Lady Thatcher’s words from 1994, as delivered at Hillsdale College, provide a fitting memorial:
The Moral Foundations of Society
History has taught us that freedom cannot long survive unless it is based on moral foundations. The American founding bears ample witness to this fact. America has become the most powerful nation in history, yet she uses her power not for territorial expansion but to perpetuate freedom and justice throughout the world.
For over two centuries, Americans have held fast to their belief in freedom for all men—a belief that springs from their spiritual heritage. John Adams, second president of the United States, wrote in 1789, “Our Constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” That was an astonishing thing to say, but it was true.
What kind of people built America and thus prompted Adams to make such a statement? Sadly, too many people, especially young people, have a hard time answering that question. They know little of their own history (This is also true in Great Britain.) But America’s is a very distinguished history, nonetheless, and it has important lessons to teach us regarding the necessity of moral foundations.
John Winthrop, who led the Great Migration to America in the early 17th century and who helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, declared, “We shall be as a City upon a Hill.” On the voyage to the New World, he told the members of his company that they must rise to their responsibilities and learn to live as God intended men should live: in charity, love, and cooperation with one another. Most of the early founders affirmed the colonists were infused with the same spirit, and they tried to live in accord with a Biblical ethic. They felt they weren’t able to do so in Great Britain or elsewhere in Europe. Some of them were Protestant, and some were Catholic; it didn’t matter. What mattered was that they did not feel they had the liberty to worship freely and, therefore, to live freely, at home. With enormous courage, the first American colonists set out on a perilous journey to an unknown land—without government subsidies and not in order to amass fortunes but to fulfill their faith.
Christianity is based on the belief in a single God as evolved from Judaism. Most important of all, the faith of America’s founders affirmed the sanctity of each individual. Every human life—man or woman, child or adult, commoner or aristocrat, rich or poor—was equal in the eyes of the Lord. It also affirmed the responsibility of each individual.
This was not a faith that allowed people to do whatever they wished, regardless of the consequences. The Ten Commandments, the injunction of Moses (“Look after your neighbor as yourself”), the Sermon on the Mount, and the Golden Rule made Americans feel precious—and also accountable—for the way in which they used their God-given talents. Thus they shared a deep sense of obligation to one another. And, as the years passed, they not only formed strong communities but devised laws that would protect individual freedom—laws that would eventually be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Freedom with Responsibility
Great Britain, which shares much of her history in common with America, has also derived strength from its moral foundations, especially since the 18th century when freedom gradually began to spread throughout her socie!y Many people were greatly influenced by the sermons of John Wesley (1703-1791), who took the Biblical ethic to the people in a way which the institutional church itself had not done previously.
But we in the West must also recognize our debt to other cultures. In the pre-Christian era, for example, the ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle had much to contribute to our understanding of such concepts as truth, goodness, and virtue. They knew full well that responsibility was the price of freedom. Yet it is doubtful whether truth, goodness, and virtue founded on reason alone would have endured in the same way as they did in the West, where they were based upon a Biblical ethic.
Sir Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote tellingly of the collapse of Athens, which was the birthplace of democracy. He judged that, in the end, more than they wanted freedom, the Athenians wanted security. Yet they lost everything—security, comfort, and freedom. This was because they wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. The freedom they were seeking was freedom from responsibility. It is no wonder, then, that they ceased to be free. In the modern world, we should recall the Athenians’ dire fate whenever we confront demands for increased state paternalism.