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:
When the Gentiles [non-Jews], who do not have the [written] law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a [natural] law for themselves…. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times defending them. [NIV]
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.
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.
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
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”….
Purpose/Objective: Students learn key principles of the Declaration of Independence including the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” and how historical, influential thinkers and early Americans defined, viewed, and expressed this concept.
1) Chapter 7 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 7.1 to 7.9 & 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) “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).
Law of Nature Class/Home Quilt:
This activity calls for students to create two (or more) squares to contribute to a class (or home) quilt depicting the qualities of the Law of Nature. It is particularly helpful for visual learners and those who have trouble processing abstract ideas. The goal of this assignment is for students to remember the qualities of the Law of Nature as explored by historical thinkers and as understood by early Americans. The Law of Nature gave Americans the courage and justification to fight against British rule which they saw as unjust.
Students turn in two (or more) squares, one with a symbol that represents a Law of Nature quality and one with a quote that describes or relates to that quality. Some main qualities are listed in the student assignment handout. All of the qualities listed on the student assignment sheet should be represented on the quilt. More than one student may make squares for the same quality.
The teacher may provide squares or have students provide their own. Paper, felt, or cardstock will work. Teachers may encourage each student to bring his or her unique perspective to the assignment. Teachers may require or encourage students to decorate their squares with designs. Images may be hand-drawn or cut-and-paste. Students may attach small items or textural elements to the squares. Students may use one icon or several to represent the quality. The class may choose a color scheme or students may choose. There are many options for individual expression. The teacher and/or students will post the squares together to form a “quilt” on the wall. The squares may be attached or simply arranged close together. If there is not enough wall space, consider making a virtual or digital quilt ro compile squares into a flip book instead.
Quote: “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.”
Quality: foundation for just government
Quote: “The only ends for which government are constituted, and obedience rendered to them, are the obtaining of justice and protection….” –Algernon Sidney
See “Law of Nature Class Quilt” student assignment sheet, “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.
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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