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Jun 1, 1979

Legal Philosophy and the Founding Fathers

Jefferson saw the Constitution “as an instrument for promoting the pursuit of happiness,” and “argued that each generation might restructure society as it chose.”

“The Philosophy of Law of Four American Founding Fathers.” American Journal of Jurisprudence 21 (1976): 1–19.

The Founding Fathers John Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and James Wilson were generally united in a common purpose; however, their conceptions of the philosophical foundations of law and government differed.

All four men believed that moral principles are self-evident. But only Adams and Hamilton believed that such principles were ultimately derived from rational intuition. The end of law, thought Adams, is public happiness achieved through justice and respect for rights and consent. Law-givers should be concerned with utilizing reason as well as those passions which support the dictates of natural law as a psychological base upon which to build law and government.

Hamilton claimed that natural justice was based on a divinely ordained eternal law which “reason, unwarped by particular dogmas” could discover. Hamilton believed that the natural law required that “origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact” that respects “absolute rights.” Hamilton also distinguished between the majority of men, who are “entirely biased by motives of self-interest,” and the few who dispassionately discern the “dictates of reason and justice.”

In contrast to Adams and Hamilton, Jefferson denied that moral principles are rationally intuited and that there could be a demonstrative science of morals. For Jefferson, the foundation of morality is the individual pursuit of happiness or pleasure, which is made social through the pleasure-attending acts of benevolence. By giving morality a hedonistic underpinning, Jefferson was led by his hedonistic morality to view systems of laws as utilitarian superstructures. Natural rights are grounded in natural wants and needs. Jefferson did agree with Hamilton and Adams, however, that “nature provides every society with an aristocracy of the virtuous and the wise.” Since Jefferson saw the law and Constitution as an instrument for promoting the pursuit of happiness, he argued that each generation might restructure society as it chose.

James Wilson seems most strongly in the Thomistic tradition. For Wilson, every human mind can directly intuit the first principles of metaphysics and moral excellence. Man’s political life is to be governed by applying the divine natural law to particular circumstances through human positive law. But the power of the state to implement the natural law is limited to those powers ceded to the state in the social compact.