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The Creator God in the Declaration: The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States

October 4, 2018

Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1932. The painting depicts Founders Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams.

During the American Revolution in the 1700s, the American Founders drafted what would become a key founding document for their new nation, the U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776.  This document announced their forming of a new nation, the United States of America.  It reflected the values of the American people and comprises principles based on a God-oriented worldview including the recognition of a Creator God as the basis of authority, law, and rights for mankind.

Influenced by a Bible-based and/or Judeo-Christian worldview, the Declaration notably acknowledges a Creator God, just as early Americans had always done.  Whether or not they held orthodox Christian beliefs, most of the American Founders (including those who contributed to the writing of the Declaration like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams) acknowledged a Creator God as well as this widely-held belief among the American people.  Their view of a Creator God of mankind is essential to understanding their perspective on the law, rights, and value assigned to human beings.

American Founder, professor, and Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, for example, explained in his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law how the Creator God is the basis for all authority and law.  He cited Swiss theorist Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s 1748 Principles of Natural Law on the point.  Influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, Burlamaqui was often quoted in political sermons of the American founding era, and his Principles was often used as a textbook.  Burlamaqui notably referenced the Bible in his view of God.  Wilson paraphrased Burlamaqui and his allusion to Acts 17:28 to explain the Creator God as the source of all authority and law: … 

Wilson affirmed this idea that the Creator of mankind is the ultimate ruler and law-maker of mankind.  Human beings have an obligation to this Creator and to His laws which are made to preserve moral order.  Further, humanity’s own man-made laws should necessarily reflect the Creator’s for the same purpose.  Wilson observed that this principle raised by Burlamaqui “contains a solemn truth, which ought to be examined with reverence and awe.”[2]  Wilson asserted, “That our Creator has a supreme right to prescribe a law for our conduct, and that we are under the most perfect obligation to obey that law, are truths established on the clearest and most solid principles.”[3]

An excerpt from the Declaration of Independence appears on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.

American Founder James Madison—primary writer of the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and fourth U. S. president—also acknowledged that recognition of a Creator God was essential to the order and benefit of mankind.  He observed, … 

In addition to upholding the moral order and law of the Creator God, the Declaration upheld the dignity and rights of the individual human being.  For human beings are created by God and made in His image and likeness according to Genesis 1 and 2 in the Bible.  The individual’s worth in the eyes of God became the basis for man’s natural rights.  Russell Kirk affirmed in his The American Cause that man’s dignity as God’s creation is the source of man’s rights and freedoms.  He elaborates, …

In sum, the American Founders laid the groundwork for the American philosophy in the U. S. Declaration of Independence of 1776, with its reference to a Creator God and to a moral, natural law and natural rights.  In the new nation of the United States of America, God as Creator and Supreme Judge is recognized as the highest moral authority.  And all individual citizens, as human beings created by God, are recognized as possessing certain unalienable rights and freedoms.  Later, the Founders would base the U. S. Constitution on these principles—in its rule and application of just law and in recognizing that citizens have certain legal rights and protections.

To be sure, United States citizens have religious freedom and are not required to believe in God.  However, it is important for citizens to recognize that individual dignity, rights, and freedoms in the United States are, in fact, based on the philosophical idea of a Creator God.  Removing God from America’s founding philosophy would make the nation more vulnerable to abuse of power, tyranny, corruption, and loss of individual rights and freedoms.

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[1] 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), 109.

[2] Wilson, Lectures on Law, 111.

[3] Wilson, Lectures on Law, 108.

[4] James Madison, James Madison to Frederick Beasley, Montpellier, 20 November 1825, in The Writings of James Madison, vol. 9/1819-1836, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1910), 230.

[5] Russell Kirk, The American Cause, ed. Gleaves Whitney (Wilmington, DE:  Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2002), 20, 23.

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Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This article 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 articles.

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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:  Dignity of the Human Being
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God
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.  American Revolution Debate:  Submission to Authority
10.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
11.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
12.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God Over Man
13.  The American Quest for Self-Government
14.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
15.  Self-Evident Truth:  Equality and Rights in the Declaration of Independence
16.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights
17.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Religious Freedom

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 1, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 235, 354-356.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence

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 to 7.20, 7.23, & pp. 236-237, 240.
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)  Related blogs/videos (see above).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the American Revolution” reading handout and, as desired, relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  Assign specific sections to read, 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 a great practice for having students read historical texts.)  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.  See “Principles of the American Revolution” reading and questions in the “Supporting Resources” section of this course guide, pp. 354-356.  (These questions are also found in Chapter 7 of 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.

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Published by: The Founding

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