Paul Finkelman


The American Founding is rightly celebrated for creating a republic that allowed great liberty to its citizens, provided democratic self-rule for those who were enfranchised, and guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms to political and religious minorities. It even allowed easy access to citizenship for voluntary migrants from other nations. No nation before ours, and relatively few since, has been able to achieve these results.

The success of the political system became most apparent in 1801, when an opposition candidate, Thomas Jefferson, defeated an incumbent President, John Adams, and then peacefully took office. In his inaugural address Jefferson proudly proclaimed that Americans had "banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered" and promised it would not be replaced by "political intolerance." He noted that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle," and that both his supporters and those of Adams were "brethren of the same principle." Indeed, offering up a theory of freedom of expression that the Supreme Court would not truly accept until the 1960s, Jefferson declared that opponents of the Constitution should be free to speak out, that they might "stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." Following a nasty and often personally vicious campaign, Jefferson stood ready to embrace his political opponents: "We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists." Unfortunately, this accommodation of political differences glossed over the fundamental contradiction of the Founding: The constitution for a free people protected slavery.