Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925 and went on to earn a degree in chemistry from Somerville College, Oxford, as well as a master of arts degree from the University of Oxford. For some years she worked as a research chemist and then as a barrister, specializing in tax law. Elected to the House of Commons in 1953, she later held several ministerial appointments. She was elected leader of the Conservative Party and thus leader of the Opposition in 1975.
She became Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979 and served her nation in this historic role until her resignation in 1990. In 1992, she was elevated to the House of Lords to become Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. The first volume of her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, was published in 1993 by HarperCollins.
In November 1994, Lady Thatcher delivered the concluding lecture in Hillsdale Center for Constructive Alternatives seminar, “God and Man: Perspectives on Christianity in the 20th Century” before an audience of 2,500 students, faculty, and guests. In an edited version of that lecture, she examines how the Judeo-Christian tradition has provided the moral foundations of America and other nations in the West and contrasts their experience with that of the former Soviet Union.
The Moral Foundations of the American Founding
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.