The Constitution: A Moral Challenge

By  PragerU

“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.”

While the most famous passage from the Declaration of Independence stands today as a rallying cry for freedom and the bedrock of American commitment to civil liberties, when a committee first drafted it, the symbolism was not so simple.

“At the time they presented a serious challenge to the founders of our nation,” Robert George, professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, explained. “Could they create a governing structure that would match the high moral standards they had set for themselves?”

Their initial attempt, the Articles of Confederation, was largely unsuccessful: while it did see America through the Revolutionary War, the government was toothless and had no real power over the states – and since significant changes were not possible unless all the states were on board, nothing got done. At the time, many observers at home and abroad believed the entire system would collapse.

The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to rectify this – its stronger federal government was checked with a separation of powers between the branches of government and between the federal government and the states to balance the need for central authority against the danger that authority might pose to individual rights.

The First Congress would ratify a Bill of Rights soon after the new Constitution was adopted to further enshrine and defend those individual liberties. But the centrality of freedom to the American project posed a fundamental problem to the burgeoning nation.

“How could America espouse freedom, and also permit slavery?” George asked.

Many of the Founding Fathers, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, were slaveholders who had inherited sizable plantations themselves, although they were keenly aware that slavery was a gross contradiction of the ideals of liberty they had bled for. 

Both men condemned slavery in their own time and made limited efforts to combat it or halt its spread – Jefferson pushed for an end to the international slave trade, and Washington freed all his slaves in his will and set aside financial support for them.

“I tremble for my country when I think that God is just,” Jefferson said, “That his justice cannot sleep forever.”


While some have condemned the Constitution and other founding American documents as corrupt because of the moral impurity of their authors, George points out that every known civilization in human history up until that point had practiced slavery and that human beings are flawed and limited creatures. The founders did not perfectly condemn slavery, but they instantiated ideals that were fundamentally opposed to it, at great sacrifice and personal risk, and their ideals and example would be used to ultimately bring the practice to an end.

“We do not celebrate these and the other founders for their personal moral failures,” George said. “We celebrate them for their unique moral achievements….To judge these documents [The Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution, and The Bill of Rights] as corrupt because imperfect men wrote them is, to say the least, foolish.”



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