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 4:7 in which God tells Cain to “do what is right” and avoid sin. 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.” 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.
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.” 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.” 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: …
Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator. … These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil which He [God] has enabled human reason to discover. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, hurt nobody, and render to every one his due. … As therefore the Creator is a being, not only of infinite power and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, He has been pleased so to contrive the constitution and frame of humanity, that we should want [lack] no other prompter to inquire after and pursue the rule of right, but only our own self-love, that universal principle of action. For He 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. … This law of nature, being coeval [of the same age and duration] with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, at all times. No human laws are of any validity if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
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.”
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.
 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.
 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.
 Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, Third Edition (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991), 369.
 William Blackstone, Blackstone’s Commentaries, in Five Volumes, vol. 1, ed. George Tucker (Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, LTD, 1996, 2008), 39-41.
 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.
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 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
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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