world; this is a dangerous thought, as it does not mean that everything that has happened throughout the history of the country has been led by God. Mistakes and wrongdoings have been made in the history of the United States. The Book of Mormon prophet Moroni reminds readers to learn from these mistakes: “Rather give thanks unto God that he had made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.” Therefore, we assert that the hope for a better life, due to the divine principles the United States was founded on, has blessed innumerable people and continues to do so as we learn from our mistakes.
According to scripture and the teachings of prophets, the true mission of the United States is for it to be a preserved and protected place for religious liberty against tyranny and oppression. It is also the place from which the law of the Lord shall go forth throughout the world. Examples from sacred text include:
Wherefore, I will consecrate this land unto thy seed, and them who shall be numbered among thy seed, forever, for the land of their inheritance; for it is a choice land, saith God unto me, above all other lands, wherefore I will have all men that dwell thereon that they shall worship me, saith God.
Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written.
And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountains of the Lord and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
The United States has a prophetic mission to be a choice land where free people can worship. As part of that mission, it was the only place where the gospel of Jesus Christ could be restored to the earth in the latter days. As President Joseph F. Smith taught:
This great American nation the Almighty raised up by the power of his omnipotent hand, that it might be possible in the latter days for the kingdom of God to be established in the earth. If the Lord had not prepared the way by laying the foundations of this glorious nation, it would have been impossible (under the stringent laws and bigotry of the monarchical governments of the world) to have laid the foundations for the coming of his great kingdom. The Lord has done this.
Although the restoration of the Gospel began in the United States, it continues to unfold in nations throughout the world. This is because the foundational principles within the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have spread to other nations. These two documents carry with them the pattern for an environment of freedom that is ideal for our human experience. The spread of these principles and the opportunity they provide for freedom of religion and choice is part of the great work of the gathering of Israel.
Several concepts are foundational to understanding the heritage of America. These divine principles continue to be crucial for individuals and nations throughout the world.
Agency is defined as “the ability and privilege God gives us to choose to act for ourselves,” and it is the principle in our individual lives that allows us to progress or regress according to God’s plan. Apostle D. Todd Christofferson said in an October 2014 Conference talk:
God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, ‘that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.’ It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama.
Lehi taught the principle that each individual is free to choose the direction of his or her life:
Wherefore men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.
Whether seen in the temples’ endowment session or read in the scriptures, the story of Adam and Eve is a reminder of the foundational principle of agency. Eve’s use of agency, along with Adam’s decision to support her, put Heavenly Father’s entire plan in motion. President Russell M. Nelson once said:
We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve’s great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done. Adam was wise enough to do likewise.
In order for individuals to fully enjoy the benefits of agency, it is crucial that they live in an environment of liberty (defined later in this section). The United States Constitution was crafted to create a government with power to act on a national level but not as much as to risk the agency, liberty, and fundamental rights of its constituents. We learn from modern day revelation and prophets that the United States Constitution was “established … for the rights and protection of all flesh” because “the most desirable condition for the exercise of that agency is maximum freedom for men and women to act according to their individual choices.” The vital reason for us being free to act is so that “every man may be accountable for his own sins on the day of judgment.” There is an important connection between agency and accountability.
There is also an important distinction to be made between agency and freedom. Elder Oaks said that “because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.” Therefore, the laws made by governments may limit our freedoms, “the right to act upon our choices,” but they cannot take away our ability to make choices. We sometimes link our agency to our freedoms, but “interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency.” Elder Oaks then gave an example of Joseph, the prophet who was sold into Egypt. As a servant of Pharaoh, he was wrongly put in prison. This action by the government, “restricted Joseph’s freedom, but he [Pharaoh] did not take away his free agency.”
Knowing that our agency can never be taken away, we should seek out principles that help us exercise our agency, which also helps us experience accountability. Accountability is “the opportunity to assume personal responsibility” for our choices. Elder D. Todd Christofferson explains that this is “a God-given gift without which we cannot realize our full potential as daughters and sons of God.” In fact, like agency, “personal accountability becomes both a right and a duty that we must constantly defend; it has been under assault since before the Creation.”
Our life’s progression is not possible if we simply exercise our agency. We must also be responsible for our decisions in order to reach our full potential. Elder Christofferson says that we must defend accountability against:
Yeomni Park, a North Korean defector, explained this connection between choice and responsibility for choice in her memoir.
I never knew freedom could be such a cruel and difficult thing. Until now [before escaping to South Korea], I had always thought that being free meant being able to wear jeans and watch whatever movies I wanted without worrying about being arrested. Now I realized that I had to think all the time—and it was exhausting. There were times when I wondered whether, if it wasn’t for the constant hunger, I would be better off in North Korea, where all my thinking and all my choices were taken care of for me. I was tired of being so responsible.
Our ability to make choices, act on them, and then be responsible for those choices is an “indispensable prerequisite” to experience and enjoy liberty.
Liberty is a term that means different things to different people. Abraham Lincoln made this same point while speaking at a convention in Maryland in 1864 during the Civil War.
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things called by the same name—liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names—liberty and tyranny.
In these types of debates, individuals argue over what they think the true definition of liberty is. For example, in 1748 the Maryland Gazette newspaper featured a series of letters between the citizens who were debating the nature of constitutionalism in British America. One citizen, who named himself “Freeholder,” argued against allowing for the taxing power to go solely to the county court without any oversight because “true Liberty consists in being secured from the wicked Impositions of a Tyrant and Oppressor.”
If there are so many definitions, is there really a true definition of liberty? The answer depends on many variables like time period, culture, customs and history of the people using the term, to name a few. For example, liberty and freedom are synonyms for us today, but these words had different meanings before the 18th century. Here is a brief timeline with the corresponding definitions:
From the timeline above, we see that the Mediterranean world thought in terms of liberty, and the North European World thought in terms of freedom, but the English language was the only European language that allowed for both. Words shape our thoughts which can correlate to our actions. For example, North Korean dissenter Yeomni Park wrote that even though they (North Koreans) share the same ethnic background and language as South Korea, North Koreans have “no words for things like ‘shopping malls,’ ‘liberty,’ or even ‘love.’” This was an effort by the government to prevent people from higher thinking that might result in rebellion. Therefore, it is significant to American Heritage that the English language had ideas of both freedom and liberty because the people and culture that formed the United States were primarily from the British Isles. On the left is a snapshot of the demographics in America right after the US Constitution was ratified in 1787.
Our understanding of liberty is shaped by the Founding Fathers' understanding of the word, drawn from their experiences, British culture and language, and their study of political philosophers. They understood liberty to describe the opportunity to make choices (agency). Choices exist when we have rights, privileges, and ownership over something. Those rights, privileges, and ownership matter if they are protected by law from others and from the government itself.
For example, a person has liberty by making a choice to buy a house and have that house protected from property destruction by others, or from arbitrary confiscation by the government. Therefore, liberty strives to find the perfect balance between too little government (anarchy) and too much government (tyranny).
This basic definition guided the Founders to try and find the best way to construct a government. Here are some quotes from political philosophers and American Founders that help explain the need for balance between freedom for choice and laws restricting choice:
1689—John Locke, Second Treatise on Government: “The End of the law is not to abolish or restrain but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law there is no freedom.”
1788—Alexander Hamilton, speech in New York Convention, 25 June 1788: The aim of the US Constitution was to find “the perfect balance between liberty and power … Good constitutions are formed upon a comparison of the liberty of the individual with the strength of government: If the tone of either be too high, the other will be weakened too much.”
1790—James Wilson, Lectures On Law: Wilson defined American character as “the love of liberty and the love of law … because neither of them can exist, without the other. Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness.”
1796—George Washington, Farewell Address, 17 September 1796: “Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.”
In summation, liberty cannot be achieved with finality at one time but must be maintained and balanced throughout time. We need to balance our opportunities to make choices (agency) with the need to have laws. What type of laws will help us achieve Liberty?
The Doctrine and Covenants teach, “That which is governed by law is also preserved by law and perfected and sanctified by the same."
Rule of law is the concept that the law is the rule always—in all cases and for all people. Law is supreme. This is the principle through which God functions and the Plan of Salvation is organized.
For instance, all things are organized according to the laws of nature. From the law of gravity to Newton’s laws of motion, the natural world functions according to set, impartial, immutable laws. These laws provide order, stability, and assurance. Former apostle N. Eldon Tanner asked,
Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if we could not depend on the sun rising at a certain time each morning? Or if the earth failed to rotate on its axis for only one day, or for just a few minutes? Or if the law of gravity were suspended? In a very short time, the earth and all mankind would be destroyed. All bodies of the universe are controlled in space and move according to law … All of this is possible only because through the laws of nature, the Creator keeps creation in its course.
In the same manner, the laws of God “are as clear and as binding and as irrevocable as those of nature, and our success or failure, our happiness or unhappiness, depend on our knowledge and application of these laws in our lives.” Divine law, like natural law, is foundational to our existence and progression. Divine law provides clarity and assurance throughout our life experience.
Joseph Smith taught concerning law:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.
In the Book of Mormon, we learn about the laws of Justice and Mercy. In the most complete manifestation of acting in accordance to divine law, our Savior “answered the ends of the law” by completing the Atonement. His Atonement fulfilled both the Law of Mercy and the Law of Justice. Because of this and other aspects of His divine godhood, Christ is the law.
We live in a world in which the rule of law—the rule of natural law and the rule of divine law—was established from the beginning. It continues to provide clarity, order, stability, and assurance in our lives.
Divine laws, including laws of nature, have certain characteristics. First, they are impartial. These laws are fairly enforced, meaning they apply to everyone. Second, they are immutable. They do not change. Third, they are also fairly promulgated. That means they are made widely known to all. The Lord makes sure, through the prophets, that we know exactly what is expected of us. Finally, divine laws are in alignment with divine principles. Law is simply a manifestation of truth.
Good law is impartial, stable, clear, and good. It follows principles of Justice, which leads to peace, which leads to freedom and liberty, which leads to full exercise of agency.
For earthly laws to be good laws, they should have the same criteria. First, they should apply to everyone impartially. The rule of law, then, places everyone on equal footing and gives no one special advantages over others. It provides fair rules for society, just like the rules in a children’s board game. One child playing checkers may want to move her pieces backwards to gain an unfair advantage over her opponent, but the rules prevent it. As in checkers, the rule of law means that all must abide by universal rules, regardless of what they might want. This applies to those governing as well as those being governed.
Second, law should be stable. In the secular world, laws change from time to time, but there should be an orderly way established for laws to change so those impacted are aware of the changes. The United States Constitution is one example of this. It is the supreme law of the land and cannot be changed unless the specific amendment process is followed.
Third, law should be widely promulgated—widely made known to all. It would be unjust for a motorist to be pulled over for speeding if the speed limit is not clearly indicated. It is the responsibility of citizens to be aware of current laws.
Finally, for law to truly be good, it should be in alignment with divine principles. Since not everyone on earth accepts divine principles as truth, creating earthly law that aligns with divine law is difficult to achieve. According to the Doctrine and Covenants, laws should “preserve,” “protect,” and “sanctify.” For example, there are many who believe that pro-abortion laws are good laws and, if measured against secular principles, these laws might be considered good laws. But, when measured against truth, a pro-abortion law does not “preserve,” “protect,” “sanctify,” and, as such, is not in alignment with divine truth. Therefore it could not be considered good law. In like manner, all laws can be measured against a divine metric to determine their true value and worth. Good law in its fullness is defined and established by or inspired by God. Bad law is defined by and established or promoted by the adversary.
If the rule of Law is in place in a society, it will protect against the arbitrary exercise of power. Dealing with power is one of the greatest challenges of earthly governments and achieving this protection against arbitrary power is justice. If every person is subject to law, no one can rise above the law and unjustly usurp power and authority. Thus, the rule of law is crucial for justice to be present in a society.
The rule of law furthermore ensures individual and collective good. Justice leads to an environment of peace and liberty. Under these conditions, individuals are able to fully act upon their choices in accordance with their agency. It also means that individuals are accountable for what happens to them. Remember that when the Nephites moved to a rule of law system, King Mosiah felt great joy. No longer would a single person be responsible for their actions and sins. The people themselves would assume responsibility. Under the rule of law, a person’s guilt determines punishment, so the people themselves are responsible for the consequences of their behavior. One’s own actions, not the caprices of a mob or a tyrant, decide their fate. The rule of law is absolutely crucial to the full functioning of agency and accountability.
In summary, rule of law is a condition in which well-defined and established law is applied equally to all, thus restricting arbitrary exercise of power and contributing to the individual and collective good. Ideally, such law is in accordance with divine principles.
If we didn’t have the rule of law, if the law was not the rule for all people in all cases, then we would be subject to the rule of will. Rule of will can be manifest through excessive government (tyranny) or absence of government (anarchy). Both have the opposite effect of the rule of law. There will be no justice, no peace, no liberty, and, although people always have agency, it will be more difficult to act upon choices made. Protecting the rule of law is crucial: nothing less than the exercise of agency is at stake.
The Rule of Will comes in two forms. The first, we call anarchy. In anarchy, people take away rights by force because there is no government there to stop them. Anarchy, then, is defined as the Rule of Will in the absence of government. With no restraining government power, all become the enemy of all. Avarice and fear drive people to take the lives, liberties, and properties of others. The strong dominate the weak by theft, rape, enslavement, and murder.
Anarchy is the more brutal of the two forms of the Rule of Will and unfortunately, there have been many instances of anarchy throughout history. For instance, we often picture the 19th century American West as a time of honorable cowboys, peaceful sunsets, cattle drives, and heroic conquest of untamed land, but the reality was far crueler. Bandits sacked cabins, roving thugs raided wagon trains, men shot each other in the streets, and because of their remote location out West, little authority was there to stop them.
Anarchy is what finally killed the prophet Joseph Smith. The local authorities arrested and placed him in jail, but then withdrew all government protection and allowed mobs to come and lynch him. It is ironic that mobocracy killed the prophet since he had spent a lifetime combatting this evil. He had seen the saints persecuted by lawlessness in New York, Ohio, and Missouri and he constantly petitioned the government for help. President Van Buren’s response “I can do nothing for you,” summarized the unwillingness to stop the anarchy that caused such suffering among the Saints. When Senator Calhoun wrote to Joseph Smith that he would also do nothing for the LDS if elected president because the Federal Government’s powers were “limited and specific,” Joseph responded in a lengthy letter of righteous anger. Senator Calhoun, Joseph argued, failed to understand that the most basic function of government is to protect the rights of the people under its jurisdiction. A senator or president who failed to “reinstate expelled citizens to their rights,” he said, was a “monstrous hypocrite fed and fostered from the hard earnings of the people.”
Anarchy is still impacting people today. Numerous third-world countries are run by local warlords and gangs because their governments cannot or will not impose order. There are pockets of anarchy in our country where government rule is weaker than that of local criminals. Furthermore, anarchy can break out at any moment, even in well-established governments, as exemplified in post-Katrina New Orleans when looters took control after the government evacuated.
Let’s now turn to the other, more common, form of the Rule of Will: tyranny. While anarchy is the Rule of Will in the absence of government, tyranny is the Rule of Will through government. In theory, the government is the body that prevents us from violating one another’s rights, but in practice the government itself often takes our rights away. Once empowered, government rulers use this power to compel others according to their own will. We cede power to governments to prevent coercion, but then the government itself becomes an agent of coercion.
We could spend thousands of pages listing the examples of tyranny from history and still not even come close to telling its full story. In fact, most of the history of humankind has been the gruesome story of unrestrained, unjust government oppression.
Nazi Germany is just one famous example. Hitler used the force of government to rule over and control millions of Jews, homosexuals, Romanians, and dissidents. He would seize their homes and wealth (taking their right to property), beat them and send them to prison camps (taking their right to liberty), and ultimately execute them with scientific efficiency in gas chambers (taking their right to life). The Nazi tyranny alone is the source of countless stories of unimaginable horror.
You’ve also heard of the millions killed by Communist tyrants like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, but perhaps not as much about ancient tyrants like Qin Shi Huang Di, who conscripted thousands of laborers to build him a terracotta army to accompany him to the next life. After its completion, he killed the laborers because he feared that if they lived they might create a similar monument for a future emperor. Millions died to satisfy the egomania of the first emperor of China.
This only scratches the surface. There is a history of tyrannical atrocities around the world, like Japanese militarists, Ottoman imperialists, Spanish inquisitors, and American slaveholders. The story of human tyranny is almost endless.
As you can see, the two forms of the Rule of Will are both tragic and pervasive. Either government rulers impose their will on the people, or non-government actors do when the government is powerless to stop them. In both cases, people use force to deprive others of their natural rights.
In contrast to anarchy and tyranny, the Rule of Law means that stable, impartial laws rule over society, rather than anyone’s will. Government coercion can only be used to enforce non-arbitrary laws designed to protect the public. Under the Rule of Law, power over others is never exercised according to anyone’s individual desires, but only as the law demands.
The three overarching concepts of Agency, Liberty, and Rule of Law are foundational to this course. They will be woven throughout every aspect of our studies this semester. Recognize them as we proceed through the lessons. These principles will elevate and elucidate everything we study. Building upon this foundation, our American Heritage course will proceed in the following manner.
In the first few lessons of this course, we will study the historical underpinnings and development of the formation of the United States of America. We will see clearly the hand of the Lord in the development of a host nation for the restoration of the Gospel and the Constitutional principles intended to bless the world.
In our current lesson, Lesson 2, in addition to studying the principles foundational to this course, we will explore the English heritage that America was built upon. It is significant that the United States of America emerged from an English political heritage of natural rights of life, liberty, and property. It is also significant that the United States emerged from an English religious heritage of Protestantism with its potential for freedom of conscience. Understanding America’s English Colonial Heritage is crucial to an appreciation of the heritage of America.
During Lesson 3, we will trace the path that led the Colonists from proud English loyalty to Revolution and Independence. We will gain an appreciation for the fact that though indebted to her colonial heritage, independence became necessary for America and paved the way for events to follow. We will learn about the contributions of the Founders, wise men who the Lord raised up for the specific purpose of the formation of the United States and her Constitution.
In Lesson 4, we will focus on the early days of America’s existence and the struggles they faced under their first government, the Articles of Confederation. We will follow the country and the Founders through the inspired process of the development of the Constitution of the United States. We will come to appreciate the importance of a Constitution formed upon democratic and republican principles.
Lesson 5 will be a thorough discussion of the inspired principles of the Constitution of the United States, with our main text being President Dallin H. Oaks’ 2021 Conference address on that topic. We will become familiar and appreciative of the principles of Popular Sovereignty, Federalism, Separation of Powers, and the Bill of Rights. This will include a refresher on the importance of the Rule of Law. We will understand the importance of these principles, not only for the United States, but for the entire world.
In Lesson 6, we will turn our attention to the early operation of the United States Government under the new Constitution. We will also discuss the Civil War that followed later in the country’s history, as America grappled with the blight of slavery and with other crucial, unresolved constitutional concerns.
In this lesson we will also study the foundational importance of Religion in America and its Constitutional connections. We will discuss the implications religion and religious freedom have currently for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other citizens throughout the world.
A study of history highlights the interrelatedness of religion, politics, and economics. All three subjects have serious, practical implications for the daily life of individuals worldwide. In the next few lessons, however, we will focus specifically on the Economy of the United States.
In Lesson 7, we will learn about the basics of economic systems, including the market system. We will also discuss American economic development and industrialization. Finally, we will contrast the market system to command economies like socialism and communism.
In Lessons 8, we will highlight the specifics of the market system and the challenges that have come from implementing it in an imperfect world. We will discuss unequal distribution of wealth. We will also personalize economic principles and apply them to provident living and self-reliance practices.
In Lesson 9, we will discuss monetary and fiscal policy, inflation and deflation, and the most economically devastating period of US history, the Great Depression. We will study the government’s response to this period and the repercussions of those policies.
In the last few lessons of the course, we will be exploring four different aspects of the American experience. We will see, despite America’s inspired heritage, implementing inspired principles in an imperfect world can be difficult.
In Lesson 10 we will learn about America’s history of inclusion and exclusion of certain parts of the population. We will discuss the Civil Rights Movement, immigration issues, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. We will highlight the importance of implementing the lofty truths of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal into daily practice.
In Lesson 11 we will discuss the Democratization of America, meaning the process by which, over time, more and more citizens gained the right to vote. We will learn about the process and struggle for attaining Women’s Suffrage. We will also discuss America’s two-party political system, its history, and its challenges.
In Lesson 12, we will explore America’s foreign policy and its relation to the rest of the world. We will discuss the Founders’ views, the Monroe doctrine and its corollary, America’s imperialistic period, and its role in the two world wars. We will apply these principles to current events.
In Lesson 13, we will end our studies with a look at America’s spirit of change and reform. Most of America’s citizens have had a strong desire to make the world a better place. We will discuss some periods of heightened reform in America. We will also consider how each of us can contribute to reformation in our own countries.
As we gain knowledge of America’s political, religious, and economic heritage, we will better be able to understand, appreciate, and articulate inspired principles and practices that are divinely designed to bless all the world. Our hope is that this knowledge will better equip us to act as citizens of our countries, leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as children of God.
The United States of America derives much of its heritage from the British Isles. Additionally, the British Isles had a significant influence on The Church of Jesus Christ. President Ezra Taft Benson wrote in 1977 of the impact of the Saints who immigrated to Nauvoo from the British Isles. He explained that the “greatest legacy contributed by the British Isles to the kingdom of God … is the number of valiant souls—veritable defenders of the faith—who came from the United Kingdom to strengthen the Church at a time of its greatest vulnerability.” It is also interesting to note that, in 1977, about “eighty percent of the members of the Church … [were] descendants or converts from the British Isles.”
The foundational concepts of Agency, Liberty, and the Rule of Law did not begin with the establishment of the United States of America in 1776. Seeds of these truths were planted long before in the minds and hearts and practical experience of the English. Several historical examples show how these foundational principles were manifest in the English experience.
In 1215 A.D. King John I had launched a number of wars to aggrandize his kingdom. Those wars were not cheap. To finance them, John decided to raise taxes on the landowners. In most countries, the King had absolute power and the people would simply have to submit to oppressive taxation, but the nobles in England had power to rival that of the king. These lords gathered their armies and forced John to sign the Magna Carta, which declared that no English king could raise taxes without the consent of those paying them. In other words, it prohibited “taxation without representation.” Many English-speakers around the world trace their freedoms back to this seminal document.
Few political philosophers influenced the American Founders more than John Locke. Locke was born in the 17th century. He thought and wrote extensively about the nature of government. In his Second Treatise of Government he described a theoretical state of nature in which all of mankind was only under the rule of God. He explained that in this state of nature, all men were perfectly free and equal, being restrained only by the confines set forth in the laws of nature established by God. Such laws included not infringing on other people’s freedom or possessions and dealing with others in the same way you would want to be treated. Locke acknowledged that not all people in a state of nature will act in accordance with this law. Furthermore, human nature tends to make us biased in favor of ourselves and our friends. Therefore, a way was needed to protect life, liberty and property, as well as provide impartial judges to peacefully settle disputes. For these reasons people were willing to leave their state of nature by forming communities with governments. They agreed to relinquish some of their freedom as individuals to protect their property and settle disputes. This was not because they wanted to limit their liberty, but because they saw societal living as a way to expand their liberty through greater peace and order. According to Locke, this is the only purpose of government—to protect life, liberty, and property and to provide a way for peacefully settling disputes within a community. Locke’s ideas are both revolutionary and powerful and they have spread widely in the modern world. Locke’s ideas constituted the philosophy the Founding Fathers expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
The colonists also inherited from England the system of Common Law, a series of judicial decisions standardized by Henry II and handed down over the centuries. The Common Law granted rights and privileges, such as the right of due process, trial by jury, etc., to all English subjects. The American settlers brought this legal tradition with them, and the Common Law protected the innocent, punished the guilty, and kept the colonists free.
The colonists inherited from England the representative traditions established by England’s Glorious Revolution (1688). In the 17th century, monarchs all over continental Europe were claiming greater authority based on a philosophy of “absolutism.” Some English kings, chafing at the restrictions on their power, tried to do the same. James II, for example, tried to claim greater authority to tax and control, but the English Parliament responded in a decisive and dramatic fashion. They looked across the channel and saw that the king’s daughter was married to the Dutch prince William of Orange, so they invited him over to replace James II as the king of England. But they set conditions: William had to agree that the elected Parliament would be perpetually superior to the monarch in authority, that he would have to tolerate (within limits) other religions, and that he would grant the English a Bill of Rights—outlining rights of Englishmen that even the king could not violate. William agreed to these terms, sailed over with his armies, and replaced James II on the British throne. The power of the British monarch has ever since been subordinate to the elected Parliament.
It was also thanks to the English that the colonists understood the meaning and principles of liberty. Americans inherited their lofty ideas of freedom and rule of law from Englishmen who thought deeply about such ideals.
Americans took the rich political legacy inherited from England and created a legacy of their own. The American Colonial period, which lasted from the establishment of the first British colony in the western hemisphere to the separating of the United States from England, was infused with characteristics that established and maintained a culture and expectation of liberty.
Englishmen began colonizing what they termed the “New World'' in North America in 1607 in what became Jamestown, Virginia. Several years later, the Separatists, or “Pilgrims” (a group seeking religious freedom) settled at Massachusetts Bay in 1620. More settlements soon followed, all of them thousands of miles away and across the ocean from England.
Initially, the Americans were even more democratic, free, and equal than the English because of the nature of colonial settlement. The colonists that disembarked at Massachusetts Bay and Jamestown called themselves “subjects of the King” and “Englishmen,” but the King’s government was on the other side of the ocean. They set up their own little “parliaments” (legislatures) and town councils and chose representatives based on regular elections. These governments were largely independent of England. This separation and practical independence continued for over 150 years.
There was also widespread land ownership in America. Back in the old world, land-owning was confined to those families that held large estates for centuries. The land was concentrated in a few hands and if you were lucky enough to own, you were a “lord” (the origin of the term “landlord”). Most people owned no land and worked for those who did. In America, by contrast, the land availability situation was completely different.
As in England, only landowners could vote in the colonies, but land was so widely available that there was far more representation and equality among the populace. This broad land ownership meant that nearly everyone was a “lord”; everyone was equal (with the exception of marginalized groups who received rights much later, such as women and racial minorities). There were no hereditary class distinctions with some titled as Lords, Barons, Dukes, and other such things. Society was far more equal and democratic than anything in Europe.
This land ownership and the wealth that came with it also helped entrench economic freedom in the colonies. Nearly everyone had a vested interest in preserving an inclusive system where taxes and economic controls were limited. Since they were nearly all middle-class, Americans became highly protective of commercial freedom and property rights. The longstanding tradition of economic liberty in the United States began long before the Revolution.
The colonists also had greater liberty than England because of religious and ethnic pluralism. Once American settlement began, people of many different religious persuasions started showing up—Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, Anglicans, etc. Normally, a nation would establish its dominant religion as the official state religion and then persecute religious minorities as “heretics.” This was not the case in America because everyone belonged to a religious minority. There was no single predominant religion that could gang up on the dissidents. Each sect just had to learn to get along with the others. They were tolerant by necessity.
A religious fervor known as the First Great Awakening impacted the colonies in the mid-18th century and contributed to American liberty. Although the Great Awakening was a religious movement, it had profound political consequences.
The Great Awakening originated with the sense of religious “declension.” The Puritan fathers came to North America hoping to establish a “city on a hill”—an example of godliness to the whole world. But a century later, people were focused on commerce and accumulating wealth. Citizens worried about their community and what had happened to their “godly society.” They felt that their community had strayed from its original errand and that repentance was needed to halt their slide into worldliness.
Some important religious figures came forward to call them to repentance. First, there was the man considered the brains of the Great Awakening: Jonathan Edwards. At age 12, Edwards entered Yale; at age 16 he graduated as valedictorian; shortly thereafter he became a professor of theology, pastor of a local congregation, and one of the greatest philosophers in American history. Edwards attempted to reconcile the Calvinist emphasis on predestination with the Enlightenment emphasis on free will. Edwards said that the grace of God was dependent upon a freewill acceptance of salvation: your church could not save you, your parents could not save you, the king could not save you. Only Christ could save you through your choice to accept Him. Americans came to cherish choice in political matters as an extension of these religious beliefs.
Edwards also initiated the Great Awakening with his preaching. In 1741 he delivered the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” a fire and brimstone homily in which he pounded the pulpit and used terrifying language and imagery. By trying to scare the American colonists into repentance, Edwards had lit the first sparks of what would become a religious revival.
These sparks would grow into a raging spiritual fire when one of the greatest preachers in American history—George Whitefield—showed up. Whitefield came over from England, unknown, and began preaching in the American South. At first, people paid him little heed. It was routine for itinerant preachers to show up and give sermons. But soon Whitefield became a phenomenon. His manner of speaking was captivating and entertaining: he elevated his voice, gesticulated, flailed, and pieced together words and pauses for perfect dramatic effect. As members of the audience listened, their ears perked up, their eyes widened, their mouths dropped open, and they were finally enraptured by this most captivating speaker. They would then encourage everyone they knew to go hear him and change their lives as well. Whitefield’s sermons became legendary, and soon he was preaching to congregations in excess of twenty thousand—this at a time when there was no voice amplification technology, and the population of America was over one million. Even the skeptical Benjamin Franklin recalled emptying all of his money onto Whitefield’s collection plate.
The Great Awakening turned the hearts and minds of the American people towards an even greater sense of liberty, equality, and democracy. Whitefield would preach about sin and eternal damnation for everyone. He didn’t exempt dukes, lords, earls, or even kings. Everyone was a sinner, so everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and therefore in equal need of salvation. American egalitarianism had strong religious roots.
The Great Awakening also caused the colonists to distrust human authority. Whitefield and Edwards preached the importance of a personal commitment to God. Conversion was the key to salvation, not any particular denomination, institution, or clergyman. This subordinated human authority to divine authority and made earthly rule conditional rather than absolute (you can see how this would go well with what Paine said in Common Sense).
It also heightened the American sense of individualism. The Great Awakening preachers’ emphasis on individual salvation created fertile ground on which Locke’s philosophy could take root.
The Great Awakening also made the colonists more comfortable with the religious pluralism that already existed. Whitefield would say that all had to come to Christ for salvation but didn’t mandate that they should join a particular church. The specifics of theology were unimportant next to rebirth through Christ, so it was okay if you were one religion and your neighbor another.
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