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The Law of Nature: The Universal Moral Law of Mankind

October 18, 2018

Declaration of Independence, 1776.  The Declaration opens, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

When the American Founders drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence of 1776 to form the United States of America, they set down the principles for the new nation’s founding philosophy.  One of the key principles of the Declaration acknowledged by Americans is a universal moral law, known as the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God.”  This law serves as the legal foundation of self-government and of all civil law in this country.

For a century before the new nation was founded, the American colonists had relied on the British constitution and their colonial charters and laws for the protection of their rights.  As such, when Britain began to impose more intrusive policies on the colonies in the mid-1700s, just prior to the American Revolution, the colonists cited the British constitution and their charters to defend their freedom.  However, when the colonists petitioned for their English rights, King George III rejected their petition, announcing that the colonies were in rebellion and must be controlled by force.  The colonists thus realized they could no longer defend themselves under British law and rule.  In response, they turned to God and His higher moral law, the Law of Nature, as their final defense and hope.  This law is supported by nature, reason, and the Bible.

Recognized for centuries in the West, the Law of Nature is understood as an eternal, constant moral law given by the Creator God to mankind.  This law is naturally revealed in a person’s reason and conscience, or in common sense, and it is considered a natural, rational version of God’s moral law of love in the Bible.  It sets down standards of right and wrong, how to treat others, and justice in society.  It cannot be abolished or changed by any earthly power but simply exists as the will of God.  God purposes this law for the morality, order, and preservation of mankind.  This law is superior to all man-made laws, existing before any civil state existed.  All people and nations are subject to this law at all times, and to oppose it would be ungodly and unjust.  Indeed, just civil laws reflect this higher law.  When applied to civil states, this law is sometimes called the Law of Nations.

Some of the earliest references to the Law of Nature can be found in Genesis written by Moses in 1400s BC, such as Genesis 9:6 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.”  Other early references came from ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle in his 300s BC Rhetoric and from ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) in his 54-51 BC The Republic as reported in 3 AD by Lucius Lactantius, the Christian Roman author and advisor to first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I.  Cicero was one of the first secular writers to articulate a moral law from God that ruled over all men.  He defined this moral law as man’s “right reason.”[1]  The concept of “Law of Nature” emerged, then, in the Old Testament in ancient times and again during the time of the Gospel and New Testament.  It became part of Western tradition.

Some key historical thinkers who influenced early Americans in their understanding of the Law of Nature included Cicero; medieval churchmen Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco Suarez; and modern-era thinkers Edward Coke, Samuel Pufendorf, Richard Hooker, and William Blackstone.  These thinkers wrote from a God-oriented worldview.

Portrait of Sir William Blackstone by Thomas Gainsborough, 1744

British jurist William Blackstone was one of the most frequently cited secular sources of the American founding era.  He affirmed for Americans that the Law of Nature was the highest law, given by God, and that civil law should be based on it.  Blackstone acknowledged the Law of Nature in his 1765-1769 Commentaries on the Laws of England, the best-known description of English common law.  He sought to compare the common law with “the Laws of Nature and of other Nations.”[2]  His Commentaries, taken from his lectures at Oxford University, became the basis of legal education in England and America.  It sold as many copies in America as in England.  Blackstone’s work, observes Russell Kirk in his The Roots of American Order, “confirmed Americans in their appeal to a justice beyond parliamentary statute.”[3]  Blackstone expounds on the Law of Nature as the first and highest moral law, given by God to mankind, and as the basis of just civil law: …

British philosopher John Locke affirmed this idea of the Law of Nature in his influential 1689 Second Treatise of Government in which he states that the Law of Nature teaches and obliges every one that “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or posessions.”[5]

The early Americans, including the American Founders who wrote and signed the Declaration, largely understood and affirmed the Law of Nature as presented by Blackstone.  Blackstone described the Law of Nature through a God-oriented, Bible-based worldview as the law and will of the Creator God and the universal moral law of right and wrong to which all men and all civil laws are accountable.  This law was a key principle and value held by the American people.

Founding-era Americans ultimately based their independence and new self-governing nation on the Law of Nature.  For if one nation’s civil laws or rulers repeatedly violated the Law of Nature by a “long train of abuses,” that nation’s laws and/or rulers were no longer just or legitimate.  The people had a right to separate and govern themselves under just civil laws.  The Declaration of Independence thus opens by stating, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”  As such, the “Law of Nature and Nature’s God” served as the legal foundation for the American people’s freedom and right to govern themselves as an independent nation, as the United States of America.  Later, the “Law of Nations” was acknowledged in Article I, Section 8, of the U. S. Constitution.

[1] Marcus Tullius Cicero, Treatise on the Republic, in The Political Works of Marcus Tullius Cicero, vol. 1, ed. Francis Barham (London:  Edmund Spettigue, 1841), 270.

[2] William Blackstone, Announcement on the Course of Lectures which led to the Commentaries on the Laws of England, 23 June 1753, in William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 1, ed. William C. Jones (San Francisco, CA:  Bancroft-Whtiney Co., 1915), xv.

[3] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, Third Edition (Washington, DC:  Regnery Gateway, 1991), 369.

[4] William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries, in Five Volumes, vol. 1, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ:  Lawbook Exchange, LTD, 1996, 2008), 39-41.

[5] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1689, in Two Treatises on Government, bk. 2 (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), 193-194.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay 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.

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2.  The Mayflower Compact:  The Pilgrims’ First Self-Governing Act in America
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.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
15.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
16.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
17.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
18.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
19.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
20.  The Unalienable Right to Pursue Happiness

Poster:  Declaration of Independence

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Activity:  The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 7, Part 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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Published by: The Founding

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