During the recent Senate confirmation hearings of Judge Clarence Thomas there was much debate about “natural law.” What is natural law all about anyway? Is it really just doing what comes naturally? Why all the discussion? Is what we believe about natural law really so fundamental to our free form of government?
Perhaps it would be beneficial to reflect for a moment on natural law and on what our founders meant by it and why it is the “bedrock” of our Constitution. In our discussion we will provide a little historical background so that we can understand the dramatic impact of natural law in the development of liberty.
It was a fall day in the year 1781. The long awaited victory of the American Revolution had arrived. The sun shone in the mid-day sky as two lines of soldiers formed on the Yorktown battleground. One was headed by General George Washington, the other by the French. Between them seven thousand British soldiers marched forward to surrender their weapons led by a band playing a tune entitled: “The World Turned Upside Down.”
The surrender of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, after eight years of conflict with America was important not only for America but because it marked a turning point in the progress of civilization. Since the time that the young nation of Israel had rejected the representative government that Moses set up in the wilderness and asked for a king, men and women have existed in a world full of empires, kingdoms, lords, and hierarchies of rulers of all kinds.
Slavery was an institution as old as the human race. In war, conquered kingdoms were enslaved by their captors. From ancient times the Bible records this common practice of warring nations. The Philistines’ challenge to ancient Israel proposed by Goliath was “choose a man to fight with me. If he is able to kill me then we will become your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him then you shall become our servants and serve us.” Prior to that Philistine challenge, Israel had been slaves of the Egyptians. Later, because of their disobedience to God, the Jews were carried away in captivity to Babylon.
Up until the founding of America, the bulk of history reveals that the greater portion of the energy of the human race has been spent in war, conquest, and self defense. One of the major purposes of the “king” was to lead his kingdom in their wars. Ruler’s government has resulted in the majority of the human race living their lives out under the oppression of Ruler’s Law.
The American Revolution instituted a change from Ruler’s Law to government by consent of the governed. The result was the establishment of a representative republic in which the power remained essentially in the hands of the people. The success of the American Revolution and the writing of the Constitution launched the break from Ruler’s Law to the institution of People’s Law.
In just two hundred years magnificent changes have been wrought across the face of the globe. In the wake of this unrivaled liberty, streams of inventions and creativity have sprung forth as the individual has blossomed, protected from the arbitrary power of Ruler’s Law. In the last eighty years alone, transportation has advanced from the horse and buggy to walking on the moon and space travel. As historian Charles Bancroft observed in l879, “The energies of all the races are preparing for unheard of achievements. The world has never been so completely and so wisely busy as now.”
Since the American Revolution there have been many revolutions in the world. Some have been successful and some have not. Most have swung so quickly from oppressive rule to anarchy that the people have inevitably cried out for the dictator who always seemed to be waiting in the wings to restore order.
Freedom with the Restraint of Law
Being astute in political science, the founders of America realized that liberty was not the absence of law. They realized that in order to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – rights that God had given to every individual – governments were instituted among men. The founders understood that government and law were God-given to protect and secure the freedoms of its people.
As a result of this ideology, the founders did not establish the Constitution for the purpose of granting rights to the American people. They established a government of laws in order to make certain that each individual’s God given rights were protected. The founders did not view law as the restraint of liberty nor liberty as the freedom for man to do whatever he likes.
On the contrary, they believed that where there is no law there can be no freedom. They saw that the purpose of the law is not so much to limit people’s activities, but rather to give directive guidelines to society that are for the general good of all those in the society. The law is to hedge people in only from “bogs and precipices”. The end of the law being not to abolish or restrain, but rather to preserve and enlarge freedom. True liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others. For example, when this nation turned from capital punishment as the main sentence for murder, murders increased in every state in the Union. A degree of freedom for every American was lost when the law was relaxed.
Realizing the importance of laws to preserve freedom, the founders drew up the Constitution, instituting for the first time since Moses’ government of ancient Israel, a government of laws and not of men. Many other nations have obtained their freedom from following the American model. The United States Constitution ushered in a new era on planet earth. Historian Bancroft states, “Our fathers cleared the ground and laid the foundation deep down on the living rock, that is to say, on human rights.”
Cleon Skousen author of The Making of America points out: “Nothing is more remarkable about the early American leaders than this breadth of reading and depth of knowledge concerning the essential elements of sound nation building. The Founders knew their classics. They also knew their history – Biblical, Greek, Roman, European, and American.
From all of these valuable sources they sorted out what they considered to be the best and most enduring principles for the prosperity and peace of a free people under a republican system of self-government. In a short time, the Americans were on the way to becoming the most prosperous and best educated nation in the world, they were also the freest people in the world.1
What is Natural Law?
For this reason, all people who boast of a free Republic or desire to have one should study the principles presented in the United States Constitution for they are foundational to the success of free Republics across the globe. They are also the hope of success for every Third World nation that wants to escape the grip of Communism.
To understand the Constitution and this government of laws, it is important that we realize that the founders saw that because the rights they were seeking to protect were God- given, Creator- endowed rights, they would not be able to be sustained in society unless they were protected under a code of law which was itself in harmony with the Creator’s law. They called this higher law, “natural law” or the “laws of nature.“2
James Madison, known as the major framer of the American Constitution, and one of its brilliant defenders, identified the leading principle for the success of the first form of a Republican government: “We have stacked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self- government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.“3
James Madison clearly identified the ultimate source of Constitutional law as the Ten Commandments. This immutable code of law, sanctioned by the Creator of man’s rights and designed to promote, preserve and protect him and his fellows was viewed by the founders as the source of the individual rights of men. They believed that such natural law was revealed to man through his reason and was capable of being understood by both the ploughman and the professor.
Sir William Blackstone, whose writings trained America’s lawyers during our First Century, explains: “For as God, when He created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the direction of that motion; so, when He created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that free will is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purpose of those laws.“4
The founders reasoned that when God made the world He laid down certain principles by which it would be governed. The law of gravity governed the substance upon the earth’s surface and kept it from floating away into space. God designed the animals to be governed by instinct. By this law they feed their young, build shelter, store food, and defend themselves. In the same manner in which God fit the mineral kingdom, the animal kingdom, and the vegetable kingdom with certain principles by which they were to be governed, so God has fit man – when he created him male and female and gave him a free will – with a moral code with which to conduct or govern himself. God laid down certain immutable laws of nature – laws which are unchangeable and unalterable. They are woven into the very fabric of each human life.
Just as each man is the product of a genetic code which comes into existence at the moment of conception determining eye color, hair color, height, features, God in like manner programmed every man and woman with a moral code. Our founders referred to this moral code as the “law of nature”. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson called this moral code the “law of nature and of nature’s God.” Jefferson states in this Declaration that the American people were assuming the free and equal station to which this law of nature and of nature’s God entitled them.
William Blackstone defined the Law of Nature as “the will of the Creator … such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due …“5 Samuel Adams called the first law of nature “self-preservation,” and states that, “no one ought to harm another in their life, liberty, and property. Every man as much as he is able ought to preserve the rest of mankind.“6
Jesus summed it up: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” This is known as the Golden Rule.
The founders believed, as the Bible teaches, that every man is given the degree of reason by which he understands truth and knows right from wrong, and a conscience that either approves his actions or condemns them. According to Romans 1:18 “…that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, also that they are without excuse.”
John Locke, a philosopher who was studied extensively by the founders, reasoned from the book of Genesis that, so plain is the law of nature written on the heart of men, Cain cried out after he had murdered his brother, “every one that finds me will slay me.” Cain’s understanding of this internal law, Locke reasons, is consistent with the law of nature which is woven into the very fabric of human life. Later God confirmed that law of nature with the law he gave to Noah, “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).
What is plain then from the teachings of Christianity is that man knows right from wrong, man knows when he is guilty – his conscience reproving him – and man knows that he deserves punishment. The founders believed that this natural law was revealed to man through his reason, and that man had the ability to obey this law.
The founders believed that this internal moral code, which operated through reason and conscience, formed the capacity that God had given man for governing himself. So firmly did the founders adhere to this “law of nature and of nature’s God” that they, as Madison proclaimed, stacked America’s whole political system on this capacity.
French historian Alexis de Toqueville observed, “The grand maxim on which civil and political society in the United States rests is that Providence has given to every human being the degree of reason necessary to direct himself in the affairs which interest him exclusively.“7
The framers of the Constitution based this belief on the Christian idea of man. The founders held that man had not evolved to be a little higher than the beasts, but rather believed that man was created a little lower than the angels, created in God’s image – being fit with reason, a moral sense, and capable of thinking God’s thoughts after him.
Jefferson wrote: “Man has been subjected by his Creator to moral law, of which his feelings, or conscience are the evidence with which his Creator furnished him … the moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature, accompany them into a state of society … their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation.“8
While the founders held to this Christian idea of man – which stated that man has a conscience to judge right and wrong – they also held that to the Christian idea of the dark side of human nature, which resulted in men who were disobedient to God and His laws.
They understood, as the apostle Paul taught, that there were “those who have a darkened understanding as those who have gone past feeling”, having “seared their conscience”, and “given themselves over to sensuality and to the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness” (Eph. 4:19).
Because of this woeful side of human nature, the founders realized that a system of laws in harmony with God’s divine law and a written Constitution were necessary to protect and secure the rights of those who were endeavoring to live in peace and harmony with their neighbors according to the dictates of the natural law of God.
The Christian Idea of Government
Skousen writes, “The founders were optimistic as well as realistic about human nature. They realized that all human beings are a mixture of sunshine and shadow. The sunshine consists of the perfectibility of human reason. This makes government and civilization possible. The darker side of human nature is the imperceptibility of human passion and man’s faulty sense of judgement which make government necessary. As James Madison stated, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”
“The founders’ goal was to revive the ancient principles (these ancient principles Thomas Jefferson referred to as the laws and the representative government that were given by God through Moses to ancient Israel.) This would allow the sunshine side of human nature to enjoy virtually unlimited freedom, while setting up appropriate safeguards to prevent the doleful shadow of human passion, greed, and lust for power from spreading a permanent ‘dark ages’ across the face of the globe.“9
The founders also believed that the law of nature dictated that every man had a right to protect himself and a right to enlist others to help him catch and punish an offender. This truth they felt the Bible clearly revealed.
During the earliest time of the human race, before people began to join themselves into societies, men and women lived in the state of nature. In the earliest beginnings of the world men lived on the land and unto themselves or in tribal families. Cain instinctively understood this law of nature because he definitely expected the rest of mankind to apprehend him and punish him for the murder of his brother. Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, thou hast driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Thy face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen. 4: 13-14).
The patriarch Abraham, who left his city of Ur of the Chaldees, went out in obedience to the command of God and wandered through the land of Canaan, out of the bounds of political society, living in the state of nature. Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family were taken captive while living in the city of Sodom along with the inhabitants of the city. As a self-appointed vigilante, acting in response to the law of nature, the patriarch Abraham armed 318 of his trained servants and pursued the enemy, slaughtered the kings and brought back Lot and his family, all of Lot’s goods and all the people of Sodom.
To show the Divine approval of Abraham’s actions the Bible records that Melchezideck, Priest of the Most High God, came out to greet him and blessed him saying, “Blessed be Abraham, of God Most High, Possessor of Heaven and Earth; and blessed be God Most High who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Gen. 14:20).
The philosopher Locke reasons that all men in the state of nature have the God-given right to self-preservation and to enlist others to punish the one who tries to take away what is his. However, man has a tendency to self love, often an ill nature or anger, passion, and revenge. In many cases a man might punish another more than the offense calls for or be partial to himself or to his friends. To check these tendencies, God ordained civil government.10
Locke explains that the sole purpose that men enter into government is to protect their life, their liberty, and their property from the evil doer and to provide impartial judges to settle disputes, enforce the law, and bring justice. This is the Christian idea of government. The apostle Paul explains in this letter to the Romans, “Rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13 : 3-4).
The Pilgrim fathers understood this. When the Mayflower drifted off course and landed outside of the land that was designated in their English charter, those aboard the ship who were not of their number were elated that they would be out of the authority of the king and could do whatever they wished. Before anyone stepped foot off the Mayflower, the elders of the Pilgrim company banded themselves together into a body politic, a civil society, to protect themselves and their interests. They laid out the guidelines of their society and government in what they called the Mayflower Compact.
Over a century later, from the example of the ancient principles of the Hebrews, Jefferson reasoned that God brought a people out of slavery and gave them a law for the good of society and the protection of individual liberty. This law known as the Ten Commandments contains four laws dealing with man’s responsibility to God and six laws dealing with man’s responsibility to man. Jefferson believed that the ancient Hebrew culture contained the pattern of privilege and liberty that the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitled every man.
As we have stated earlier, the purpose of the United States Constitution was not to grant rights to the American people. The purpose was to establish a government of laws that would protect and secure each person’s Creator- endowed rights to life, liberty, and property. As the Declaration of Independence states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
A Christian Document to be Protected
The Christian idea of government was understood completely by the framers of the Constitution. In the preamble to the Constitution they stated their full intent: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish 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.”
Because our government derives its power, its form and its very existence from Christianity and the laws of God, the modern attempt to secularize society and divorce government from Christianity spells destruction.
In 1779 Samuel Adams sounded the warning, “A general dissolution of principles and manners will surely overthrow the liberties of America more than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued: but when once they lose their virtue they will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader…if virtue and knowledge are diffused among the people, they will never be enslaved. This will be their great security.“11
After a three year study, a leading liberal think tank, the Brookings Institute, came up with this same conclusion. The report stated, “The Brookings Institute has concluded that the stability of the future strength of American democracy depends on the underpinnings of religion. Without it democracy lacks essential moral support to sustain it.
“Government depends for its health on values that over the not-so-long run must come from religion. Human rights are rooted in the moral worth with which a loving Creator has endowed each human soul, and social authority is legitimized by making it answerable to a transcendent moral law. Without this, human rights are at the mercy either of selfish interests or established secular authority in which the self or society must finally be regarded as sovereign.
“The First Amendment is no more neutral on the general value of religion than it is neutral on the general value or free exchange of ideas or an independent press. The founders believed that men were inherently inclined to sin and to pursue their own selfish ends, at times to the detriment of others. Belief in original sin led the founders to regard government as a necessary check on natural egoism but also to distrust government itself, resulting in the checks and balances set up among its various branches.”
It is obvious that we need Christians who know God and His laws and who live according to His commandments to help revitalize our government system and give it the health and stability it needs. True Christians can help supply the wisdom and give the vigilance that is necessary to keep the watch fires of liberty burning brightly. Christian, this land and this government was set up for you. With God’s aid and direction we must seek to help supply the leadership that is so desperately lacking. Because the American Revolution is a Christian revolution for individual freedom – or salvation – it is never over.
These words of admonition by nineteenth century orator Henry Armitt Brown offered the following admonition: “that Civilization and that Liberty are still your heritage. But think not that such an inheritance can be kept without exertion. It is the burden of your happiness that with it privilege and duty go hand in hand together. You cannot shirk the present and enjoy in the future the blessings of the past. Yesterday begot today and today is the parent of tomorrow. The old time may be secure, but the new time is uncertain.
“The dead are safe: it is the privilege of the living to be in peril. A country is benefitted by great actions only so long as her children are able to repeat them. If the founders could return might they not say to us…Your lives have fallen in a happier time, the boundaries of your Union stretch from sea to sea. You enjoy all the blessings which Providence can bestow; a peace we never knew; a wealth we never hoped for; a power of which we never dreamed.
“Yet think not that these things only can make a nation great. We laid the foundations of your happiness in a time of trouble, in days of sorrow and perplexity … We built it up by virtue, by courage, by self-sacrifice, by unfailing patriotism, by unceasing vigilance. By those things did we win your liberties; by them only can you hope to keep them … you yourselves owe something to America, better than all those things which you spread before her with such lavish hand – something which she needs as much in her prosperity today as ever in the sharpest crisis of her fate. For you have duties to perform as well as we. It was ours to create; it is yours to perpetuate. It was ours to organize; it is yours to purity!
“Now the endless generations are advancing to take our places as we fall. For them as for us shall the earth roll on and the seasons come and go, the snowflakes fall, the flowers bloom, and the harvest be gathered in. For them as for us shall the sun, like the life of man, rise out of darkness in the morning and sink into darkness in the night. For them as for us shall the years march by in the sublime procession of the ages.
“And here, in this place, in this valley of the Shadow of Death, out of which the Life of America rose, regenerate and free, let us believe with an abiding faith, that to them the Union will seem as dear and liberty as sweet and progress as glorious as they were to our fathers and are to you and me, and that the virtue of our children, shall bless the remotest generations of the time to come. And unto Him, who holds in the hollow of His hand the fate of nations, and yet marks the sparrow’s fall, let us lift up our hearts this day, and into His eternal care commend ourselves, our children and our country.“12
1 Cleon Skousen, The Making of America, National Center for Constitutional Studies, Washington, DC. 1985, pp. 61, 218.
2 The Stedman Corporation, “Constitutional Series,” No. 8 “Natural Law, The Ultimate source of Constitutional Law.”
3 Rosalie J. Slater, Teaching and Learning America’s Christian History, Foundation For American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA. 1975. 4 Stedman Corporation. No. 8. 5 Ibid.
6 Slater, p.365.
7 Verna Hall, The Christian History of the Constitution, Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, Ca. p. 149. 8 Stedman Corporation, No. 8. 9 Skousen, p. 4.
10 John Locke, “The State of Nature,” in Hall, pp. 58-69.
11 Slater, pp. 250-251.
12 Henry Armitt Brown, “Valley Forge Oration,” in Verna Hall, The Christian History of the American Revolution, Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, CA.
Copyright © Bob and Rose Weiner 2007, All Rights Reserved