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The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness

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.

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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.  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

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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 American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights

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.

—–
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 American Founders

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: 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.

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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
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

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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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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 Harvard 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 Harvard, 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 at Harvard 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, Harvard University (Abigail Adams Institute), Princeton University (James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions), 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 Harvard (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
-Harvard University – 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, Harvard University (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 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
-Harvard University – 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: 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

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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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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.

Self-Evident Truth: Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence

November 29, 2018
The Founding

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, c1785.

When American Founder Benjamin Franklin edited Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, he changed the wording of one important phrase from “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”  The notion of “self-evident” truth is the idea that some truths do not require complex reasoning or evidence to prove.  Such truths are simply understood by basic, original evidence and man’s innate moral or common sense.  They are often called “first principles” upon which other truths and arguments are based.  The Declaration of Independence of 1776 conveys the principle of self-evident truth in stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  This principle contributes to the American understanding of and justification for the equality and natural rights of mankind.  While self-evident truth may hold value from a purely secular, scientific and rational standpoint, many early God-oriented thinkers also found it to be compatible with biblical, Christian teaching.  Franklin knew this.

The support for self-evident truth is found among Christian thinkers throughout history.  Augustine of Hippo in the 400s, John of Damascus in the 700s, Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s, and John Calvin and Richard Hooker of the 1500s all expressed ideas related to self-evident truth.  The concept was later supported by God-oriented Enlightenment-era thinkers including John Locke and, ultimately, by the American Founders.

In his 1265-1274 Summa Theologica, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas acknowledged that some truths are “naturally implanted” in human beings and are therefore self-evident.  Such truths, he believed, include the existence of God and God’s natural, moral law.  Drawing from John of Damascus in Orthodox Faith, Aquinas writes, for instance, about the self-evident existence of God:  “These things are said to be self-evident to us, the knowledge of which is naturally implanted in us, as we can see in regard to first principles.  [Saint John] the Damascene says that the knowledge of God is naturally implanted in all.  Therefore, the existence of God is self-evident.”  Aquinas further asserted that the two Great Commandments in the Bible to love God and others, as found in Matthew 22, are also self-evident to mankind.  These principles of God’s universal moral law, he writes, “need no further promulgation after being once imprinted on the natural reason to which they are self-evident; as, for instance, that one should do evil to no man.”

French religious reformer John Calvin expounded on the existence of God based on self-evident truth in his 1536 Institutes of the Christian Religion, writing about “the knowledge of God naturally implanted in the human mind.”  For one, he draws from Romans 1:18-20 in which the Apostle Paul writes about the evidence of God in creation: …

Calvin consequently affirms that “the knowledge of God being manifested to all” means every person is “without excuse.”  In addition, Calvin asserts that the knowledge of God is self-evidently manifested through a person’s inward moral sense or conscience.  Alluding to Romans 2:15 in which the Apostle Paul says that God’s moral law is written on human hearts, Calvin explains, …

English theologian Richard Hooker, influenced by Augustine and Aquinas, also acknowledged self-evident truth.  He explains in his 1594-1597 Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity that “to make nothing evident of itself to man’s understanding were to take away all possibility of knowing anything.”  Hooker believed, for example, that a universal moral law or Law of Nature among humanity is self-evident.  He pointed out from Augustine that some truths are “universally agreed upon” and that from these truths the “greatest moral duties we owe towards God or man may without any great difficulty be concluded.”

British philosopher John Locke, influenced by Hooker, recognized self-evident truths that do not require complex reasoning to understand.  He asserts in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, “There are a sort of propositions, which under the name of maxims or axioms, have passed for principles of science; and because they are self-evident, have been supposed innate.”  Locke affirmed the existence of a Creator God as self-evident based on natural creation.  Citing Romans 1:20, he expresses, “I judge it as certain and clear a truth, as can anywhere be delivered, that ‘the invisible things of God are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made.’”

Just as Benjamin Franklin, American Founder James Wilson similarly recognized self-evident truths, calling them common sense and first principles.  Echoing Hooker and Locke, Wilson expounds on this idea in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law (Vol. 1): … 

With their inclusion of the principle of self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence, the American Founders affirmed mankind’s creation by God and moral, common sense.  While this principle may at times be identified within secular science and reason, it is also strongly supported by the Bible.  In fact, this principle was historically acknowledged by Christian thinkers—with Romans 1 to support the existence of God through creation and with Romans 2 to support man’s moral sense.  It stands to reason that if God exists as creation evidences, and mankind is made in God’s image as the Bible and man’s conscience confirm, then all human beings possess dignity, equality, and God-given rights.  It is from this philosophy and simple line of reasoning that the Founders asserted some basic moral truths in the Declaration, that all human beings are “created equal” and that their Creator bestows on them the rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  The Founders knew that without these first principles or self-evident truths, the arguments and defense for man’s equality, rights, and freedoms would ring hollow.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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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.

Calvin, John.  The Institutes of the Christian Religion:  A New Translation.  Vol. 1, Book 1, Ch. 3.  Translated by Henry Beveridge.  Edinburgh, Scotland:  Printed for Calvin Translation Society, 1845.  pp. 55-56.  Google Books.

Related blogs/videos:
1.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2.  The Puritans’ Moral Authority was the Bible
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
5.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
6.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom & Revolution
7.  The American Revolution
8.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
9.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
10.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
11.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
12.  The American Quest for Self-Government
13.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
14.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
15.  The Law of Nature in the Bible

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 2, Activity 3:  Unalienable Rights in the Declaration, p. 252, 318-319.  MS-HS.

Unalienable Rights in the Declaration (Revised)

Purpose/Objective:  Students learn key principles from the Declaration of Independence including self-evident truth, natural or unalienable rights, and how influential thinkers like Locke and Sidney as well as early Americans justified these rights and connected them with the Bible and other principles.

Suggested Readings:
1)  Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text.  Students read sections 7.1-7.17, 7.23, & 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. 362-364, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources (see Miracle of America articles) at americanheritage.org.
3)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

KWL Chart (Revised):
1.  At the outset of the lesson, ask students to write anything they know about unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence on a 3-column KWL Chart under the “K” column for “what I know.”
2.  Students will then respond to the question, “What do you want to know about unalienable rights?”  Students will write this information under the “W” column of their chart for “what I want to know.”  The teacher will then lead students in a reading, analysis, and discussion of unalienable rights and the self-evident truth philosophy that justifies them in the Declaration.
3.  As the lesson concludes, students will add new information they have learned under the “L” column of their chart for “what I’ve learned.”

(See KWL Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 318-319.)

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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 in the Bible

November 1, 2018
The Founding

Saint Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 1476 (National Gallery). Drawing from the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle as well as Romans 2:14-15 of the Apostle Paul, Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas in his 1200s Summa Theologica notably identified the Law of Nature in man’s reason and “written in the hearts of men.”

In the Declaration of Independence of 1776, a key founding document, the American Founders presented the founding philosophy of the United States of America.  One important philosophical principle the Founders recognized in the Declaration is a universal moral law among mankind, the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the basis for self-government and just civil law.  The Founders’ view of this moral law was consistent with and supported by their God-centered and/or Judeo-Christian worldview, for this law is found in the Bible.

Emerging in the Old Testament and in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, the Law of Nature, or Natural Law, was understood as the moral law that dwells within the heart, conscience, and right reason of every person.  It includes mankind’s basic understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, and it supports the general view that one should not harm others but rather should love others, treating others with dignity and respect.  This basic morality exists among all humanity, regardless of nation, religious belief, culture, etc.  Indeed, it exists before civil society.

This universal moral law was arguably first found in the Old Testament in Genesis 9:6, written by Moses in 1400s BC, in which God sets a moral law to govern humanity:  “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”  It is also reflected in God’s great commandment in the Bible to love others as ourselves as found in Deuteronomy 6, Leviticus 19, Matthew 22, Matthew 7, and Mark 12.  One of the key verses where this law was specifically identified was in Romans 2:14-15 in 50s AD by the Apostle Paul.  Paul writes in Romans 2:14-15: 

Paul points out that this moral law written on the human heart is given by the Creator God to mankind in nature and is validated by a person’s innate moral sense and reason.

The Law of Nature was affirmed by God-oriented medieval and modern thinkers who recognized and cited Paul’s description in Romans 2.  These thinkers included Bible or religious scholars like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, and William Ames; legalists Edward Coke and William Blackstone; and political philosophers Samuel Rutherford, Samuel Pufendorf, and John Locke.  These thinkers helped to shape Western Civilization and the American Founding.

From the Bible and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, the Law of Nature was taken up by Christian thinkers and incorporated into European church theology and canon law.  It was then taken up by modern European political reformers as the basis for just civil law and government.  It also became part of Christian legal thought and English common law.  This idea, in turn, influenced those who migrated to and/or lived in the American colonies.  The principle of natural law was thus passed down from Christian thinkers to English legalists and European political theorists to the American Founders.

The Law of Nature was expressed in the United States’ Declaration of Independence as the legal foundation for a new, self-governing nation.  Further, civil laws in this nation aim to abide by this higher moral law.  Civil laws that align with the Law of Nature are considered just, while laws that contradict the Law of Nature are considered unjust.  While the Law of Nature is acknowledged by many secular rationalists, the expression of the Law of Nature in the Declaration shows that early American’s found it to be consistent with and complementary to the Bible and their God-centered, Judeo-Christian beliefs and worldview.  Indeed, the Law of Nature was largely advanced in Western Civilization by God-oriented thinkers.

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
2.  The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact Initiated Self-Government
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Judeo-Christian Law of Love
5.  The American Revolution
6.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
7.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
8.  The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
9.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
10.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
11.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
12.  The American Quest for Self-Government
13.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
14.  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 1, Activity 5:  Understanding the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God,” p. 235, 347-348, 360-361, 366-371.  MS-HS.

Understanding the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God”…. 

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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.

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