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Tom Donohue: America’s Foundation of Free Enterprise

The system is just as essential to our future as it was to our past

With a few potent words, the political leaders and statesmen who signed the Declaration of Independence unleashed the power of opportunity and initiative in America. Free enterprise was an important element in their grand experiment in liberty.

The Founders laid the foundation for a free enterprise system in clear, simple terms. They wrote: “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.”

Inherent in the Declaration of Independence is the idea of earned success. That’s what the Founders were talking about when they promised the right to pursue happiness. They didn’t guarantee happiness — nor did they intend for the government to dole it out. Instead, they conceived a nation where success was defined by the individual and achievement was determined by hard work and merit.

The Founders also intended a limited federal role to preserve individual freedom. Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the document, envisioned a “wise and frugal government.” He said it should “restrain men from injuring one another, [but] shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

With government in its proper, limited role, entrepreneurship would drive the development of a great nation. Jefferson noted that “agriculture, manufactures, commerce and navigation, the four pillars of our prosperity, are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.”

Left largely to their own devices, Americans cultivated the land to feed their families and sell their goods for a fair price. They invented things that improved life and innovated ways to produce and sell them in mass quantities. They embraced a free-market system that fostered competition and generated wealth. And they pioneered their way across the land, creating more opportunities for those who came to our shores to pursue their dreams.

Some 10 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Founders drafted the Constitution, which still governs our system today. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin what kind of government they had established. He famously replied, “A republic. If you can keep it.”

This Fourth of July, let’s remember that we’ve got to fight to keep the system that celebrates individual freedom, guarantees opportunity, rewards merit and delivers prosperity. Free enterprise is just as essential to our future as it was to our past.

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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