“This then is the general fignification of law, a rule of action dictated by fome fuperior being…” –Sir William Blackstone.
Section 1. Tiers of Law.
Constitutional law is higher than statutory law; God’s law is superior to that of man. Humanity, on both an individual and collective scale, is subject to certain truths: unerring, unchanging principles. Thus we see that there are different tiers of law. It is good, natural, and just to break a law if you are doing it to follow a higher law. This was essentially the idea the founders labored under when we broke away from Great Britain; as Thomas Jefferson wrote in The Declaration of Independence, “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 of 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.” Jefferson with the Congress of Confederation who passed this as law, then go on to describe what makes these, “Laws of Nature and of Natures God”, above the authority of British law. This Declaration is an argument that the authority for America to separate from Great Britain came from not from any British laws, but because America was following a higher law, no matter what laws the king or parliament may have passed or executed.
So I bet you have a question on your tongue: what are natural laws? Natural law is the concept that there are certain eternal, absolute, unchangeable truths that govern the universe. Examples of the natural law include the the laws of physics, laws of human relations, the law of the harvest, principles of wealth (financial or otherwise), and morality. In order to be free, individuals, families, and governments must follow the dictates of the natural law. Natural laws are the key to getting results in every aspect of life. Consider a man who throws a stone in the air, he may want it to continue on at the same pace unaffected by gravity, he may even shout at it to, “fly like the wind!”, but in vain. Natural law dictates that the rock is going to come down; possibly even on the head of this small-minded man!
Section 2. The Supremacy of the Natural Law.
The belief in a natural law and its transcendent superiority to the laws created by men was almost universal in the classical liberal movement of which the American founding fathers were a part. To help further prove this, let me quote a few classical liberals talking about this subject. As President John Adams wrote, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.” As St. Augustine said and St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “An unjust law is no law at all.” As St. Thomas More’s character states in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, “Some men think the earth is round, others think it flat; . . . . But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it? No.” As the French economist Frédéric Bastiat said: “Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” And as Sir William Blackstone said, “This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God himfelf, is of courfe fuperior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and fuch of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.”
This last statement of Blackstone includes mention of a connected principle called the Divine, or Revealed law. As Blackstone explains in the second section of the introduction in his masterful work on British law entitled, Commentaries on the Laws of England, “The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy fcriptures.” You see, the natural laws are the doctrines themselves, but the most assured foundation of learning them, is through the divine delivery of truth we call the scriptures. Divine laws are a way of learning the natural law. But why do we need the scriptures to learn the natural law? Blackstone further explains: “in order to apply this to the particular exigencies of each individual, it is ftill neceffary to have recourfe to reafon; whofe office it is to difcover, as was before obferved, what the law of nature directs in every circumftance of life; by confidering, what method will tend the moft effectually to our own fubftantial happinefs. And if our reafon were always, as in our firft anceftor before his tranfgreffion, clear and perfect, unruffled by paffions, unclouded by prejudice, unimpaired by difeafe or intemperance, the tafk would be pleafant and eafy; we fhould need no other guide but this. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reafon is corrupt, and his underftanding full of ignorance and error.
“This has given manifold occafion for the benign interpofition of divine providence; which, in compaffion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindnefs of human reafon, hath been pleafed, at fundry times and in divers manners, to difcover and enforce it’s laws by an immediate and direct revelation. …we are not from thence to conclude that the knowlege of thefe truths was attainable by reafon, in it’s prefent corrupted ftate; fince we find that, until they were revealed, they were hid from the wifdom of ages. As then the moral precepts of this law are indeed of the fame original with thofe of the law of nature, fo their intrinfic obligation is of equal ftrength and perpetuity. Yet undoubtedly the revealed law is (humanly fpeaking) of infinitely more authority than what we generally call the natural law. Becaufe one is the law of nature, expreffly declared fo to be by God himfelf; the other is only what, by the affiftance of human reafon, we imagine to be that law. If we could be as certain of the latter as we are of the former, both would have an equal authority; but, till then, they can never be put in any competition together.”
The natural laws are truly set forth by God, as Samuel Rutherford says in Lex, Rex, “That power of government in general must be from God, I make good, 1st, Because (Rom. xiii. 1) “there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.” 2nd, God commandeth obedience, and so subjection of powers… Now God only by a divine law can lay a band of subjection on the conscience, tying men to guilt and punishment if they transgress.” And he also said, “What is warranted by the direction of nature’s light is warranted by the law of nature, and consequently by a divine law; for who can deny the law of nature to be a divine law?”
Jonathan Edwards, a man who in the founding generation was called, “the greatest American mind”, who was one of the main leaders of the Great Awakening gave a sermon entitled, “A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the soul by the Spirit of God.” In this sermon, Edwards said, ”God is the author of all knowledge and understanding whatsoever. He is the author of the knowledge that is obtained by human learning: he is the author of all moral prudence, and of the knowledge and skill that men have in their secular business. Thus it is said of all in Israel that were wise-hearted, and skilled in embroidering, that God had filled them with the spirit of wisdom, Exodus 28:3.”
Benjamin Franklin in the constitutional convention gave a written speech on the floor on this subject. Notice how he quotes and refers to the Bible several times. I’ll now quote the speech in its entirety from James Madison’s original records of the event:
The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance and continual reasonings with each other-our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes as ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist. And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.
“In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings? In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection.- Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth- that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better, than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
“I therefore beg leave to move-that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.”
Section 3. What of Church and State?
Now perhaps you have curiously raised the question: “Wait, what about separation of church and state?” May I call to your attention to the fact that the words, “separation of church and state”, or anything like it does not appear, nor is it implied in The Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution? The Declaration of Independence, as you have probably pieced together, actually has at its center, a largely religious explanation for its authority: “the Laws of Nature and of Natures God”. As for the Constitution, the only two religious restrictions of any sort are that, 1. there may be no religious requirement for election to an office, and 2. in the first amendment it says that the Federal Congress may not make a law respecting a specific religious denomination. However, that’s all it says; and the first amendment is only there to act as an additional safeguard of the limited powers in Article 1, Section 8 anyway. Also note that the phrase itself talks about separating a church from the state, not separating spirituality from the state: there is a big difference between a church and the religion it teaches.
Now where does this phrase come from in the first place? Does it come from any authoritative source? Well it’s merely a paraphrase of a part of a sentence from a tiny portion of a small letter written by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. The letter says in essence that a wall should be erected keep government from bullying the churches. You may want to read the letter in its entirety for yourself. but lets suppose for a moment that this letter did say that religion should be kept away from government, then even so the letter is merely Jefferson’s musing. It was his only, it was not any kind of law, it is not authoritative in any way other than being written by Jefferson, it does not explain why religion should be kept out of government, and all of his other writings both past and future contradict the idea. But what if we were to assume that this letter was both anti-religion and authoritative? Well then, which should be better trusted as a guide; this letter, or The Declaration of Independence which was not only written by Jefferson, but was an official law passed by the Confederation?
Section 4. Legal and Moral Authority.
So, we know what natural law is, but how do we know if it’s a legally authoritative and pragmatically proper basis for government to act? Perhaps it would be prudent to consider an alternative to this proposition? Let us suppose that if the legitimacy of man’s laws does not come from natural law, then from whence is does its authority come? The popular response to that question is democratic government, or in other words, the will of the people: for a government of man can only derive its authority from men. But if this is the case, does a democracy have the authority to take the life of a man they know is innocent of any wrong doing? Of course not, for the rights of an individual are not less than the rights of a collective: for a collectives rights are derived from that of individuals: for individuals are the building out of which the collective is formed. And if the rights of the collective, which is the principle out of which democracies are formed, comes out of the rights of individuals, then even democracies derive their right to exist or act out of the rights of individuals, which rights are a natural law springing out of morality. Therefore the authority of government to exist or act comes from these laws of nature. Democratic government is practical, adding legitimacy to both the reputation and acts of government, but natural laws take precedence over democratic principles which are natural laws themselves. The people are an essential source of just governance; they just aren’t the only, nor are they the greatest source.
Section 5. States’ Rights are Derived From the Natural Law.
Great American statesmen and legal scholars including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, Patrick Henry, even St. George Tucker all agreed that the states had not only the right, but were duty bound to resist unconstitutional laws. This was because the states created the federal government: it was from the states that the union derived its legal authority. Therefore, despite the fact that state interposition and nullification to such laws, or state succession in this manner were not expressed in the Constitution, nevertheless the states had these rights, for they were given by the natural law.
Section 6. Natural Rights.
Now in government, the natural law is mainly there to protect our natural rights. Our natural rights come from our humanity, which makes us responsible for our own choices, our own bodies, our own thoughts and emotions, because we are all human beings. Now this does not mean we have license to licentiousness, but it does mean we are responsible: we have right called the freedom to choose, and we also have the obligation to accept the consequences of our actions.
But most importantly of all, through that supreme revealed law, we know that our rights through our humanity come from God. They come from God because as we are His children created in His image and likeness. So even as He is free, so too are we free through our divine nature and birthright. As John 3:2 says, ”Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
Section 7. How Can We Discover the Natural Law?
So this leaves us with one final question. How do we discover the natural law? I can suggest three ways, 1. we have a conscience which speaks truth if only we will listen to it, 2. natural laws are self-evident truths, and 3. by learning the divine or revealed law. Now everyone knows what a conscience is, and I explained about the revealed law, but what of self-evident truths? What are self-evident truths? They are those truths that we can know by knowing ourselves. For example, you have inside knowledge about what flavors of ice-cream you like best. We need no scientific experiments, nor do we need any special reasoning for you to determine what kind of ice-cream you like. If you will, you are so to speak, in the know about yourself. You know your own nature, and can thereby learn the nature of others, or at least their praxeology. You can also adapt this knowledge to culture as well. Hereby you have practical insight into governance both proper and improper.
So, do you want to go re-read the Declaration of Independence with what you’ve just learned? Now go look up some of the sources I used that interest you, and start learning those principles!
“The question before the human race is, whether the God of nature shall govern the world by his own laws, or whether priests and kings shall rule it by fictitious miracles.” –John Adams.
“We must face the grim necessity, with full knowledge that the task is to be solved, and we must proceed with a full realization that no statute enacted by man can repeal the inexorable laws of nature.” –Warren G. Harding.