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The Purpose of American Civil Government

July 11, 2019

The White House, South Side, Washington DC.

When the American Founders founded the United States and crafted the founding documents for the new nation, they had a clear view of civil government’s purpose.  They believed that the purpose of just civil government is to enforce the Law of Nature, the universal moral law of mankind, and to protect citizens’ natural rights, the God-given or inherent birthrights of mankind due to our nature and dignity as human beings.  In order to fulfill this purpose, the U. S. government has the responsibility to maintain law and order, restrain evil, and uphold justice.  It was instituted to better the lives of the nation’s citizens.

The Founders’ views of the proper role of just civil government aligned with ideas of philosophers whom early Americans read and often cited.  Such philosophers included Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, and Algernon Sidney.

German jurist and philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, for example, asserted in his 1703 Of the Law of Nature and Nations that just civil government is ordained by God to enforce the Law of Nature in society.  Pufendorf observes, 

Pufendorf basically affirmed the idea expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-7 that the God-ordained, proper role of government is to maintain justice, protect the innocent, and restrain evil.  Paul states,

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid.  For he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. (NKJV)

One of the most cited thinkers of the American Founding, British philosopher John Locke similarly asserted in his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government that civil government’s purpose is to uphold the Law of Nature, restrain man’s evil behaviors, and protect man’s natural rights and property.  He explains, …

Without the ability or will to enforce the law or offer such protections, Locke essentially argued, the government neglects its basic responsibilities and benefits to citizens.  Locke asserts that “the Law of Nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody in the state of Nature that had a power to execute that law and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders.”[3]  Civil society is created to maintain law and order for citizens’ peace and preservation, and all citizens, as equal and possessing natural rights, should have such protection.

English parliamentarian and philosopher Algernon Sidney likewise argued in his 1698 Discourses Concerning Government that civil government’s role is justice and the protection of citizens and their rights in order to better their lives.  Sidney observes, “If governments arise from the consent of men, and are instituted by men according to their own inclinations, they [the people] do therein seek their own good.  For the will is ever drawn by some real good.”  He further explains, “The only ends for which government are constituted, and obedience rendered to them, are the obtaining of justice and protection.  Those who cannot provide for both give the people a right of taking such ways as best please themselves in order to [secure] their own safety.”[4]

The American Founders aligned with such views of civil government as expressed by Pufendorf, Locke, and Sidney to defend and uphold the Law of Nature and man’s natural rights and/or property.  U. S. Constitution architect James Madison asserted in his 1792 essay Property that “government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses” and in his Federalist Paper 51 that government has checks so that “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”[5]  In Federalist Paper 2, Statesman John Jay also recognized government’s role to protect individual rights, stating, “We have uniformly been one people; each individual citizen everywhere enjoying the same national rights, privileges, and protection.”[6]  In his 1790-1791 Lectures on Law, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson likewise noted the foundation of man’s rights for just government:  “The dread and redoubtable sovereign, when traced to his ultimate and genuine source, has been found…in the free and independent man….  This truth, so simple and natural, yet so neglected or despised, may be appreciated as the first and fundamental principle in the science of government.”[7]

The Founders expressed this principle, of government’s role to protect the people’s rights and property, in the United States’ founding documents—the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Declaration recognizes the people’s equal station “to which the Law of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” and indicated the basis for the new nation’s civil government–to defend citizens’ God-given, unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  The Declaration thus states,

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem mostly likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  …  [W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

If the government or governors do not fulfill such obligations, they may be changed, removed, or overthrown by the people.

The Founders also articulated the aims of the U. S. Constitution, the civil law of the land.  The Preamble states that the specific goals of the Constitution are to secure justice, peace, protection, and freedom for the people:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To make sure these goals are met, the Constitution contains civil laws and amendments that guard against governmental corruption and protect individual rights.  For example, it establishes a system of checks and balances with separation of powers.  It also provides citizens, for example, with the right to vote, free speech and assembly, free exercise of religion, right to bear arms, due process of law, equal protection under the law, trial by impartial jury, assistance of counsel, habeas corpus, innocence until proven guilt, no cruel and unusual punishment, no unreasonable search and seizure, etc.  Notably, the Constitution (in Article I, Section 8) also specifically acknowledges a “Law of Nations.”  As Rosalie J. Slater points out in her 1965 Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History:  The Principle Approach, in America’s constitutional republic the majority represents the individual “regardless of whether he agrees or disagrees with the action of the majority.  His position is not eliminated by the majority overruling him.”[8]  Thus, the Founders upheld the Law of Nature and citizens’ individual rights as a priority.

The American Founders, along with influential political philosophers of the American Founding, believed and recognized that the proper purpose of civil government, as ordained by God, is to defend and uphold the Law of Nature and citizens’ natural rights and properties for citizens’ peace, protection, and preservation.  Because all men are naturally free and equal, man’s primary reason for entering into and uniting under a civil society (which limits his freedom in a minimal way for the common good) is for his own good—to ensure that the moral law will be enforced and that his rights and properties will be protected.  Civil government offers the capacity for these protections in an unsecure, hazardous world.  Without providing such protections for citizens, or if misusing/abusing its role, a civil government forsakes its original raison d’etre and the main benefits of its existence.  In such a case, the people have the right to change or remove their governors or, if necessary, to remedy the dysfunctional governing system.

[1]  Samuel Pufendorf, Of the Law of Nature and Nations, Eight Books, 1703, 2nd ed., English ed., ed. Jean Barbeyrac, trans. Basil Kennett (Oxford:  Printed by L. Lichfield for A. and J. Churchil, 1710), bk. 7, ch. 3, 527.

[2]  John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, 1690, in Two Treatises on Government (London:  George Routledge and Sons, 1884), bk. 2, ch. 9, 256.

[3]  Locke, Second Treatise, ch. 2, 194.

[4]  Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, to which are added, Memoirs of His Life, 1698, 3rd ed. (London:  Printed for A. Millar, 1751), ch. 1, 38; ch. 3, 407.

[5]  James Madison, “Property,” from The National Gazette, 29 March 1792, in The Writings of James Madison, Vol. 6/1790-1802, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1906), 102; James Madison, Federalist Paper 51, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 322, 324.

[6]  John Jay, Federalist Paper 2, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York:  Mentor Penguin, 1961), 38-39.

[7]  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), 25.

[8]  Rosalie J. Slater, Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History:  The Principle Approach (San Francisco, CA:  Foundation for American Christian Education, 1965), 72, 175, 208.

Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.

This essay (with endnotes) 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.

Related articles/videos:
1.  Freedom:  The Most Important Characteristic of America
2.  The Principle of Popular Sovereignty:  Consent of the Governed
3.  Great Awakening Principle:  The Dignity of the Human Being
4.  Great Awakening Principle:  All Men Equal Before God

5.  How the Great Awakening Impacted American Unity, Democracy, Freedom, & Revolution
6.  The American Revolution:  An Introduction
7.  The American Quest for Self-Government
8.  American Revolution Debate:  Obedience to God over Man
9.  American Revolution Debate:  God Desires Freedom for His People
10.  American Revolution Debate:  The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
11.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:  God’s Opposition to Absolute Monarchy
12.  The Creator God:  The Basis of Authority, Law, & Rights for Mankind in the United States of America
13.  Self-Evident Truth:  A Philosophy of Rights in the Declaration of Independence
14.  The Law of Nature:  The Universal Moral Law of Mankind
15.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  One Moral Law Revealed by God in Two Ways
16.  The Law of Nature and Nature’s God:  The American Basis and Standard for Just Civil Law
17.  John Locke and Algernon Sidney:  A Bible-based Defense of Equality and Popular Sovereignty for the American Founders
18.  The American, Bible-based Defense of Unalienable Rights 
19.  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 2, Activity 4:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence, p. 252, 362-365.  MS-HS.

Principles of the Declaration of Independence…. (may be continued from part 1 of this unit)

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 7.1-7.20, 7.23, and pp. 236-237.
2) Essay/Handout:  Principles of the Declaration of Independence by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 362-365, 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).

Reading and Questions:
Have students read the “Principles of the Declaration of Independence” handout and, as desired, relevant articles on The Founding Blog and relevant sections in Miracle of America text as indicated on the handout.  (The Miracle book is dense, high-level reading, so if you wish to have students read directly from the book, assign specific sections 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 great practice for having students read historical text and excerpts.)  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.  Review questions are also found in Chapter 7 of the 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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