High School

The American Right of Revolution

August 16, 2019
The Founding

An important right asserted by early American colonists during the American founding era and acknowledged in the U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 was the people’s right to revolution, the right to resist tyranny and unjust oppression.  Tyranny may be generally understood as the unauthorized use, application, or exercise of power or making of laws in violation of the people’s consent and rights, and the Law of Nature.  In addition to many colonial patriot clergymen supporting defensive war from the Old Testament, the American Founders and revolutionaries largely drew from Enlightenment-era British philosopher John Locke and his Bible-based views of popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract in order to support and explain man’s right of revolution.

In his 1689 Two Treatises on Government, Locke’s view of man’s just right of revolution was actually a natural outcome of his Bible-based views and assertions about popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract.   In his First Treatise, Locke presented the idea that because God in Genesis created all men as equal before Him and gave all mankind dominion, the whole people, not just one person, rightly holds political power in a civil state.  As such, the people have a right to choose their governors or representatives.  Civil bodies or governors receive their legitimate authority through the people’s consent.  In his Second Treatise, Locke asserted that because mankind is created and valued by God, all men have certain God-given, inherent, natural property rights including life, liberty, and estate.  Consequently, the civil power cannot violate or remove these rights without just cause.  Doing so would be an abuse of power.  Also in his Second Treatise, Locke articulated the means for the free people’s rule through social contracts.  In a social contract, the people join together in a civil society that is able to enforce the Law of Nature, restrain evil, and protect citizens’ rights for their safety and preservation.  In this society, the people agree on the civil laws and form of government, and they choose their governors.  If a governor or civil body violates or breaches the social contract, the people may justly reform, remove, or overthrow them and institute a new one.

Along these lines of reasoning, Locke thus asserted that the people have a right to reform or overthrow their civil governors or government—or a right to revolution—if the civil power exists or acts without the people’s consent, abuses the rights of citizens, or departs from its responsibilities defined by the social contracts of the civil state.  Locke expresses this right in his Second Treatise, … 

Revolutionary-era Americans applied Locke’s assertion of the right of revolution to defend the American cause for freedom and independence from Britain in the 1700s.  The American Founders, in fact, drew heavily from Locke on the matter when they drafted the Declaration.  Echoing Locke, the Declaration states,

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.  Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. [bold emphases mine]

The Founders upheld the legitimacy and purpose of just civil government based on the people’s consent and for the people’s benefit.  They asserted that when the government violates the people’s rights and departs from its intended purpose, the people have a right to resist, reform, and change their government or governors.

During the American Revolution, the American Founders and revolutionaries strongly defended and clearly articulated the American people’s right to resist tyranny and oppression, or the right of revolution, and thus to seek independence from Britain.  They supported this right primarily from Locke and his Bible-based explanations of popular sovereignty, natural rights, and social contract.  From these principles, the Founders were able to morally, rationally, and philosophically justify the American cause of freedom.

[1]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government, Book 2 (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 309.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  What is the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings?
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
4.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
5.  American Revolution Debate:  The Lawfulness of Defensive War
6.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
7.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
8.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
9.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
10.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
11.  The Principle of Rule of Law
12.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
13.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
14.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
15.  The Purpose of American Civil Government
16.  The American Social Contract

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 10:  Concepts in the Declaration of Independence, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Concepts in the Declaration of Independence….

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Supreme Judge and Divine Providence, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty and Consent of the Governed, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract.  Students will consider the definition/meaning, explanation, and context of each principle.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Declaration Principle Chart
Have students consider the Bible-based and philosophical concepts incorporated in the Declaration of Independence.  In the appropriate columns on charts, students (in pairs or small groups) research and write down the source(s) from which each concept was derived and the concept’s meaning, explanation, and/or context in their own words.  See the “Concepts in the Declaration of Independence” principle chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of this Miracle of American HS Teacher Course Guide, p. 388.  This activity may also be found in chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text/sourcebook, p. 241.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The American Social Contract in the U. S. Declaration and Constitution

July 25, 2019
The Founding

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America by Charles Armand Dumaresq, c1873.  White House, Washington, DC.

The formation of the United States of America as a new nation was made possible by the principle and practice of social contracts.  Social contracts or compacts are voluntary civil agreements of mutual obligation among a people or between a people and their governors for political purposes, usually to create a civil state with a certain form and laws or to authorize a governor.  The practice of social contracts in the American founding was influenced in part by, in addition to ancient democratic models, social contract theory developed by John Locke and Algernon Sidney of the Enlightenment era as well as by the practice of covenants in early colonial America.  These particular influences were either indirectly or directly informed by a biblical worldview and Judeo-Christian thought.  The American Founders applied the principle of social contract to defend the American Revolution and to write the United States’ Declaration of Independence and U. S. Constitution.

During the Enlightenment era of the 1600s and 1700s in Europe, British philosopher John Locke notably developed a social contract theory of civil government that influenced American political thought.  In his 1689 First Treatise of Government, Locke refuted the commonly-held view of the Divine Right of Kings—the doctrine that monarchs are given absolute, unlimited power directly from God to rule over the people.  Instead, he defended popular sovereignty or the people’s rule—the idea that since all men are created free and equal by God, the whole people (not just one person) hold political power.  Consequently, in his 1689 Second Treatise of Government, Locke laid out the means for the people’s rule through social contracts.  Locke’s social contract was later taken up by the American revolutionaries and Founders.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1697.

In Locke’s social contract theory, every individual, as free and equal before God, possesses certain God-given, natural rights including life, liberty, and estate—all of which Locke generally calls “property.”  In a state of nature (before or outside of civil society and government), individuals are unable to secure their rights, which are always at risk and threatened by others, because no adequate means exist to enforce the Law of Nature, the universal moral law of mankind, and to protect their rights.  Due to this unsecure state, a person may voluntarily agree to give up a little freedom in order to join and unite together with others to form a civil society that can protect his rights and ensure his survival.  The people thus enter a contract or firm agreement with one another to submit to the determination of the majority and to abide by the just, agreed-upon laws of the civil body.  The people’s rights and freedoms are limited only to the minimal extent necessary for society.  Locke addresses this practice and purpose of social contracts:  … 

Locke pointed out that contracts can only be enacted among free individuals, for a person can only enter an agreement and give up some of his rights if he or she is free from another’s captivity or control.  Indeed, Locke’s social contract is formed by the consent of the governed.

Socially-contracted civil society and government derive legitimacy from its just rule according to the Law of Nature and from the people’s consent.  Locke asserted the need for consent in such contracts, saying, “That which begins and actually constitutes any political society is nothing but the consent of any number of freemen capable of majority, to unite and incorporate into such a society.  This is that, and that only, which did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”2  He further asserted that the people’s consent (along with the Law of Nature) is what authorizes the society’s civil laws.  Without it, such laws are “no better than mere tyranny.”  He expresses, “Laws they are not, therefore, which public approbation has not made so.”3

It is important to emphasize that the purpose of this socially-contracted society is to enforce the Law of Nature and to protect citizens’ rights and properties.  The people give up some rights in society, Locke explained, with the express trust that the civil state will be employed for their good, in such a manner as will be conducive to their own and citizens’ preservation.  For men enter civil society, says Locke, “only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse).”4  Thus if the civil authority unjustly infringes upon citizens’ rights and properties, or does not abide by and enforce the laws to protect citizens, the people may reform the laws, elect new leaders, or overthrow the government.

A Bible-based worldview and Judeo-Christian thought indirectly influenced Locke’s social contract because the contract, though secularized, was based on popular sovereignty and the recognition that mankind is given equality and natural rights by God.  What is more, Locke’s social contract, as it were, closely resembled a covenant as was practiced by Jews and Christians in the Bible and by the Puritans in early America.

A covenant is a solemn, binding promise between two or more parties, often made in the presence of a higher authority like God or king who acts as a participating party, witness, or guarantor of the agreement to hold the parties accountable.  Covenants are a biblical practice.  Civil covenants in the Bible include those between God and the ancient Israelites, and between the ancient Israelites and their rulers.

The principle of civil covenants permeated European political thought during and after the Reformation era from the 1500s to 1700s.  The civil covenant was seen, for example, in reformed political writings including Stephen Junius Brutus’s 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense Against Tyranny), Samuel Rutherford’s 1644 Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince, or The Law is King), Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 Leviathan, and Algernon Sidney’s 1698 Discourses Concerning Government.

Algernon Sidney

English parliamentarian and theorist Algernon Sidney notably connected the principle of civil covenant to the social contract.  Sidney—Locke’s contemporary and a thinker who also influenced the American Founders—supported Locke’s social contract based on popular sovereignty, stating in his 1698 Discourses Concerning Government that “a civil society is composed of equals, and fortified by mutual compacts”5 and that “multitudes are composed of such as are under some contract.”6  In describing an agreement among a people, or between a people and their rulers, Sidney saw covenants and contracts as similar enactments to express the participating parties’ consensual obligations.  He writes, “There is no such thing therefore as a dutiful obedience, or duty of being obedient, incumbent upon all nations…nor upon any particular nation, unless it be expressed by a covenant.”7  He cited, for instance, the biblical Israelites’ use of covenants to institute their kings.  In such a covenant, the king agreed to abide by God’s law and rule justly, and the people agreed to follow God’s law and submit to their chosen king’s rule.

David Anointed King in Hebron by Julius Schnorr Carolsfeld, 1851-60.

Sidney cited King David and King Joash of Judah as examples in the Bible.  Referencing 2 Samuel 5:3, Sidney describes the event in which “all of Judah came to Hebron and made David their King, …anointed him king over them.  And he [David] made a covenant with them before the Lord.”8  The people did not submit to David until they made a covenant with him.  Citing 2 Chronicles 23, Sidney also showed how the Israelites overthrew the usurper Queen Athaliah and covenanted with Joash, their choice.  He observes,

“Jehoiada [the priest] gathered the Levites out of all the cities of Judah, and the chiefs of the fathers of Israel, and they came to Jerusalem.  All the congregation made a covenant with the king in the house of God, brought out the king’s son [Joash], put upon him the crown, gave him the testimony, and made him king.”  Whereupon they slew Athaliah. …. [emphasis mine]9

Sidney explained that such compacts are mutually binding, and if one breaches the agreement, the other is released from it.  He says that “all contracts are of such mutual obligation, that he who fails of his part, discharges the other.  If this be so between man and man, it must needs be so between one and many millions of men.”10

Sidney’s compact was evidently informed and illustrated by the Bible.  George Klosko affirms in his 2011 Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy that “the ancient texts of the Christian Bible provided material for contractualists, especially in the Old Testament discussions of God’s covenants with the children of Israel.”11  Sidney’s Bible-inspired compact, like Locke’s social contract, was likely in the American Founders’ consciousness when they enacted their social contracts in the new nation of the United States.

Signing of the Mayflower Compact by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1899.

The application of social contracts in America’s founding was likely further impacted not only by Locke and Sidney but also by the long history and practice of covenants among the reformed Christian Puritans in 1600s colonial America.  The Pilgrim’s Mayflower Compact of 1620, Puritan leader John Winthrop’s 1630 “City on a Hill” sermon, and the Puritans’ covenantal laws and constitutions in their colonies of Massachusetts and Connecticut, all initiated the Bible-based practice of covenants in America—long before Locke articulated his social contract theory.

As well, the founding charters for many of the British American colonies of the 1600s also acted as covenants, granted by the British king, meant to secure colonists’ rights under the English constitution.  Later, during the revolutionary and founding eras, some Americans like Rev. Samuel Webster of Massachusetts in his 1774 Misery and Duty of an Oppressed and Enslaved People described these charters as “a solemn covenant between [the king] and our fathers…in the same manner that King David stood engaged by the covenant of the people.”12

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

From these early European and American influences, the social contract became an important Bible-based principle of the American Revolution and the American founding in the 1700s.  During this time, patriot American colonists argued that Britain’s King George III and parliament had breached its colonial charters in America by violating colonists’ rights.  For example, revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, drawing on Locke, brought up in his 1772 Report on the Rights of Colonists the purpose and conditions of social contracts to argue that Britain had violated its compacts.  Adams declares, …

Adams and other revolutionaries thus helped to bring Locke’s social contract theory freshly to the minds of colonists during the Revolutionary War.  In the eyes of many patriot Americans, because Britain had violated its charters, America’s ties and obligations to Britain were dissolved.  According to Daniel J. Elazar in his essay Political Theory of Covenant appearing in his and John Kincaid’s 1980 Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism, the American Revolution “translated the concept [of covenant] into a powerful instrument of political reform but only after merging it with the more secularized idea of compact.  American constitutionalism is a product of that merger.”14

The American Founders consequently founded the new nation of the United States upon a new social contract among the American people, expressed in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and in the U. S. Constitution of 1787.  The Declaration affirms the need for the people’s consent to form a civil state, asserting that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from consent of the governed.”  What is more, the Declaration—in being a pledge or promise among the people, with God as witness—acts not only as a contract but also much like a covenant when it concludes,

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….  And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.  [emphases mine]

The Declaration—as an agreement to create a new nation—and later the U. S. Constitution—as an agreement on the nation’s civil government and laws—comprise the agreements necessary to form a socially-contracted civil state.  For in such states, explains Donald Lutz in his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, the people agree firstly “to form a society and be bound by the majority in collective decisions” and secondly “on the form of government to have.”15  The founding documents aimed to “create a people, define the kind of people they are or wish to become, and establish a government.”16  The Declaration and Constitution, explains Lutz, together make up and function as a national compact.

To be sure, the American Founders recognized the danger or flaw of majority rule in a democracy or system of government by the people, a danger known as the “tyranny of the majority.”  The “tyranny of the majority” is when the majority unjustly disregards or violates the rights of the minority, essentially oppressing those in the minority.  As the common saying goes, “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”  The Founders recognized the need to protect the rights of every citizen in a democracy—including those who stood in a minority or unpopular voting position.  In Federalist Paper 51, Founder James Madison affirmed the great importance in democratic systems “not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.”17  In order to better guard the rights of both the majority and minority, therefore, the Founders did not create a pure democracy, with direct majority rule.  Rather, they created a republic, with the people ruling through representatives and a system of checks and balances.  The Founders also added the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights of 1791, to the U. S. Constitution to reinforce citizens’ individual rights.

Americans often recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which affirms the national compact.  The Pledge states, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In conclusion, the principle of social contract is an important characteristic in the United States’ early history, revolution, and founding as a nation.  The formation of the United States was based on a social contract, largely articulated by Locke, with the goal that the civil society would protect citizens’ natural rights and property and work for the people’s good.  The nation’s social contract was partly shaped by, in addition to ancient secular examples, the Bible-oriented worldviews of Locke and Sidney—in being based on a God-oriented popular sovereignty and in reflecting the covenants practiced by the ancient Israelites in the Bible.  In addition, this contract was also undoubtedly shaped by the Christian Puritans’ application of covenants in their early American colonies and colonial constitutions.  These influences show that the Bible-based idea of covenants informed America’s national compact.  “If all the Biblical and Christian sources in history for compact theory were removed,” affirms Gary Amos in his 1989 Defending the Declaration, “the Declaration could not have been written the way it was.”18  Through the social contract, Elazar explains, “covenant acquired a fully separate political justification which, through Locke, Montesquieu and the covenanter settlers of America, became the basis for the formation of the United States as reflected in the preambles of the Declaration of Independence, the U. S. Constitution, and the American state constitutions.”19  The American social contract and the values expressed in the Declaration and Constitution still function today as the unifying agreement that joins together in a common bond the free, diverse citizens of the United States.  Indeed, without this compact and the cherished values and laws contained within it, what would hold “we the people” together?

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[1]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 240-241.

[2]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 242.

[3]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 260-261.

[4]  Locke, Second Treatise, Routledge, 258.

[5]  Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added, Memoirs of His Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), chapter 2, 68.

[6]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 81.

[7]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 3, section 4, 267.

[8]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 79.

[9]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 2, 93.

[10]  Sidney, Discourses, chapter 3, 329.

[11]  George Klosko, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Political Philosophy (Oxford:  Oxford U Press, 2011), 575.

[12]  Samuel Webster, The Misery and Duty of an Oppressed and Enslav’d People, Salisbury, MA, 14 July 1774 (Boston, MA:  Edes and Gill, 1774), 10, 22, quoted in Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution, 1750-1776, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA:  Belknap Press, 1965), 111-112.

[13]  Samuel Adams, “A State of the Rights of Colonists,” 1772, in Tracts of the American Revolution, 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Indianapolis, IN:  Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967), 235-236.

[14]  Daniel J. Elazar, “Political Theory of Covenant:  Biblical Origins and Modern Developments,” Covenant, Polity, and Constitutionalism in Publius:  The Journal of Federalism 10, no. 4 (1980):  9.

[15]  Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State U Press, 1988), 80, 111.

[16]  Lutz, Origins, 112.

[17]  James Madison, Federalist Paper #51, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 323.

[18]  Gary Amos, Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), 150.

[19]  Elazar, “Political Theory of Covenant, ” 20.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Additional source for this essay:
Sidney, Algernon.  Discourses Concerning Government, 1698.  Third Edition.  London:  A. Millar, 1751.  See Chapter 3, Section 4, p. 267; and Chapter 3, Section 2, p. 262.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  The People’s Rule
2.  Who were the Pilgrims?  Why did they come to America?
3.  Why the Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
4.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
5.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact as Covenant
6.  A City on a Hill:  Why John Winthrop and the Puritans Came to America
7.  How the American Puritans Were Like the Bible’s Israelites 
8.  John Winthrop and the Puritans Founded the Self-Governing Colony of Massachusetts
9.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
10.  The Puritans in America Created the First Written Constitutions of Law
11.  The Principle of Rule of Law
12.  Why the Puritans in America Favored Rule of Law
13.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
14.  American Revolution Debate:  The Principle of Civil Covenants
15.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
16.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
17.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
18.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
19.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
20.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
21.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
22.  The Purpose of American Civil Government

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 9:  Our National Compact:  The Nation’s Social Contract, p. 254.  MS-HS.

Our National Compact:  The Nation’s Social Contract….

Purpose/Objective:  Students consider how the principles of civil covenant, social contract, and  consent of the governed are applied in the Declaration of Independence, and how/in what ways the Declaration and U. S. Constitution make up the national compact of the United States.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1, 7.2, 7.11, 7.14-7.16, 7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related articles/videos (see above).

Activity:  Journal/Reflection Writing and Short Answer Test
Have students read/review the above essay and assigned readings including the Declaration of Independence, on their own, individually.  They may also read selected excerpts in Chapter 7 of Miracle of America (such as 1.2, 2.4-2.6, 3.3, 3.9, 3.15, 6.1, 6.7, 7.10, 7.16, 7.17, 8.3, 8.14).  Students will discuss how and in what ways the Declaration (along with the Constitution) serves as the United States’ social compact.  Students will think about the characteristics of the Declaration that make it a compact.  How is it similar to a civil covenant?  How does it differ, if at all?  The students will also consider and write about how this compact affects them personally.  What does it mean to them?  Discuss as a class.  This writing and class discussion may serve as preparation for a short answer test.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The Purpose of American Civil Government

July 11, 2019
The Founding

The White House, South Side, Washington DC.

When the American Founders founded the United States and crafted the founding documents for the new nation, they had a clear view of civil government’s purpose.  They believed that the purpose of just civil government is to enforce the Law of Nature, the universal moral law of mankind, and to protect citizens’ natural rights, the God-given or inherent birthrights of mankind due to our nature and dignity as human beings.  In order to fulfill this purpose, the U. S. government has the responsibility to maintain law and order, restrain evil, and uphold justice.  It was instituted to better the lives of the nation’s citizens.

The Founders’ views of the proper role of just civil government aligned with ideas of philosophers whom early Americans read and often cited.  Such philosophers included Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney.

German jurist and philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, for example, asserted in his 1703 Of the Law of Nature and Nations that just civil government is ordained by God to enforce the Law of Nature in society.  Pufendorf observes, 

Pufendorf basically affirmed the idea expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-7 that the God-ordained, proper role of government is to maintain justice, protect the innocent, and restrain evil.  Paul states,

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid.  For he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (NKJV)

One of the most cited thinkers of the American Founding, British philosopher John Locke similarly asserted in his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government that civil government’s purpose is to uphold the Law of Nature, restrain man’s evil behaviors, and protect man’s natural rights and property.  He explains, …

Without the ability or will to enforce the law or offer such protections, Locke essentially argued, the government neglects its basic responsibilities and benefits to citizens.  Locke asserts that “the Law of Nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody in the state of Nature that had a power to execute that law and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.”[3]  Civil society is created to maintain law and order for citizens’ peace and preservation, and all citizens, as equal and possessing natural rights, should have such protection.

English parliamentarian and philosopher Algernon Sidney likewise argued in his 1698 Discourses Concerning Government that civil government’s role is justice and the protection of citizens and their rights in order to better their lives.  Sidney observes, “If governments arise from the consent of men, and are instituted by men according to their own inclinations, they [the people] do therein seek their own good.  For the will is ever drawn by some real good.”  He further explains, “The only ends for which government are constituted, and obedience rendered to them, are the obtaining of justice and protection.  Those who cannot provide for both give the people a right of taking such ways as best please themselves in order to [secure] their own safety.”[4]

The American Founders aligned with such views of civil government as expressed by Pufendorf, Locke, and Sidney to defend and uphold the Law of Nature and man’s natural rights and/or property.  U. S. Constitution architect James Madison asserted in his 1792 essay Property that “government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses” and in his Federalist Paper 51 that government has checks so that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”[5]  In Federalist Paper 2, Statesman John Jay also recognized government’s role to protect individual rights, stating, “We have uniformly been one people; each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection.”[6]  In his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson likewise noted the foundation of man’s rights for just government:  “The dread and redoubtable sovereign, when traced to his ultimate and genuine source, has been found…in the free and independent man….  This truth, so simple and natural, yet so neglected or despised, may be appreciated as the first and fundamental principle in the science of government.”[7]

The Founders expressed this principle, of government’s role to protect the people’s rights and property, in the United States’ founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Declaration recognizes the people’s equal station “to which the Law of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” and indicated the basis for the new nation’s civil government–to defend citizens’ God-given, unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  The Declaration thus states,

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem mostly likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  …  [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

If the government or governors do not fulfill such obligations, they may be changed, removed, or overthrown by the people.

The Founders also articulated the aims of the U. S. Constitution, the civil law of the land.  The Preamble states that the specific goals of the Constitution are to secure justice, peace, protection, and freedom for the people:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To make sure these goals are met, the Constitution contains civil laws and amendments that guard against governmental corruption and protect individual rights.  For example, it establishes a system of checks and balances with separation of powers.  It also provides citizens, for example, with the right to vote, free speech and assembly, free exercise of religion, right to bear arms, due process of law, equal protection under the law, trial by impartial jury, assistance of counsel, habeas corpus, innocence until proven guilt, no cruel and unusual punishment, no unreasonable search and seizure, etc.  Notably, the Constitution (in Article I, Section 8) also specifically acknowledges a “Law of Nations.”  As Rosalie J. Slater points out in her 1965 Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History:  The Principle Approach, in America’s constitutional republic the majority represents the individual “regardless of whether he agrees or disagrees with the action of the majority.  His position is not eliminated by the majority overruling him.”[8]  Thus, the Founders upheld the Law of Nature and citizens’ individual rights as a priority.

The American Founders, along with influential political philosophers of the American Founding, believed and recognized that the proper purpose of civil government, as ordained by God, is to defend and uphold the Law of Nature and citizens’ natural rights and properties for citizens’ peace, protection, and preservation.  Because all men are naturally free and equal, man’s primary reason for entering into and uniting under a civil society (which limits his freedom in a minimal way for the common good) is for his own good—to ensure that the moral law will be enforced and that his rights and properties will be protected.  Civil government offers the capacity for these protections in an unsecure, hazardous world.  Without providing such protections for citizens, or if misusing/abusing its role, a civil government forsakes its original raison d’etre and the main benefits of its existence.  In such a case, the people have the right to change or remove their governors or, if necessary, to remedy the dysfunctional governing system.

[1]  Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, Eight Books, 1703, 2nd ed., English ed., ed. Jean Barbeyrac, trans. Basil Kennett (Oxford:  Printed by L. Lichfield for A. and J. Churchil, 1710), bk. 7, ch. 3, 527.

[2]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), bk. 2, ch. 9, 256.

[3]  Locke, Second Treatise, ch. 2, 194.

[4]  Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added, Memoirs of His Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), ch. 1, 38; ch. 3, 407.

[5]  James Madison, “Property,” from The National Gazette, 29 March 1792, in The Writings of James Madison, Vol. 6/1790-1802, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906), 102; James Madison, Federalist Paper 51, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 322, 324.

[6]  John Jay, Federalist Paper 2, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 38-39.

[7]  James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 25.

[8]  Rosalie J. Slater, Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History:  The Principle Approach (San Francisco, CA:  Foundation for American Christian Education, 1965), 72, 175, 208.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

—–
Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
2.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

5.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
6.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
7.  The American Quest for Self-Government
8.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God over Man
9.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom for His People
10.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
11.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
12.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
13.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
14.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
15.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
16.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
17.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
18.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
19.  The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class.  You may wish to project some text on-screen.  Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed.  The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout.  Discuss.  This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness in the Declaration

June 12, 2019
The Founding

One of the most important philosophical principles expressed in the United States’ Declaration of Independence of 1776 is the idea of God-given, unalienable rights–inherent rights that cannot rightly be taken away from a person without just cause.  The Declaration recognizes that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Primary author of the Declaration Thomas Jefferson and the American Founders included the “pursuit of happiness” in the nation’s founding document because they believed that it was an inherent right of all citizens (and mankind) that stemmed from God and nature.  The Founders also believed that the people’s happiness was a primary purpose of civil government.

The idea of the pursuit of happiness as a natural right emerged in the 1700s among the “moral-sense” philosophers, many of the Scottish Enlightenment, who recognized the innate desire in mankind for good or blessedness versus evil in one’s life.  Scottish Enlightenment thinker Francis Hutcheson had described man’s desire for good as a right to pursue it.  He stated in his 1747 Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy that “the several rights of mankind are…first made known by the natural feelings of their hearts, and their natural desires, pursuing such things as tend to the good of each individual or those dependent on him, and recommending to all certain virtuous offices.”[1]  Swiss theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, aligning with such Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, saw mankind’s universal desire for good or blessedness versus evil in life as a desire for happiness.  Consequently, he was the first philosopher to articulate the pursuit of happiness as a God-given, natural human right.  As all desire happiness, he asserted in his 1748 Principles of Natural Law, all have a natural, God-given right to pursue and acquire happiness.  He explains,

God, by creating us, proposed our preservation, perfection, and happiness.  This is what manifestly appears by the faculties with which man is enriched (which all tend to the same end) as well as by the strong inclination that prompts us to pursue good and shun evil.  God is therefore willing that everyone should labor for his own preservation and perfection in order to acquire all the happiness of which he is capable according to his nature and state.[2]

English jurist William Blackstone and German jurist Samuel Pufendorf more specifically believed that a person’s happiness is found in his or her relationship with God, in honoring and living by God’s universal moral law, the Law of Nature and God, which tells us that man should love and respect God and others, harm no one, live honestly, and render to everyone his due.  Man’s obedience to God’s moral law, they essentially held, gives him a sense of well-being.  In his 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Blackstone states that God has “so intimately connected, so inseparably interwoven the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former.  If the former be punctually obeyed, it cannot but induce the latter.”[3]  Blackstone basically aligned with Pufendorf on the matter.  Pufendorf states in his 1703 Of the Law of Nature and Nations that “by order of the Divine Providence it so falls out, that by a natural consequence our happiness flows from such actions as are agreeable to the Law of Nature, and our misery from such as are repugnant to it.”[4]

Many moral-sense philosophers further believed that a primary goal of civil government is the people’s happiness.  Hutcheson writes, for example, “As the end [goal] of all civil power is acknowledged by all to be the safety and happiness of the whole body [of the people], any power not naturally conducive to this end is unjust.”[5]

Many early Americans and American Founders aligned with these moral-sense thinkers.  They upheld the pursuit of happiness as a natural human right, and the people’s happiness as an aim of civil government.  What is more, many Americans viewed happiness as a moral or spiritual pursuit, relating to matters not only secular and temporal but also divine and eternal.

American Founder and U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, asserted that because God created man out of His goodness and goodwill and has given mankind a natural desire for happiness, man therefore has a natural right to pursue happiness, given that it does not violate the rights of others.  He expounds, … 

Wilson further observed that the American cause for independence from Britain, and the general aim of civil government was the people’s happiness.  Citing Burlamaqui and Blackstone, he affirmed in his 1774 Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament that government is created to increase citizens’ happiness according to the Law of Nature.  Wilson elaborates, … 

American Founder Thomas Jefferson drew from Burlamaqui’s idea of happiness as a natural right, leading to Jefferson’s inclusion of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration.  Jefferson also agreed that the gauge of a government’s legitimacy was the people’s happiness.  A state that does not support citizens’ liberties and society’s good and so deprives them of happiness, he thought, operates contrary to its aim and authority.  Jefferson thus further writes in the Declaration,

That to secure these rights [of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, & organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The American Founders believed that the pursuit of happiness was a God-given, natural, unalienable right of human beings based on the Law of Nature and Nature’s God.  They further believed that the people’s happiness was an important aim of civil government.  They recognized that while the government could not guarantee the acquiring of personal happiness among citizens, it could avoid creating hindrances to pursuing it.  Moreover, many early Americans likely understood the pursuit of happiness as a moral or spiritual pursuit, not so much a hedonistic one—with an awareness that man’s well-being comes from honoring God and His moral law.  Indeed, many early Americans likely had in mind not only an earthly, temporal happiness but an eternal, spiritual one.  In his 1801 presidential Inaugural Address, for example, Jefferson acknowledges the existence of both temporal and eternal happiness which man may pursue:  “Let us with courage and confidence pursue our own federal and republican principles, our attachment to our union and representative government, …acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence which…proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.”[8]  Indeed, the right to pursue happiness likely held rich philosophical, religious, and spiritual meaning for many Americans.

[1]  Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy:  In Three Parts, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature, bk. 2 (Dublin:  Printed by William McKenzie, 1787), 96.

[2]  Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural Law, in Which the True Systems of Morality and Civil Government Are Established, 1748, pt. 2, trans. Thomas Nugent (London: Printed for J. Nourse, 1748), ch. 4, 161.

[3]  William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries in Five Volumes, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 1996, 2008), 40.

[4]  Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, Eight Books, 1703, 2nd ed., English ed., ed. Jean Barbeyrac, trans. Basil Kennett (Oxford:  Printed by L. Lichfield for A. and J. Churchil, 1710), bk. 2, ch. 3, 117.

[5]  Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy:  In Three Parts, Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature, bk. 2 (Dublin:  Printed by William McKenzie, 1787), 238.

[6]  James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 309.

[7]  James Wilson, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, 1774, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 3, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed for Bronson and Chauncey at Lorenzo Press, 1804), 205-207.

[8]  Thomas Jefferson, Inaugural Address, 4 March 1801, in The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, From 1789 to 1839 (New York:  McLean & Taylor, 1839), 90.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

—–
Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
2.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

5.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
7.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
8.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
9.  The American Quest for Self-Government
10.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God over Man
11.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom for His People
12.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
13.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
14.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
15.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
16.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
17.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
18.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
19.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
20.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class.  You may wish to project some text on-screen.  Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed.  The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout.  Discuss.  This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.

—–

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The American, Bible-Based Defense of Unalienable Rights in the Declaration

May 23, 2019
The Founding

Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC.

When the American Founders wrote the U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776, they set down important philosophical principles to defend and justify their freedom from British rule and their formation of a new, independent nation, the United States of America.  One key principle asserted by the Founders was the unalienable rights of mankind—the “self-evident truth” that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  What is not often recognized today is that influential European philosophers and the American Founders grounded, articulated, and affirmed the idea of unalienable rights, in large part, based on the Law of Nature and God, the Bible, and Judeo-Christian thought.

Unalienable rights are natural rights.  What exactly are natural rights and unalienable rights?  Natural rights are the God-given or inherent birthrights or properties of all mankind due to our nature and dignity as human beings.  These rights are grounded in the Law of Nature and God, the universal moral law.  These rights include, as philosopher John Locke describes in his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government, one’s personhood, means, and possessions—his life, body and health, liberty, labor and industry, and goods and estates.  Natural rights can be classified specifically in two ways—as “alienable” or “unalienable.”  “Alienable” rights or properties include an individual’s means, labor, and possessions that can be transferred–bought, sold, or given–and thus removed or alienated from the owner as he sees fit, for example, in order to make a living or to better his own or another’s life.  “Unalienable” or “inalienable” rights are those properties of personhood that cannot be transferred, removed, or alienated from an individual by any person, power, or civil law without just cause.  Doing so would violate the Law of Nature and God.  For mankind does not have total control or authority over these properties.  Unalienable rights, as recognized in the Declaration, include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The idea of natural rights was articulated in the 1100s and 1200s by European medieval Christian lawyers dealing with property law in the Catholic Christian church.  These lawyers viewed property or dominium as a natural right based on Genesis 1 in which God creates mankind in His image and gives him dominion over the earth.  Genesis 1:26-27 says, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.  Let them have dominion…over all the earth.’  So God created man in His own image, male and female [bold emphasis mine].”1  Yet the lawyers thought that while a person’s material property is transferrable or alienable, the property of his personhood such as his life is non-transferrable or unalienable.  In the 1400s, liberty was also articulated as a natural right.  French scholar and theologian Jean Charlier de Gerson articulated liberty as a natural right in his 1402 De Vita Spirituali Animae or The Life of Spiritual Souls.  Soon after, Dominican theologians classified liberty as unalienable.  Life and liberty thus came to be theologically expressed as sacred, unalienable rights of mankind.

Later, Christian thinkers of the Reformation era of the 1500s indirectly supported natural rights due to their belief that human beings, as created by God, have certain duties to God.  French religious reformer John Calvin asserted in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion that human beings have duties to God because they are God’s “workmanship” or masterpiece.  Calvin draws this idea from Ephesians 2:10 in which the Apostle Paul expresses, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath ordained, that we should walk in them [emphasis mine].” (KJV, GNV)2  Calvin thus writes, “How can the idea of God enter your mind without instantly giving rise to the thought that since you are His workmanship, you are bound, by the very law of creation, to submit to His authority?—that your life is due to Him?—that whatever you do ought to have reference to Him [emphasis mine]?”3  The idea that human beings have natural rights because of their duties to God, was asserted by reformed political writers including John Ponet in his 1556 Short Treatise on Political Power and Stephen Junius Brutus in his 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos.

Cover Page of Two Treatises of Civil Government by John Locke, 1689.

Enlightenment-era British philosopher John Locke, in his 1689 Second Treatise, introduced a clear, modern explanation of natural rights which became very influential to early Americans and American founding political thought.  Locke shared the view of Christian thinkers like Calvin that because human beings are created by God, they have certain duties to God.  Locke went on to assert that individuals, as created by and owing duties to God, possess certain natural rights including “life, liberty, and estate” which are necessary to preserve humanity, maintain order, and perform such duties in the world.  Reflecting Calvin, Locke expressed the idea found in Ephesians 2:10 that man is God’s workmanship in order to ground the principle of natural rights.  He reasons, …

As such, Locke asserted that man is God’s property, created for God’s and not another’s purpose and use.  As a result, human beings have natural rights which they are bound to uphold.  Locke was essentially saying that natural rights allow human beings—who possess a unique identity and relationship with God—to freely worship and follow God, serve as stewards for God, and fulfill their God-ordained duties and purposes on earth.

The American Founders’ understanding of natural rights was largely influenced by Locke.  They believed that natural rights are the inherent gift of God, the Creator, for mankind.  Civil governments may secure these rights, but they do not originally grant them.  As such, governments cannot take away these rights without just cause, and men may justly defend their rights for self-preservation.  Importantly, the Founders recognized that removing God as the source of natural or human rights would endanger these rights and freedoms.

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

American Founder and revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, drawing from Locke, addressed the American colonists’ natural rights to life, liberty (including religious liberty), and estate in his 1772 revolutionary pamphlet, Report on the Rights of Colonists.  Because God gives man life and dignity, Adams argued, man has a natural right to life.  And as God gives man reason and free will to reflect and choose, man has a natural right to liberty—including political and religious liberty.  Man also has a God-given right to his labor and possessions for his survival.  Adams, like Locke, defended these rights by their origin in the Law of Nature and God.  He writes of liberty, for example, “‘Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty’ in matters spiritual and temporal is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and Nature, as well as by the law of Nations & all well-grounded municipal laws which must have their foundation in the former.”5  Adams further recognized that the Bible supports these rights, that they “may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institutes of the great Lawgiver and head of the Christian Church [Jesus Christ] which are to be found closely written and promulgated in the New Testament.”6

Presidential Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800.

American Founder and primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson shared the long-held view that life and liberty were natural, unalienable rights.  He acknowledged that such rights were the gift of God, stating in his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.  The hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”7  However, unlike many Calvinists in America and England, Jefferson did not classify man’s “estate” as unalienable.  Rather, in line with the moral-sense thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment—including Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui—Jefferson defined man’s goods, possessions, and fruits of labor as transferrable or alienable property.  As such, he did not list “estate” as an unalienable right in the Declaration but instead listed the “pursuit of happiness.”

Portrait of James Madison by John Vanderlyn, 1816.

American Founder, Federalist Papers author, and architect of the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, James Madison shared Locke’s idea that natural rights were granted to mankind based on their duties to God.  In speaking of religious liberty, for example, Madison wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, “Religion, the duty we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.  Therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to conscience.  It is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other [emphasis mine].”8  Madison reasserted in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance this idea that inherent, unalienable rights such as religious liberty are based on mankind’s natural duties to God, which exist before civil society:  “Religion must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man.  [This right] is unalienable because the opinions of men…cannot follow the dictates of other men.  What is here a right towards men is a duty towards the Creator.  This duty is precedent to the claims of civil society [emphasis mine].”9

Portrait of U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson

American Founder, lawyer professor, and U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson also supported the principle of natural and unalienable rights in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law and in his 1793 court decision Chisholm vs. Georgia.  In his Lectures, he observed that all human beings possess natural rights which are upheld by the universal moral law of God and Nature.  He writes, … 

In Chisholm vs. Georgia, Wilson, like Locke, referenced ideas from Genesis 1, Ephesians 2:10, and Psalm 139:14 (in which the individual is described as “fearfully and wonderfully made”).  He thus defended from the Bible a person’s God-given rights that should be protected by civil government.  Likewise expressing the idea of man as God’s workmanship found in Ephesians 2:10, Wilson expounds, “MAN, fearfully and wonderfully made, is the workmanship of his all perfect CREATOR.  A State, as useful and valuable as the contrivance is, is the inferior contrivance of man and from man’s native dignity derives all its acquired importance [bold emphasis mine].”11  Because the state consists of the people, Wilson essentially asserted, if the state diminishes the rights and dignity of the individual citizen, it basically also diminishes the rights of the state itself.

The principle of God-given natural, unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a key philosophical principle expressed in the U. S. Declaration of Independence and reflected in the U. S.  Constitution.  Taking up Locke’s worldview and arguments, the American Founders grounded man’s natural rights in the “Creator God” and the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.”  They considered these rights to be a gift from God granted to humanity as God’s image-bearing masterpiece, His workmanship.  Such rights allowed mankind to fulfill their God-ordained duties in life.  Indeed, the Founders were acutely aware that removing God or the moral law as the grounding of natural rights would place those rights in jeopardy.  For if one could separate these rights from the divine source, one could justify taking them away at will for any reason.  Jefferson pressed the point in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia:  “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”12  The principle of natural, unalienable rights in America’s founding philosophy is, affirms Steven Waldman in his 2008 Founding Faith:  Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, the “best argument that Judeo-Christian tradition influenced the creation of our nation.”13

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[1] King James Version (KJV)

[2] 1599 Geneva Bible (GNV); King James Version (KJV)

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion:  A New Translation, vol. 1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Printed for Calvin Translation Society, 1845), book 1, 52-53.

[4] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), chapter 2, 194.

[5] Samuel Adams, “A State of the Rights of Colonists,” 1772, in Tracts of the American Revolution, 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Indianapolis, IN:  Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967), 236.

[6] Adams, “Rights of Colonists,” 238.

[7] Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America Set Forth in Some Resolutions, 1774 (Williamsburg:  Printed by Clementina Rind; London: Reprinted for G. Kearsly, 1774), 43.

[8] Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776, in Documents of American Democracy:  A Collection of Essential Works, ed. Roger L. Kemp (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2010), 54.

[9] James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, 1785, in The Writings of James Madison:  1783-1787, vol. 2, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), 184-185.

[10] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 308.

[11] Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 U.S. 419 (1793). Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism Online Resource (2012), Witherspoon Institute, <http://www.nlnrac.org/american/scottish-enlightenment> (accessed April 2012).

[12] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785, 8th ed (Boston, MA:  Printed by David Carlisle, 1801), 241.

[13] Steven Waldman, Founding Faith:  Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (New York:  Random House, 2008), 92-93.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) is available as a printable PDF handout in the member resources section on americanheritage.org.  Simply sign up and login as a member (no cost), go to the resources page, and look under Miracle of America essays.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
2.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
3.  Three P’s That Led to Freedom in the West:  Printing Press, Protestant Reformation, and Pilgrims
4.  Early Americans Supported Religious Tolerance based on God as Judge of Conscience
5.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
6.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

7.  Great Awakening Principle:  Happiness
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Unalienable Right to Freedom of Belief
9.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
10.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
11.  The American Quest for Self-Government
12.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God over Man
13.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom for His People
14.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
15.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
16.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
17.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
18.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
19.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
20.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
21.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders  

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class.  You may wish to project some text on-screen.  Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed.  The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout.  Discuss.  This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

John Locke and Algernon Sidney: A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the Declaration

April 26, 2019
The Founding

Two thinkers who had a significant influence on founding-era Americans and the principle of civil liberty were Enlightenment-era philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney.  These philosophers articulated from the Bible and Bible-based writings the secularized principles of equality and popular sovereignty or the people’s rule, concepts asserted in the U. S. Declaration of Independence.

The principle of popular sovereignty—or the idea that since all men are equal, earthly political power resides with the whole people—was found in the Bible-based writings of medieval churchmen including Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and Francisco Suarez.  It was also found in the reformed political writings of John Ponet in his 1556 Short Treatise on Political Power, Stephen Junius Brutus in his 1579 Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Richard Hooker in his 1593 Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Samuel Rutherford in his 1644 Lex Rex.  It was asserted in a 1638 court sermon by Puritan Thomas Hooker in the colony of Connecticut.

British Philosopher John Locke took up the torch of popular sovereignty in his 1689 Two Treatises of Civil Government which played a significant role in the development of American political thought during the American Founding era.  In his treatises, Locke asserted secularized republican principles as derived from the Bible and consistent with historical Bible-oriented writers.  In his First Treatise of Civil Government, Locke refuted the widely-held doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy supported by political theorist and King James I’s court theologian Robert Filmer.  Filmer wrote the 1680 Patriarcha.  Locke instead asserted the equality of all men and popular sovereignty in line with Bellarmine and others of like-mind.

Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, c1697.

In his First Treatise, Locke argued that no civil rank or power pre-exists among human beings, in which one person is naturally over or under the authority of another.  Specifically, he refuted Filmer’s assertion that the first man Adam in Genesis was the first king and that the king of England was a direct heir of Adam.  Locke countered that when God created mankind in Genesis, God did not make Adam or any one person superior to others simply by inheritance or succession.  Rather, human beings were naturally created and exist as equal.  As a result, they are naturally free.  Therefore, the proper state of mankind in society is one of equality and freedom among men.  Locke observes, …

Drawing from the Bible, Locke recognized that human beings’ equality before God in creation and in a state of nature led to every man’s equal right to freedom—“that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.”  Locke spoke of the natural state of mankind before civil society as being “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature….” As free, men may willingly submit themselves to another authority by their own and the people’s consent.

Algernon Sidney by English School, c1665.

Algernon Sidney was an English parliamentarian and political philosopher of the late 1600s who also defended popular sovereignty and became influential to founding-era Americans.  Sidney was a member of the Whig party—the pro-reform political party in England that stood against the Divine Right of Kings and absolute rule and in favor of natural rights and popular sovereignty.  He, like Locke, believed the Bible and the Law of Nature and God supported the latter principles.  Sidney defended popular sovereignty in his well-known 1698 essay, Discourses Concerning Government, in which he extensively cited the Bible as well as Bellarmine and Suarez.  His Discourses became well-known in America as a “textbook of revolution” during the American Revolution.

Saint Robert Bellarmine by Italian School, 1500s.

In his Discourses, Sidney defended God as the source of the equality of all men, civil power, and the rule of the people.  Refuting Filmer’s reasoning for Divine Right of Kings, Sidney acknowledged the Italian Jesuit Bellarmine’s reference to God’s creation in Genesis in order to support popular sovereignty.  Filmer and Sidney cited Bellarmine’s De Laicis or Of the Laity, sometimes called Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government, which originally appeared in Book III of Bellarmine’s 1596 Disputationes de Controversiis Christianae Fidei.  Sidney writes, …

God in the Bible did not assign absolute rulers as superiors over men, Sidney observed, but gave political power and choice of governors and government to the people who are all equal in position.

Portrait of Dr. Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, 1783.

The American Founders aligned with Locke and Sidney’s Bible-based views of equality among men and popular sovereignty.  They upheld the view that since all men are created equal by God, all men are naturally equal and free.  As such, just governments must have the people’s consent.

For example, Founder, physician, and politician Benjamin Rush referred to the Bible as the source of equality among men.  In his 17998 essay, Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic, he affirms,

A Christian cannot fail of being a republican.  The history of the creation of man, and of the relation of our species to each other by birth, which is recorded in the Old Testament is the best refutation that can be given to the divine right of kings, and the strongest argument that can be used in favor of the original and natural equality of all mankind.

American Founder James Wilson

Founder and law professor James Wilson also recognized man’s equality and freedom in a state of nature, expressing in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, “As in civil society, previous to civil government, all men are equal.  So, in the same state, all men are free.  In such a state, no one can claim, in preference to another, superior right.  In the same state, no one can claim over another superior authority.”  In his 1793 court decision Chisholm vs. Georgia, he further asserted equality and popular sovereignty by consent of the governed:  “Laws derived from the pure source of equality and justice must be founded on the CONSENT of those, whose obedience they require.  The sovereign, when traced to his source, must be found in the man.”

Founder and primary author of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson affirmed the equality of men in nature in a 1826 letter to Roger Weightman:  “All eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Willson Peale, 1791.

Jefferson, in fact, cited Locke and Sidney as some of his direct sources in writing the Declaration.  In a 1825 letter to Henry Lee, he explained that the Declaration’s authority rests on “the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”  In a 1825 Report to the President and Directors of the Literary Fund at the University of Virginia, he later reaffirmed that “as to the general principles of liberty and the rights of man, in nature and in society, the doctrines of Locke…and of Sidney…may be considered as those generally approved by our fellow citizens of…the United States.”

Founding-era Americans defended their authority and right to form a new, self-governing nation and a constitutional government by “We the People” based on the principles of equality and popular sovereignty.  The American Founders looked to Locke and Sidney’s explanations of these principles—drawn and defended from the Bible and Bible-oriented thinkers—in order to justify the American Revolution and to write the U. S. Declaration of Independence.  Sidney, points out Donald Lutz in his 1988 Origins of American Constitutionalism, “combines reason and [Biblical] revelation in his analysis, and thus shows how easily the Declaration can be an expression of earlier, biblically based American constitutional thought.”  The American Founders expressed the principles of equality and popular sovereignty in the Declaration in stating that “all men are created equal” and that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
2.  How Religious Reformers Defended Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
3.  How Catholic Churchmen Supported Popular Sovereignty from the Bible
4.  How Reformed Political Thinkers Defended Popular Sovereignty From the Bible
5.  Why Puritan Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
6.  Why the Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
7.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
8.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

9.  How the Great Awakening Affected Society:  Education, Missions, Humanitarianism, Women, Gospel
10.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
11.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
12.  The American Revolution
13.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
14.  The American Quest for Self-Government
15.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
16.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
17.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Popular Sovereignty, Unalienable Rights, and Social Contract, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections and then analyze and discuss the reading together as a class.  You may wish to project some text on-screen.  Answer questions, clarify vocabulary, and fill in other information as needed.  The text analysis will help students grasp the terms and concepts, and it is great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  After the reading, have students write answers to the questions that follow on the handout.  Discuss.  This reading or portions of this reading may be done in either the first or second part of this unit as the teacher finds appropriate.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the Miracle of America text, p. 240.

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To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The Law of Nature and Nature’s God in the Declaration: The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law

April 11, 2019
The Founding

The American Founders recognized the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God,” the universal moral law of mankind, in the United States’ Declaration of Independence as the moral and legal basis for creating a new, independent nation.  For this law served as the foundation of man’s natural rights and the limits of earthly power.  To the Founders, as to various historical thinkers, this basic moral law or “Golden Rule” found in man’s conscience and the Bible—that tells one to live honestly, love others, treat others with dignity and respect, harm no one, and render to everyone his due—was also, more specifically, the standard for the new nation’s government and civil laws.  Civil laws are just and legitimate, the Founders recognized, only when they adhere to the higher moral law.  Civil laws that disregard the moral law are thus unjust and illegitimate.  As such, the Law of Nature and God served and serves as a general legal framework and aspiration for the U. S. Constitution and the nation’s civil laws and amendments.

The idea that the Law of Nature and God should serve as a higher law to guide man’s civil law was found among various European thinkers in history who impacted the early Americans.  Enlightenment-era thinkers influential to the American Founding—including Charles de Montesquieu, William Blackstone, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney—all affirmed this principle.

In his 1748 Spirit of the Laws, French philosopher Charles-Louis Baron de Montesquieu, the most cited secular thinker of the American founding era, asserted the value for civil law of the universal moral law to love others found in the Bible.  He observes, “The Christian religion, which ordains that men should love each other, would, without doubt, have every nation blest with the best civil, the best political laws; because these, next to this religion, are the greatest good that men can give and receive.”[1]

British lawyer and jurist William Blackstone, the second most frequently cited secular thinker of the American founding era, confirmed in his 1765-1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England that the Law of Nature and God was the standard of all just civil laws.  He writes, “Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation [God’s revelation as found in the Bible or Holy Scripture], depend all human laws.  That is to say, no human laws should be suffered to contradict these.”[2]

British philosopher John Locke, the third most frequently cited secular thinker of the American founding era, also asserted that the legitimacy of man-made laws comes from the Law of Nature and God.  In his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government, he explains, …

In his 1698 essay, Discourses Concerning Government, British politician and theorist Algernon Sidney shared Locke’s view that civil governments and laws can only rightly exist if they abide by the Law of Nature and God.  He says, “If it be said that every nation ought in this to follow their own constitutions, we are at an end of our controversies.  For they ought not to be followed, unless they are rightly made.  They cannot be rightly made, if they are contrary to the universal law of God and nature.”[4]

Like these God-oriented Enlightenment thinkers, the American Founders and leading early Americans—including James Wilson, James McHenry, Joseph Story, and John Quincy Adams—acknowledged the Law of Nature and God as the basis for a new nation and the standard for the United States’ civil laws.  Man-made laws, they affirmed, are not legitimized merely by an earthly civil power or by the people’s majority.  Man-made laws must abide by the higher moral law in order to be valid, just, and worthy of obedience.  If a civil state violates this moral law by, for example, legalizing or ordering the cold-blooded murder of an innocent person, such a law or order would be considered illegitimate and should not be obeyed.

American Founder James Wilson

American Founder and U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson observed in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law the importance of God’s moral law in the Bible in the forming of human civil law.  He asserts, “Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law which is divine [God’s moral law in the Bible].  …  Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants.  Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.  The divine law, as discovered by reason and moral sense, forms an essential part of both.”[5]

Portrait of James McHenry by H. Pollock, 1873.

Constitution signer, U. S. Secretary of War, and founder and president of the Baltimore Bible Society, James McHenry also expressed the value of the Bible and its moral law to civil law and society.  He expresses, … 

Portrait of Joseph Story by George P. A. Healy.

U. S. Supreme Court Justice, lawyer, and author of Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Joseph Story similarly saw the importance of the Bible and its commandments to the foundation of American civil law. In his 1829 induction speech as Harvard law professor, he states, “One of the beautiful boasts of our municipal jurisprudence is, that Christianity is a part of the common law, from which it seeks the sanction of its rights, and by which it endeavours to regulate its doctrines.  ….  There never has been a period, in which the common law did not recognise Christianity as lying at its foundations.”[7]

Portrait of John Quincy Adams c1843-1848.

Sixth U. S. President and U. S. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of Founder John Adams, would later aptly observe that the Declaration of Independence committed Americans to the biblical moral law.  He observed in his July 4, 1821, address titled “The Nation’s Birth-Day” that “From the day of the Declaration, the people of the North American union and of its constitutent states were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians, in a state of nature, but not of anarchy.  They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct.”[8]

The early Americans reflected the spirit of the moral law in establishing just constitutional laws and amendments that ultimately respected the individual rights and dignity of citizens—including the right to vote, free exercise of religion, due process of law, trial by impartial jury, assistance of counsel, habeas corpus, innocence until proven guilt, no cruel and unusual punishment, no unreasonable search and seizure, abolition of slavery, equal protection under the law, etc.

Evidently, just as the American Founders articulated in the Declaration of Independence that the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” were the foundation for a new nation, they also held an understanding and view that this moral law was and/or should be the basis and standard for the nation’s civil laws.  The early Americans created their constitutional government and civil laws with an aspiration and commitment to this moral law.  As such, the U. S. Constitution and our nation’s foundational civil laws and amendments were (and aspired to be), in their approach and spirit, directed by the universal moral law that aligns with the Bible.

[1] Charles-Louis Secondat Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, in Two Volumes, New Edition, vol. 2, bk. 24, trans. Thomas Nugent, ed. J. V. Prichard (London:  George Bell & Sons, 1892), 111.

[2] William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries, in Five Volumes, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 1996, 2008), 42.

[3] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government, Bk. 2 (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 262.

[4] Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added, Memoirs of his Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), 48.

[5] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791 in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol.1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 104-105, 106.

[6] Bernard C. Steiner, One Hundred and Ten Years of Bible Society Work in Maryland, 1810-1920 (Baltimore, MD:  Maryland Bible Society, 1921), 13-14.

[7] Joseph Story, A Discourse Pronounced Upon the Inauguration of the Author, as Dane Professor of Law in Harvard University, 25 August 1829 (Boston, MA:  Hilliard, Gray, Little, and Wilkins, 1829), 20-21.

[8] John Quincy Adams “The Nation’s Birth-Day,” 4 July 1821, Address at Washington, Niles’ Weekly Register, Mar-Sept 1821 (Baltimore) 20, no. 21 (Mar-Sept, 21 July 1821): 331.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

—–
Source for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
3.  The American Revolution
4.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
5.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
6.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
7.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
8.  The American Quest for Self-Government
9.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
10.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
11.  The Law of Nature in the Bible
12.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways  

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 1, Activity 6:  Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration, p. 237, 372-376.  MS-HS.

Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration…. 

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, God as Supreme Judge, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Rule of Law, Popular Sovereignty, and Consent of the Governed, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1 to 7.12, 7.18, & pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Matching Card Game:
Beforehand, the teacher should print, copy, and cut the matching game cards for a class set.  If students work in small groups of 2 or 3, the teacher will only need to create 10-15 plastic bags of cards to make a class set.  Before the game, the teacher should show and discuss the art image “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo with students.  Students should be familiar with this image before playing the game.  Follow game instructions.  See “The Creation of Adam” Michelangelo painting and the “Matching Card Game” instructions and cut-outs in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 372-376.

—–

To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org.  To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Grove City College Defeats Abigail Adams Institute for First Place at 2019 American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl

January 31, 2019
The Founding

2019 2nd AHWCCB Finalists (from L to R): For Grove City, Dr. Jason R. Edwards, Elena Peters, Noah Gould, Carolyn Hartwick; AHEF Co-Founder Jack Kamrath, AHEF President Angela Kamrath; For Abigail Adams Institute, Liam Warner, Finnian Brown, Portia Berry-Kilby, Dr. Danilo Petranovich

AHEF’s Second American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl™ (AHWCCB) held on January 25-26, 2019, at The King’s College of NY in New York City was a great success!

Grove City College defeated The Abigail Adams Institute in the finals in a close match (537-526) to win first place academic recognition along with $4,000 scholarship prizes and copies of AHEF President Angela Kamrath’s book, The Miracle of America!

Student teams from Grove City College, Abigail Adams Institute, James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and The King’s College of New York competed in the event.

All students received a cash scholarship award of between $1,000-$4,000 according to their order of finish.

The event is sponsored by the American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF) in Houston, TX. (www.americanheritage.org)

WATCH:  2nd AHWCCB Finals
WATCH:  Presentation on AHEF’s History, Founding, & Mission

2019 Semi-Finals Essay Topic:
“Since the beginning of human history, most people have lived under some form of authoritarianism.  In such regimes, rulership was largely a matter of the elite few ruling over and living off of the unprivileged many.  Only during the last few hundred years has the idea of the constitutional accountability of government to the populace as a whole risen to prominence.  Discuss the philosophical and historical causes of the ascendancy of this idea, including key events, leaders, and reasoning.”

2019 Finals Essay Topic:
“Discuss the origins, development, and justification of the fundamental American idea that ‘all men are created equal’ (as in the Declaration of Independence).”

AHWCCB Impact & Feedback:
AHWCCB Impact & Feedback:  Responses from Participating Professors and Students

 

For Grove City (L to R): Elena Peters, Carolyn Hartwick, Noah Gould

For Abigail Adams Institute (L to R): Liam Warner, Portia Berry-Kilby, Finnian Brown

For Princeton (L to R): Alvin Zhang, Nicholas Sileo, Emerson Salovaara

For The King’s College (L to R): Abigail Rose-Smith, Michael Napoli, Ellen Rogers


Semi-Finals
:  Friday, January 25, 2019
5 PM – Grove City College vs Princeton University
7 PM – The King’s College vs Harvard University

Finals:  Saturday, January 26, 2019
2 PM – Finalists

Location:
The King’s College, 56 Broadway, New York, NY 10004 (City Room, 5th Floor)
212-659-7200 / 888-969-7200

Academic Curriculum Analyst:
-The National Association of Scholars (NAS)

Moderator:
-Mr. Jeremy Tate, Co-Founder and President of the Classic Learning Test

Academic Teams:
-Grove City College – Coach: Dr. Jason R. Edwards.  Student Team: Noah Gould, Carolyn Hartwick, Elena Peters
-Abigail Adams Institute – Coach: Dr. Danilo Petranovich.  Student Team: Portia Berry-Kilby, Finnian Brown, Liam Warner
-Princeton University – Coach: Dr. Russ Nieli.  Student Team: Emerson Salovaara, Nicholas Sileo, Alvin Zhang
-The King’s College of New York – Coach: Dr. Josh Kinlaw.  Student Team: Michael Napoli, Ellen Rogers, Abigail Rose-Smith

Academic Judges:
-Dr. Stephen Balch, Director of The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University; Co-Founder of the National Association of Scholars
-Dr. Robert Koons, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Founder of The Western Civilization and American Institutions Program, The University of Texas at Austin

Hosted by the American Heritage Education Foundation Inc. in partnership with The King’s College of New York.

Related articles/videos:
AHEF Pioneers Innovative History & Civic Education Initiatives
American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl – Program Information
AHWCCB™ Video
1st American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl (AHWCCB) – 2017
AHWCCB 2019 Printable Flyer (PDF)

In the news:
King’s to Host Western Civilization Challenge Bowl with Princeton, Harvard, and Grove City College, The King’s College, Nov 1, 2018
GCC Tapped for History, Western Civilization Challenge, Grove City College, Jan 18, 2019
The King’s College to Host Western Civilization Challenge Bowl with the James Madison Program at Princeton, the Abigail Adams Institute at Harvard and Grove City College, RFD TV, Jan 19, 2019
Grove City College Faces Princeton in History Challenge Bowl, The Business Journal, Jan 22, 2019
GCC Team Beats Harvard in American History Challenge, Grove City College, Jan 29, 2019
Grove City College Beats Harvard in American History Challenge, Butler Radio, Jan 30, 2019

AHWCCB is a college-level academic competition and scholarship where students compete in their knowledge and understanding of Western Civilization and America’s founding history and philosophy to determine the nation’s top colleges in these subjects.

AHEF started AHWCCB to address a growing problem in our nation–confirmed by many studies–which is that many Americans are not informed about America’s heritage or the American idea.  This is a concerning problem in a self-government like ours which depends on an educated citizenry to continue and improve.  AHWCCB aims to encourage schools to teach and students to learn these subjects–including Western Civilization and America’s founding history, philosophy, laws, governing process, and free enterprise system.  Further, AHWCCB aims to inspire citizens’ education and understanding of the American idea so that they may become informed, engaged participants and contributors in our democracy, who can perpetuate and improve the practice of our nation’s founding principles for present and future generations.

Topics covered in the competition are relevant to America’s founding heritage.  Topics span from ancient, classical civilizations of the Greco-Romans and Hebrews to the medieval and modern eras including the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment to the history and founding of the United States of America.

For more information about AHWCCB, please visit americanheritage.org.

If you or someone you know would like to sponsor our next challenge bowl, please see our Donate page or contact us at 713.627.2698.  Thank you!

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

January 25 & 26, 2019: 2nd American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl in NYC

January 7, 2019
The Founding

Challenge Bowl 2017 026 - Copy

AHEF’s second American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl™ (AHWCCB) will be held on January 25-26, 2019, at The King’s College of NY in New York City!  Student teams from Grove City College, Abigail Adams Institute, Princeton University (James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions), and The King’s College of New York will compete for scholarship prizes and academic recognition at the 2019 event.

AHEF initiated the challenge bowl to encourage and incentivize colleges and universities to teach, and students to study, the objective and factual content of Western Civilization and America’s founding history and philosophy.  Studies in the last 20 years show that Americans of all backgrounds are not as informed as we need to be about these subjects or our nation.  Further, many schools are no longer teaching these subjects.  Such trends are a dangerous matter in a self-governing republic like ours which depends on an educated citizenry.  The challenge bowl aims to motivate and improve citizens’ education and intellectual and practical understanding of the American idea so that Americans may become informed, engaged participants and leaders in our democracy who can perpetuate and improve the realization of our nation’s founding principles and values in present and future generations.

Topics covered in the competition are relevant to America’s founding heritage.  Topics span from ancient, classical civilizations of the Greco-Romans and Hebrews to the medieval and modern eras including the Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment to the history and founding of the United States of America.

The 2019 Semi-Finals Essay Topic has been released as follows:
“Since the beginning of human history, most people have lived under some form of authoritarianism.  In such regimes, rulership was largely a matter of the elite few ruling over and living off of the unprivileged many.  Only during the last few hundred years has the idea of the constitutional accountability of government to the populace as a whole risen to prominence.  Discuss the philosophical and historical causes of the ascendancy of this idea, including key events, leaders, and reasoning.”

Semi-Finals:  Friday, January 25, 2019
5 PM – Grove City College vs Princeton University
7 PM – The King’s College vs Abigail Adams Institute

Finals:  Saturday, January 26, 2019
2 PM – Finalists

Location:
The King’s College, 56 Broadway, New York, NY 10004 (City Room, 5th Floor)
212-659-7200 / 888-969-7200

Academic Curriculum Analyst:
-The National Association of Scholars (NAS)

Moderator:
-Mr. Jeremy Tate, Co-Founder and President of the Classic Learning Test

Academic Teams:
-Grove City College – Coach: Dr. Jason R. Edwards.  Student Team: Noah Gould, Carolyn Hartwick, Elena Peters
-Abigail Adams Institute – Coach: Dr. Danilo Petranovich.  Student Team: Portia Berry-Kilby, Finnian Brown, Liam Warner
-Princeton University – Coach: Dr. Russ Nieli.  Student Team: Emerson Salovaara, Nicholas Sileo, Alvin Zhang
-The King’s College of New York – Coach: Dr. Josh Kinlaw.  Student Team: Michael Napoli, Ellen Rogers, Abigail Rose-Smith

Academic Judges:
-Dr. Stephen Balch,  Director of The Institute for the Study of Western Civilization, Texas Tech University; Co-Founder of the National Association of Scholars
-Dr. Robert Koons, Professor of Philosophy and Co-Founder of The Western Civilization and American Institutions Program, The University of Texas at Austin

All team members will receive scholarship prizes according to their order of finish of between $1,000-$4,000.

Free Admission.  Please register to attend in person or watch in livestream.

AHWCCB 2019 Printable Flyer (PDF)

Hosted by the American Heritage Education Foundation Inc. in partnership with The King’s College of New York.

In the news:
King’s to Host Western Civilization Challenge Bowl with Princeton, Harvard, and Grove City College, The King’s College, Nov 1, 2018

Related articles/videos:
AHEF Pioneers Innovative History & Civic Education Initiatives
American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl – Program Information
AHWCCB™ Video
1st American History & Western Civilization Challenge Bowl (AHWCCB) – 2017

For more information about AHWCCB, please visit americanheritage.org.

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

The Law of Nature and Nature’s God in the Declaration: One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways

December 14, 2018
The Founding

The Sermon on the Mount by Henrik Olrik, c1855. In the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5-7, Jesus taught the Golden Rule, to “do to others as you would want them to do to you.”

The Declaration of Independence of 1776 tells much about the founding philosophy of the United States of America.  One philosophical principle that the American Founders asserted in the Declaration was the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.”  This universal moral law served as their moral and legal basis for creating a new, self-governing nation.  One apparent aspect of this law is that it was understood in Western thought and by early Americans to be revealed by God in two ways—in nature and in the Bible—and thus evidences the Bible’s influence in America’s founding document.

The “Law of Nature” is the moral or common sense embedded in man’s heart or conscience (as confirmed in Romans 2:14-15).  It tells one to live honestly, hurt no one, and render to everyone his due.  The law of “Nature’s God” as written in the Bible and spoken by Jesus Christ consists of two great commandments—to love God and love others (as found in Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 7:12, Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-28).  The first commandment, first found in Deuteronomy 6:5, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”  The second commandment, often referred to as the Golden Rule and first found in Leviticus 19:18, is to “love your neighbor as yourself” or, as expressed by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Thus the content for both the natural and written laws is the same.

The law of Nature and God can be traced through the history and writings of Western Civilization.  This principle is found, for example, in medieval European thought.  In his 1265-1274 Summa Theologica, published in 1485, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas acknowledged a “two-fold” moral law that is both general and specific: … 

Aquinas explained that the written law in the Bible was given by God due to the fallibility of human judgment and the perversion of the natural law in the hearts of many.  In the 1300s, medieval Bible scholars referred to the “Law of Nature and God” as a simple way to describe God’s natural and written law, its two expressions.  The phrase presented this law in the same order and timing in which God revealed it to mankind in history—first in creation and then in Holy Scripture.

During the Reformation period, French religious reformer John Calvin affirmed this two-fold moral law in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, observing, “It is certain that the law of God, which we call the moral law, is no other than a declaration of natural law, and of that conscience which has been engraven by God on the minds of men.”[2]  He further explains, “The very things contained in the two tables [or commandments in the Bible] are…dictated to us by that internal law which…is…written and stamped on every heart.”[3]  Incidentally, Puritan leader John Winthrop, who led a large migration of Calvinist Puritans from England to the American colonies, identified God’s two-fold moral law in his well-known 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, delivered to the Puritans as they sailed to America.  He taught,

There is likewise a double law by which we are regulated in our conversation one towards another:  …the law of nature and the law of grace, or the moral law and the law of the Gospel….  By the first of these laws, man…is commanded to love his neighbor as himself.  Upon this ground stands all the precepts of the moral law which concerns our dealings with men.[4]

During the Enlightenment period, British philosopher John Locke, who was influential to the Founders, wrote of the “law of God and nature” in his 1689 First Treatise of Civil Government.[5]  This law, he further notes in his 1696 Reasonableness of Christianity, “being everywhere the same, the Eternal Rule of Right, obliges Christians and all men everywhere, and is to all men the standing Law of Works.”[6]  English legal theorist William Blackstone, another oft-cited thinker of the American founding era, recognized the two-fold moral law in his influential 1765-1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England.  This law, he believed, could be known partially by man’s imperfect natural reason and completely by the Bible.  Due to man’s imperfect reason, Blackstone like Aquinas observed, the Bible’s written revelation is necessary: …

Portrait of Samuel Adams by John Singleton Copley, 1772.

Founding-era Americans themselves recognized the two-fold moral law of nature and God.  American revolutionary leader Samuel Adams was, for example, one significant voice on the law of Nature and God during the American Revolution.  He referred to this law as the source of man’s natural rights in his 1772 Report on the Rights of Colonists, asserting, “‘Just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty’ in matters spiritual and temporal is a thing that all men are clearly entitled to by the eternal and immutable laws of God and nature.”[8]  Later, in a 1792 address to the Massachusetts legislature, Adams again referred to this two-fold law:

All men are equally bound by the laws of nature, or to speak more properly, the laws of the Creator.  They are imprinted by the finger of God on the heart of man.  Thou shall do no injury to thy neighbor, is the voice of nature and reason, and it is confirmed by written revelation [in the Bible].[9]

In his 1796 Senate notes, American Founder and second president John Adams recognized the two-fold Law of Nature and God as the same moral law:

One great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great principle of the Law of nature and nations—Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you—to the knowledge, belief, and veneration of the whole people.[10]

Official Portrait of U. S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson

American Founder, Supreme Court Justice, and lawyer James Wilson elaborated on the natural and written moral law in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law: …

Both the natural and written law, Wilson emphasized, are given by God and necessary for fully understanding God’s moral law.  He explained, “The law of nature and the law of revelation [in the Bible] are both divine.  They flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source.  It is, indeed, preposterous, to separate them from each other.  The object of both is to discover the will of God—and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.”[12]  This law, Wilson asserted, upholds the maxims to obey God, to injure no man, and to faithfully fulfill one’s engagements.

In conclusion, while Americans have complete religious freedom and are not required to hold a religious belief in the Bible or Judeo-Christianity, it is important for Americans to recognize and appreciate that the early colonists held a certain philosophical worldview when founding the United States.  This worldview derived largely from Western thought and their beliefs and values.  Indeed, they apparently affirmed the two-fold idea of a moral law for mankind, found in nature and the Bible.  When the Founders wrote the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” into the Declaration, therefore, they were likely referencing the law that came not only from human nature and reason but from written revelation in the Bible.  Thus the Declaration, as Gary T. Amos observes in his Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence, “makes the Bible a fundamental part of the legal foundation of America.  …The phrase…incorporates by reference the moral law of the Bible into the founding document of our country!”[13]

Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, c1818

The Declaration’s “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” serves not only as the legal basis for the American founding but is also a testament to the philosophical, religious beliefs and values of a people who sought to create a godly, free, and just nation—a nation that closely reflected the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It is the creed of a people who sought to abide, with God’s grace and help, by God’s law of love.  Citing the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35, American Founder Benjamin Rush expressed well an American view of such values in a 1791 letter on the “Defense of the Use of the Bible in Schools:”

Let us not be wiser than our Maker.  If moral precepts alone could have reformed mankind, the mission of the Son of God into our world would have been unnecessary.  He came to promulgate a system of doctrines, as well as a system of morals.  The perfect morality of the Gospel rests upon a doctrine which, though often controverted, has never been refuted.  I mean the vicarious life and death of the Son of God.  This sublime and ineffable doctrine delivers us from the absurd hypotheses of modern philosophers concerning the foundation of moral obligation, and fixes it upon the eternal and self-moving principle of LOVE.  It concentrates a whole system of ethics in a single text of scripture:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you.”[14]

Michael Novak in his On Two Wings:  Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding affirms the biblical, Judeo-Christian values that influenced early Americans and shaped the American founding:  “In those days, faith permeated philosophy and lifted it above its own limitations.  …  The vast majority of the American Founders and the whole ratifying people thought and acted in the conviction that the American theory of rights is religious as well as reasonable.”[15]

[1] Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, pt 2/Q 91, Article 5, trans Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros., 1947) in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ccel.org <https://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/home.html >.

[2] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3, bk. 4, trans. John Allen (Philadelphia, PA:  Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 534-535.

[3] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion:  A New Translation, vol. 1, trans. Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh, Scotland:  Printed for Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 430.

[4] John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity, 1630, in Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794, ed. Edmund S. Morgan (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett Publishing, 2003), 75-93.

[5] John Locke, First Treatise of Civil Government, in Two Treatises on Government, bk. 1 (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 142, 157, 164.

[6] John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, as delivered in the Scriptures, Second Edition (London:  Printed for Awnsham and John Churchil, 1696), 21-22.

[7] William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries in Five Volumes, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, 1996, 2008), 41.

[8] Samuel Adams, Report on the Rights of the Colonists, 20 November 1772, in American Patriotism:  Speeches, Letters, and Other Papers Which Illustrate the Foundation, the Development, the Preservation of the United States of America, comp. Selim H. Peabody (New York:  American Book Exchange, 1880), 33.

[9] Samuel Adams to the Legislature of Massachusetts, 17 January 1794, in The Writings of Samuel Adams:  1778-1802, vol. 4, ed. Harry A. Cushing (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1908), 356.

[10] John Adams, Diary, Notes of a Debate in the Senate of the United States, 24 August 1796, in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, vol. 3, ed. Charles F. Adams (Boston:  Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 423.

[11] James Wilson, Lectures on Law, Part 1, 1790-1791, in The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, Vol. 1, ed. Bird Wilson (Philadelphia, PA:  Lorenzo Press, Printed for Bronson and Chauncey, 1804), 104, 120.

[12] Wilson, Lectures on Law, 120.

[13] Gary T. Amos, Defending the Declaration:  How the Bible and Christianity Influenced the Writing of the Declaration of Independence (Brentwood, TN:  Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), 60.

[14] Benjamin Rush to Rev. Jeremy Belknap, “A Defense of the Use of the Bible in Schools,” Philadelphia, 10 March 1791, in Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical, 2nd ed., by Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia, PA:  Printed by Thomas and William Bradford, 1806), 105.  John 13:34 states:  “A new commandment I [Jesus] give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

[15] Michael Novak, On Two Wings:  Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco, CA:  Encounter Books, 2002), 82.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

—–
Sources for more information:
Kamrath, Angela E.  The Miracle of America:  The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief.  Second Edition.  Houston, TX:  American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.

Aquinas, Thomas.  The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Part 2, No. 1/QQ 1-XXVI.  Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province.  New York:  Benziger Brothers, 1911.  Google Books.  See Question 91, Articles 4 & 5, and Question 94, Article 5.

Related articles/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
3.  The American Revolution
4.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
5.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
6.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
7.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
8.  The American Quest for Self-Government
9.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
10.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
11.  The Law of Nature in the Bible

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 1, Activity 6:  Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration, p. 237, 372-376.  MS-HS.

Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration…. 

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including Creator God, God as Supreme Judge, Law of Nature and Nature’s God, Rule of Law, Popular Sovereignty, and Consent of the Governed, and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans connected these concepts with the Bible.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1 to 7.12, 7.18, & pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3)  “Historical Figures Quoted in Miracle of America” and “References to the Law of Nature and Natural Rights in Miracle of America” in “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 347-348, 360-61, 366-371.
4)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Matching Card Game:
Beforehand, the teacher should print, copy, and cut the matching game cards for a class set.  If students work in small groups of 2 or 3, the teacher will only need to create 10-15 plastic bags of cards to make a class set.  Before the game, the teacher should show and discuss the art image “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo with students.  Students should be familiar with this image before playing the game.  Follow game instructions.  See “The Creation of Adam” Michelangelo painting and the “Matching Card Game” instructions and cut-outs in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 372-376.

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