The Humanist Principles of America’s Founding


Ed BraytonBy Ed Brayton, FBB’s media relations coordinator and blogger at Dispatches from the Culture Wars

As Americans celebrate the 4th of July, the day that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress (but not signed then, contrary to popular misconception), we pause to reflect on the fact that this document and the ideas that animated it were drawn largely from Enlightenment humanism.
The Declaration of Independence was written primarily by three men—Thomas Jefferson, who did the primary writing, and John Adams and Ben Franklin, who made edits to the draft before it was adopted by the larger group. It was a list of grievances against King George III, explaining why the 13 colonies were in revolt against his rule, as well as a statement of the principles of liberal democracy. Perhaps the most famous statement from the Declaration is this:

“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.”

Despite the appeal to a creator, this is a statement quite in line with humanist principles and can be clearly tied to the ideas of Enlightenment humanism in Europe. It is no coincidence that Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin had all spent time in France and were well acquainted with many of the leading philosophers of that age, including Diderot, Voltaire, d’Holbach, Buffon, Condorcet, and many others. They were also influenced by earlier Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Montesquieu.

The focus on liberty and the pursuit of happiness reflects the humanist principle that all people should be free to maximize their own personal development and fulfillment, so long as their actions do not prevent another from doing the same. This is mirrored in Jefferson’s famous statement:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

But these men also recognized that while we are all individuals endowed with rights, we are also members of societies and dependent on one another to a great degree. Thomas Paine, one of the great Enlightenment thinkers himself and perhaps the Founding Father most responsible for rallying public opinion to the cause of independence from England, wrote in The Age of Reason that he believed in “the equality of man” and that our duties “consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.”

But above all it was the belief in the primacy of reason, that human rationality alone can provide solutions to our problems and improve the condition of the world, that is the most important humanist principle held by these men. As Jefferson told his nephew, Peter Carr, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

It should be noted here that while these ideas are humanist, they are not necessarily secular humanist. All of these men believed in God, though not necessarily the Christian one. The historian Gregg Frazer describes the religious views of the leading founders (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin) as “theistic rationalism.” But the basic principles of our founding are accepted by humanists, religious and secular alike.

We owe the authors of the Declaration a debt of gratitude for bringing the principles of Enlightenment humanism, then sweeping through Europe, across the Atlantic and establishing the first country based primarily on those powerful ideas. In so doing, they sparked a fire that swept through much of the world, tearing down monarchies and creating liberal democracies in their place. That is indeed a cause for celebration.