Natural Law Still Matters

Posted: May 3, 2011 in Category - Declaration, Category - Natural Law, Natural Law Important

Why “Natural Law” Still Matters for Conservatives

Robert F. Schwarzwalder
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schwarzwalderIn 1765, the then young John Adams wrote a brilliant article called, imposingly, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law.” He argued that the rights of man exist, “undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government – Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws – Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”

“Adams believed that high character and God-ordained rights recognized and sustained by the government, combined with the liberty and opportunity that flowed from them, would serve as both the foundation and guideposts of the new country.”

With the other Founders, Adams believed that high character and God-ordained rights recognized and sustained by the government, combined with the liberty and opportunity that flowed from them, would serve as both the foundation and guideposts of the new country.

This explosion of optimism was grounded in the series of events that produced the American Revolution. But the Revolution was itself grounded not merely in the accidental collision of men, politics and geography. It also had impressively deep ideological roots.

The Founders believed that their rights as British citizens were in the process of being systematically eroded by the imperial government. They also believed that those rights stemmed not from the benign but arbitrary largesse of any human institution but from God. The Founders derived their motivation for revolution in large part from their devotion to these natural rights—the rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as the equality and dignity of man.

There is no underestimating the uniqueness of this event. Historian Edwin Erler notes that “The American Founding represents the first time in human history that a people attempted to constitute itself by dedication to a principle – the principle that ‘all men are created equal’ and its necessary concomitant that all legitimate government must be derived from the ‘consent of the governed’.”

The main burden of the Declaration of Independence is captured in the following epic lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”

“If all men are created equal, then no one has a “divine right” to rule over anyone else without the other person’s consent. So, governments are conceived by the people not to curtail their liberty but to protect it.”

If all men are created equal, then no one has a “divine right” to rule over anyone else without the other person’s consent. So, governments are conceived by the people not to curtail their liberty but to protect it. These are the core assertions of the American Republic.

Conservatives in our time must grasp these principles and their implications for public policy. Without a firm understanding of them, we will not be able to keep the freedoms we cherish nor curtail the march toward statism currently advancing under President Obama. And that brings us to natural law.

What is natural law?

Natural law is “the story of the way things work according to their nature”. Philosopher J. Budziszewski, in discussing Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of natural law, defines it this way: natural law is “the reflection of eternal law in the very structure of the created rational mind, directing us to our natural good.” This is “the deep structure of all moral knowledge” and “an interior moral sense.”

Natural law is applicable to all people at all times. It is “accessible to human reason and not dependent on (though entirely compatible with and, indeed, illumined by) divine revelation.” It is as unchanging as human nature, because it is the law of our nature itself. Just as a fish, by definition, swims in the water and has gills, so people, by definition, are bound by certain moral and physical realities that define us as persons.

The Founders of our country believed deeply that natural law was the base on which our national existence must lie. “The moral law of our nature… [is] the moral law to which man has been subjected by his Creator, and of which his feelings or conscience, as it is sometimes called, are the evidence with which his Creator has furnished him,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1793. Many of the Founders made similar comments, demonstrating their belief in the supremacy of natural law.

Aristotle (often called the father of natural rights theory), Thomas Aquinas, Montesquieu and John Locke wrote extensively about natural law. Their influence on the Founders was pronounced. “In pamphlet after pamphlet,” writes Bernard Bailyn, “the American writers cited Locke (and others) on natural rights.”

In his important 1765 tract Vindication of the British Colonies, Boston lawyer James Otis wrote that individual rights spring from “the laws of God and nature … (in) the law of nature and its author. This law is the grand basis of the common law and of all other municipal laws that are worth a rush.”

Similarly, John Dickinson, another attorney and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1766 that “the rights essential to happiness” derive from the God of the Bible.

We claim them from a higher source – from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.

“The Founders strongly believed that man has inherent rights given to him by God, rights inseparable from his very nature – lacking them, man would not be man. Consequently, man has innate dignity and value, having been created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.”

Myriad other founding-era thinkers, from before, during and after the Revolution, wrote and spoke making the same point. The Founders strongly believed that man has inherent rights given to him by God, rights inseparable from his very nature – lacking them, man would not be man. Consequently, man has innate dignity and value, having been created a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor.

What are our natural rights?

So: If there is a natural law that binds and defines us, can we deduce from this that in order to fulfill the “laws of nature” that “nature’s God” has given us certain rights, intrinsic to our humanness?

Scripture says yes: If God has made all persons in His image (see Genesis 1:26-27 and Acts 17:26a and 17:29a), then they all possess equal value and are supposed to function as moral actors. In order to fulfill their moral duties, God has given to each of them equal and permanent rights.

So also said the Founders. Alexander Hamilton wrote “Good and wise men, in all ages … have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature … Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind.”

What, then, are our natural rights?

The right to life: The logic here is startling because it is both obvious and almost always ignored: One’s most fundamental possession is his existence. Ownership of one’s life is his most essential rights. Additionally, if God is the Author of life, He and He alone has the right to bestow or take an individual’s life.

In our time, the right to life is regularly diminished and denied. The 20th century is, in part, the story of totalitarian brutality (and America’s resistance to it). Sadly, in our own country, our respect for the sanctity of life has been eroded by nearly 40 years of unrestricted access to abortion on demand, which has resulted in the death of roughly 50 million unborn children whose personhood began at conception.

The right to liberty: If we are made in God’s image and likeness, we are endowed by the capacity for moral action and are, thus, responsible for the moral actions we take. Consequently, we have an intrinsic right to liberty – we cannot act with moral freedom or be held fully responsible for the choices we make if we are denied the liberty to exercise moral choice. Thus, no one has the right to own another person or direct him or her without his consent.

The right to worship as we choose: If there is no God, there is no absolute right and wrong. If there is no God Who has communicated to us understandably and with moral finality, we cannot claim we have any rights whatever. If such a God does exist, however, and has given us rights, the primary one would have to be how we worship, relate to and follow Him.

The right to property: That which we legally inherit or earn, we own. To take something from one who owns it is theft. In the words of John Locke, “Man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person and the actions or labor of it) had still in himself the great foundation of property … Thus labor, in the beginning, gave a right of property whenever anyone was pleased to employ it upon what was common.”

George Mason, the Virginia patriot who drafted the Virginia Bill of Rights, wrote in June 1776, “ … all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights (including) the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The right to “pursue happiness:” The Founders understood this in two ways. One had to do with the classical sense of the term “happiness:” They did not want to encourage citizens to follow selfish desires or frivolous pipe-dreams but believed that happiness was, by definition, the leading of a virtuous life. According to Forrest McDonald, “On the part of the state, (the pursuit of happiness) entailed rigorous instruction of the people in good citizenship and the arts and sciences, both practical and ‘polite,’ and the cultivation of religious piety within the limits of the right to liberty of conscience. On the part of the individual, it entailed love of country and rigorous attention to the duty of making oneself as virtuous, moral and useful a member of society as possible.”

Happiness – contentment and enjoyment, both – is contingent on character. “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea,” said James Madison in 1788.

The other sense of “pursuing happiness” related to ownership of property. They believed that every man had the right to “pursue happiness” in the form of material prosperity, in order to provide for themselves, their families, and their leisure. Every man held this right equally.

Conclusion

In the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written one month prior to the Declaration of Independence, George Mason wrote this:

“All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they cannot, by any Compact, deprive, or divest their Posterity; among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and Obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

John Adams would have identified with this statement. The question for Americans in our time is no less potent than it was for Adams, Otis, Washington and their colleagues: Do we?

Robert Schwarzwalder, Senior Vice President of the Family Research Council, was chief of staff for two Members of Congress and is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. To learn more about the Family Research Council and its work for faith, family and freedom, please visit www.frc.org.

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