Library

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

April 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Founder James Wilson

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

Portrait of James McHenry by H. Pollock, 1873.

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

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

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

Portrait of John Quincy Adams c1843-1848.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

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

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

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

—–

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

Identifying Biblical Principles in the Declaration…. 

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

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

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

—–

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

Copyright © American Heritage Education Foundation.  All rights reserved.

Published by: The Founding

Receive Blog Updates