Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.

– James Madison, The Federalist, Number 51

Will the midterm elections of 2010 mark a turning point that postpones the day of reckoning for American liberty? A majority of the people voted against the Democratic Party, which still represents the most immediate threat to liberty. At town halls and tea-party gatherings throughout the nation, many of the voters who did so demonstrated their passionate interest in preserving the Constitution of the United States. To gain their votes, many GOP candidates touted themselves as advocates for restoring limited government, fiscal responsibility and respect for individual rights. They claimed to identify with the purposes and intentions of the leaders who successfully guided the deliberations of the people at the time of the American founding.

These candidates described themselves with various labels: as conservatives, libertarians, constitutionists and even as proponents of the principles of the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, however, GOP leaders quietly acted on or openly advocated the view that, in our current crisis, we should focus on economic issues, putting aside what they describe as “divisive” issues such as abortion and the legitimization of homosexual behavior. As a matter of pure political expediency, this view apparently has attractions for politicos who accept the arguably false notion that concern over the moral decline of the nation is restricted to a politically ineffective minority of voters. But is it consistent with the “Spirit of ’76” evoked by the tea-party label, which is to say the understanding of politics and government that inspired the actions of the American Revolutionaries?

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When James Madison (whom many of his contemporaries called the “Father of the Constitution”) says that justice is the end of government, he declares his adherence to an understanding of politics that eschews mere expediency. It embodies the commitment to do what is right. In this he, and the American founders he represents, differ in principle from present-day politicians and political theorists. They articulate and act on the premise that the end of government is to consolidate and exercise power, defined as whatever it takes to command, manipulate and control people. Even those who talk of liberty do so in terms that make it indistinguishable from the individual aggregation and exercise of power.

Though Madison was speaking to and for people who made revolutionary war to preserve their liberty, he explicitly rejects the notion that respect for liberty is the sine qua non of government action. He frankly admits that, if necessary in the pursuit of justice, liberty will always be sacrificed. From this it follows logically that justice is the permanent prerequisite of liberty, an essential precondition in the absence of which liberty must inevitably be lost.

Anyone who truthfully seeks to recover and act on America’s founding principles must accept the conclusion that results from them, to wit, that without regard for justice, human happiness cannot be preserved. Because it involves doing what is right, justice cannot be done without reference to morality, which is to say without reasons logically deduced from the principles (premises of action) that distinguish right from wrong. The founders summarized their understanding of these premises in the American Declaration of Independence:

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. …

The fact of creation and the existence and authority of the Creator are thus the essential postulates for the self-evident truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence. Without these postulates, even if the Declaration’s statements about human nature are accepted as accurate, they are merely descriptions of fact. They do not constitute authoritative rules or laws governing human choice. Indeed, without the postulate of creation, the statement that “all men are created equal” could not even claim to be a description of fact.

The fact that the postulate of creation is the indispensable basis for the Declaration’s understanding of justice has to affect the sense of priorities with which anyone who aims to respect and restore America’s founding principles approaches the present crisis of the American republic. At the risk of their lives and material possessions, the founders asserted America’s independence based on those principles. When the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation produced a crisis in the fledgling life of the newly independent American states, the framers of the U.S. Constitution also set an example that makes satisfying the moral prerequisites of justice the defining priority of American statesmanship.

Politicians like Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour turn away from this example when they suggest that the next president of the United States “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Though they pretend to be champions of economic liberty, they carelessly abandon the prudent regard for justice without which, as the founders warned, all liberty must be lost. They pretend to be advocates of limited government. Yet, through thoughtless ignorance or willful indifference, they surrender the key premise of the reasoning that substantiates such limits. That premise makes doing what is right (justice) the essential prerequisite of all the just powers of government, including those employed in pursuit of the material well-being (welfare) of the people.

Will people who claim it is their right to murder helpless innocents, as a matter of individual welfare and convenience, have the moral will to question murderous government abuses when officials claim they are necessary for the welfare or security of the whole nation? Can people whose liberty depends on moral principles that limit government power carelessly legalize individual practices that contradict those principles? If they accept the violation of certain unalienable rights as lawful in their own conduct, won’t this inevitably undermine their capacity to recognize and resist such violations when they occur in the conduct of government? Isn’t this corruption of their will the main reason anti-American elites are promoting such licentiousness?

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