The Quest of the American Founders

[I]n truth there’s only one story. In essence we have told one another the same tale, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity, and that story could be usefully called the Quest. All stories take the form of a Quest.

Robert McKee, Story

If you keep in mind the key Quest question — What do they want?” — then you can see the American Founders were on a Quest.

Their Quest is laid out in your Declaration of Independence…

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

The Declaration of Independence

That was their object of desire – To secure those unalienable rights.

The Declaration of Independence says that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” among which are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These rights—codified in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights—are not civil rights that governments may define. The free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and assembly, keeping and bearing arms, freedom from warrantless searches, protection against double jeopardy and self-incrimination, trial by jury of one’s peers, etc., are natural rights that pertain to human beings as such. Securing them for Americans is what the United States is all about.

After the Republic, By Angelo M. Codevilla, Claremont Review of Books, September 27, 2016

The Preamble of the Constitution crowns its enumeration of the ends of the Constitution by declaring its purpose to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” No words of the Constitution reveal the intention of the Constitution more profoundly than these. The Preamble is the statement of the Constitution’s purposes, and this culminating purpose embraces and transcends those that have gone before.

The American Founding as the Best Regime, By Harry V. Jaffa, The Claremont Institute

And it looks like your Founders were pretty serious about their quest…

It is one thing to assert that a proposition is true and quite another thing to pledge one’s life, fortune, and sacred honor. The American Revolution is in some ways the strangest conflict in history: There is no other example of prosperous, property-owning people who were free to publish their thoughts and practice their religion taking up arms against the world’s most powerful empire. Four generations later, half a million Northerners died to end slavery.

Americans, The Almost Chosen People, by David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine, May 10, 2016

But you know that some quests are never completely fulfilled, often because the forces of antagonism – both internal and external — are so powerful.

And in the same way, America has never experienced the fulfillment of the Founder’s Quest.

And yet, it appears that their Quest was one shared by many of their fellow Americans…

“The” Declaration’s lasting appeal, Maier recognizes, rests overwhelmingly on the grand philosophical language of its second paragraph. Indeed, to the extent that Americans still know the Declaration, it is because they recall its ringing invocation of the “self-evident” truths that “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Here Maier is quick to credit Jefferson’s eloquence. But she no less quickly qualifies his achievement. The ideas themselves were “absolutely conventional among Americans of his time,” a distillation of Locke, Milton, Algernon Sidney, and other writers in the Whig pantheon.


Giving Jefferson his due as a wordsmith does not make him the originator of the ideas that he articulated so powerfully. To a large extent, these were indeed, as Maier argues, philosophical commonplaces of the day. Jefferson himself never suggested otherwise, however. As he wrote in a celebrated letter that she quotes, the Declaration was meant to be “an expression of the American mind.”


What set the American Declaration apart was the idea of human equality—of natural rights—which Maier labors to relegate to an afterthought. Unlike their British counterparts of a century before, the American revolutionaries were unambiguously committed to popular consent as the essential test of political legitimacy.


But the members of the Continental Congress, like the people they represented, understood that their parochial struggle gained meaning and dignity from its attachment to a wider human cause.

American Scripture by Pauline Maier, by Gary Rosen, Commentary Magazine, October 1, 1997

So what were the ideas and ideals that drove the Founding Fathers to take up arms and fashion a new kind of government, one formed by reflection and choice, as Alexander Hamilton said, rather than by accident and force?

The worldview out of which America was born centered on three revolutionary ideas, of which the most powerful was a thirst for liberty. For the Founders, liberty was not some vague abstraction. They understood it concretely, as people do who have a keen knowledge of its opposite. They understood it in the same way as Eastern Europeans who have lived under Communist tyranny, for instance, or Jews who escaped the Holocaust.


In 1759, more than a century before the Civil War, Richard Henry Lee of Stratford Hall, later president of the Continental Congress, made his maiden speech in the Virginia House of Burgesses. His message to his fellow slave-owners: End slavery. How can anyone who calls himself a Christian, he demanded, think that “our fellow-creatures . . . are no longer to be considered as created in the image of God as well as ourselves, and equally entitled to liberty and freedom by the great law of nature?” On a more down-to-earth level, he pointed out that slaves who see their masters living in luxury and freedom, “whilst they and their posterity are subjected for ever to the most abject and mortifying slavery,” must become “natural enemies to society, and their increase consequently dangerous.”

The Vision of the Founding Fathers, By Myron Magnet, National Review, July 3, 2015

And by the way, your Founders were underdogs who were willing to take an amazing risk…

America’s founders pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the revolutionary cause at a moment when they enjoyed more freedom as Englishmen than the citizens of any other country in the world, and when taxation without representation did not prevent them from living in peace and relative prosperity. Never before or again in modern history did men of property and station make such a reckless gamble.In fact, most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were impoverished by the war, and many would have hanged if the American cause had failed.

Kierkegaard is needed more than ever, by Spengler, Asia Times Online, June 24, 2013

And America’s story itself flows from underdogs willing to risk everything…

America is different because it was founded to be different. America remains a Christian nation because it overcame the centrifugal forces of ethnic rivalry through a radical and unprecedented device: the creation of a new country founded on a proposition – rather than commonality of language, race, or history. At the moment of Europe’s most catastrophic failure, people of faith chose to risk everything to found the country that became the United States of America. Earlier we saw how national idolatry triumphed over Christian universalism during the Thirty Years’ War. But that terrible conflict did not extinguish Christian universalism. In the third year of the war, the seed of what became American Christianity left Europe on the Mayflower. The Pilgrim Fathers’ decision to decamp to the new world was not made casually. The war pushed them out. America’s founding came in direct response to Europe’s failure. The Pilgrims fled the European continent as it plunged into a tragedy that would undo the civilizing efforts of the preceding thousand years.

David P. Goldman, How Civilizations Die

They had skin in the game…

These men, the so-called founders, put their lives on the line in order to stage one of the greatest revolutions in the history of the world.

John Fea, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

And look at this…

After the British writer G. K. Chesterton visited the United States for the first time, he remarked that America was “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Mr. Chesterton wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding “sacred texts,” like the Declaration of Independence. He noted that the United States, unlike European countries, did not rely on ethnic kinship, cultural character or a “national type” for a shared identity.

The profoundness of the American experiment, he argued, was that it aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.

The Collapse of American Identity, By ROBERT P. JONES, New York Times, MAY 2, 2017

And your Founders made a momentous decision when they took up arms to fight…

At the time of its creation, the army was still viewed by many, perhaps most of the delegates, as a defensive force, not as the vehicle by which the American colonies would be the first political entities in the history of the world to fight for their independence from an imperial power. Few could have imagined that that defensive force would remain in the field for eight years of extraordinarily hardship and sacrifice. And few could have imagined that at the end of that time the existence and persistence of that army would, perhaps even more than the act of declaring independence, help forge a truly American national identity.

Richard R. Beeman, Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776

More than 25,000 Americans lost their lives in the Revolution—nearly 1 percent of the population. In our nation’s history, only the carnage of the Civil War has exceeded that proportion.

The Spirit of ’75?, by Algis Valiunas, Commentary Magazine, May 1, 2013

And notice how Spengler describes the nature of their Quest… 

The American Revolution in which our country was born is in some ways the strangest conflict in history: There is no other example of property-owning people who were free to publish their thoughts and practice their religion taking up arms against the world’s most powerful empire. Men have risked everything to rise up against oppression in any number of countries, but the British Empire never threatened the property or freedom of America’s founders. The American Revolution is almost as improbable as the founding of the State of Israel. Both demanded an inspired loyalty to a higher principle.

WILL ISRAEL SAVE AMERICA?, By David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine, July 2, 2015

This supremely immoderate act was motivated by a passion for liberty, mostly with a religious foundation.

Kierkegaard is needed more than ever, by Spengler, Asia Times Online, June 24, 2013

Spengler’s last line there — about “a passion for liberty, mostly with a religious foundation” – is very important.

And you can clearly see the passion and the religious foundation at the end of the Declaration as they continue to express their Quest…

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies,  solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. 

And the following seems to fit with your Declaration…

America’s founders, the missionaries and statesmen, knew this truth. They knew that we belong to a story that began long before us: the story of our Creator. They knew that we are born with a dignity and a destiny that can never be denied, no matter who we are, or where we came from, or how we got here.

A NEW STORY FOR A NEW AMERICA, by Jose Gomez, First Things, May 23, 2018