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NATURAL RIGHTS: Their Source and the Founder’s view of them

Constitutional scholar Randy E. Barnett, in Our Republican Constitution, makes the argument that the “unalienable rights” in the Declaration of Independence, which were “endowed” to men “by their Creator,” are NOT religiously based. He notes, “This is a misunderstanding of the concept of natural rights.” Barnett adds that, “Natural Law operates to guide human conduct even if the natural order was not divinely established.” He argues this was the view of the Founders that built America.

Claiming to paraphrase Rev. Elizur Goodrich (1734-1797), Barnett notes that the reverend viewed the laws of nature as “based on the regularities of nature.” Barnett asserts that it was only after making this claim that Goodrich identified nature’s order as originating from the Creator. From this, Barnett notes the Declaration makes a similar distinction between the two. He writes, “This same relationship is reflected in the distinction between ‘the Laws of Nature’ and ‘Nature’s God.’” For Barnett, there is a great chasm between “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature’s God.” To him, they are disjoint principles that can exist only in isolation. He concludes on the matter, “Even if there is no deity, crops will fail and buildings will fall if these laws are ignored.” At best, this is a humanist’s worldview, at worst, an atheist’s.

Barnett goes as far as to quote Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a Dutch lawyer and theologian, to point out how great a chasm exists, in his view, between natural law and God’s law. Grotius wrote in his work, The Law of War and Peace in Three Books (De Jure Belli AC Pacis Libri Tres), “What we have been saying [about natural law] would have a degree of validity even if we should concede what cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.” Grotius was not claiming there was a great chasm between natural law and God’s law. Grotius was merely making a distinction between the application of natural law and that of God’s law.

In referencing Grotius, Barnett attempts to point out that natural law is distinct from the law of nature’s God. There is a difference in application, but not in their source. To wit, natural law does not need Scriptural revelation (the law of Nature’s God) for men to gain knowledge of its function. To avoid making this assertion, Barnett seems to attempt to diminish God’s role in establishing both, natural law as well and His law. This point is made clearer by another reference to Grotius, which he makes in the same book referenced by Barnett. Grotius notes that the law of nature is lacking, and only God’s law can fill this void. He writes, “This [Christian religion], however–contrary to the practice of most men–I have distinguished from the law of nature, considering it as certain that in that most holy law a greater degree of moral perfection is enjoined upon us than the law of nature, alone and by itself, would require.” Thus, Barnett missed Grotius’ conclusion for the establishment of just and moral law. This is to say, that society, in order to endure in justice and freedom, requires the application of the laws of nature as well as the laws of nature’s God (the Bible).

Reverend Elizur Goodrich’s Sermon can be downloaded here. In referencing Goodrich’s Sermon, Barnett neglects to mention the following passage, which appears on the same sermon. To wit, Rev. Goodrich asserts it is from religion that nature is ordered. Contrary to what Barnett claims, Goodrich writes:

The great and most universal principle and law of rational union and happiness, is the love of God and of our neighbour: This in the moral, is like the great law of gravitation and attraction in the natural world, and its tendency in human society, is to universal good. The first maxim derived from it, is that divine precept in the gospel, “whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye also the same unto them.” Hence religion and virtue are the great principles on which the happiness of human societies must be built; and from these principles must be derived the knowledge of all laws, which determine the order of that benevolence, we owe to one another, and point out the means of attaining the greatest good.

https://conservativereasoning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Principles-of-Civil-Union-and-Hapiness-Rev.-Elizur-Goodrich.pdf

Goodrich has much more to say along these lines. He asserts that without the Word of God, civil government would cease to exists. He notes:

How thankful then should we be for the ordinance of civil government, which is a token of divine forbearance to a guilty world; and will continue till the designs of the Christian ministry, are accomplished. How many have no higher conception of the Christian ministry, and the wisdom and goodness of God in appointing it, than as relating to this world? Hence, while they pride themselves in civil privileges, and perhaps, allow the morality of the gospel to have some good influence on the happiness of society, they have no idea of the glory of the Christian scheme of salvation, and despise the gospel, the ministry and the church of God. And yet, were it not, that the gospel might be preached, and the church have a being on earth, civil government would cease among men.

https://conservativereasoning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Principles-of-Civil-Union-and-Hapiness-Rev.-Elizur-Goodrich.pdf

On electing public officials, Goodrich notes, “Make it your constant aim to choose able and faithful men, who fear God and hate covetousness, to be your rulers; honour and encourage them in all their endeavours to make you a virtuous, prosperous and happy people.” On abusing their authority, Goodrich asserts, “If rulers appointed by the people abuse their authority, they may be displaced. A republic has the means of redress within itself; and cannot be oppressed, but by its own fault and neglect. As noted by black activist, and Republican Patriot, Ida B. Wells, “Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty.”

Natural Law

To be sure, nature does not need Biblical revelation in the application of its laws. God has revealed himself to nature and nature is bound by the laws prescribed by God. In Romans 1:19-20 (NASB), Paul writes, “Because 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, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

Humans cannot make laws that violate the laws of nature. For instance, a law prohibiting the earth’s gravitational pull is meaningless because nature is not bound to obey such law. Nature only obeys laws established by God, its Creator. In this way, God has revealed himself to nature. Psalm 19:1 (NASB) notes, “The heavens tell of the glory of God; And their expanse declares the work of His hands.“

William Blackstone (1723-1780), an English jurist and author of the well known, Commentaries on the Laws of England, was the second most quoted human source by the Founders. The first most quoted human source by the Founders was Baron Charles de Montesquieu. From David Barton’s, Original Intent, we learn that, of all the thinkers of the time, Montesquieu was quoted about 8.3% of the time, closely followed by Blackstone with 7.9%. Of the total number of citations made by the Founders, the most cited source, by far, was the Bible, which was cited 34% of the time.

Blackstone wrote his commentaries in four volumes. In Volume I, Chapter II, he writes:

Man depends absolutely upon his maker for everything, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will. This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual 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 freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purpose of those laws.

https://conservativereasoning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Commentaries-on-the-Laws-of-England-William-Blackstone.jpg

Blackstone continues:

This law of nature, being co-eval 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, and 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 its original.

https://conservativereasoning.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Commentaries-on-the-Laws-of-England-William-Blackstone.jpg

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the main author of the Declaration of Independence, and no fan of Blackstone, had to admit to John Tyler that Blackstone was used by American law students with the same dedication that the Quran is used by Muslims. Author David Barton notes in Original Intent, “It was a fundamental precept under the natural law philosophy explained by Blackstone and embraced by the majority of the Founders that civil laws could not contradict the laws of God revealed either through nature [the Laws of Nature] or by the Bible [revelation by Nature’s God].”

If one were to look at wildlife, it can be noted that it is natural for some species to murder another or steal their food. Monogamy is not natural for a bull, which is why one may have one bull for 40 cows. So, if this is all part of the laws of nature, why is it wrong for humans to behave this way? Well, that’s why we have the laws revealed by “Nature’s God” in the Bible. Between “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” we can discern right from wrong.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) described natural law in Summa Theologica this way, “The light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law.” For Aquinas, it is not that natural law is distinct from Divine law, it is a subset of it.

The disagreement with Barnett’s view is a matter of source. Contrary to his view, the source of natural law as well as Divine Law, is God. Although they differ in application, they nevertheless spring out of the same source. As such, the two are necessary to exercise the natural rights endowed by our Creator. This point aside, Barnett’s book is exceptional.

Natural Rights

Richard Hooker (1554-1600), was a British theologian and philosopher who exerted influence on John Locke (1632-1704). Notwithstanding, Hooker defined natural rights this way, “The Scripture is fraught even with laws of Nature; insomuch that Gratian, defining Natural Right, (whereby is meant the right which exacteth those general duties that concern men naturally even as they are men,) termeth ‘Natural Right, that which the Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.’” This is to say, if you want to know all your natural rights, delve into the Scriptures and find out.

David Barton notes, “These ‘natural rights’ flowed from the ‘natural laws’ given by God Himself and were never to be violated nor abridged by any government; hence, these rights were termed unalienable.” In Jefferson’s, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), he noted, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God. That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Here, Jefferson’s “light of natural reason” convicts him for the sin of slavery, as it violates the natural rights of those enslaved. He fears God’s wrath is at hand, and justice soon to be delivered.

Consequently, the laws of nature as well as natural rights, are Biblical in nature. Thus, they have a religious basis, and were viewed as such by a larger portion of the Founders. Therefore, natural rights exist before government as gifts bestowed upon by God. As such, this means governments are not the source of rights. This is why the Declaration of Independence asserts that, “Governments are instituted among Men” to “secure these rights,” and they “[derive] their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Samuel Adams (1722-1803) asserted, “Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” He goes on to mention several other natural rights, among which he notes; self-preservation, the right to freely enter into society by voluntary consent, to worship God, etc. Similarly, the Declaration of Independence enumerates several natural rights. Namely, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Other rights are enumerated in the Constitution. Nevertheless, the Founders did not want to enumerate all the natural rights fearing they might miss one or another. This is why the Ninth Amendment notes, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

Although natural rights are derived from natural law, and are hence, unalienable, this does not mean we are free to go wild and do whatever brings an earthly pleasure to our flesh. To do so would be to ignore the laws of Nature’s God (the Bible). In a Sermon by Moses Hemmenway (1735-1811), he asserts that those “who are called to liberty should be careful not to abuse it for an occasion to the flesh.” He adds:

As a preservative from these, and all other abuses, let it be our care thoroughly to imbibe the spirit of the gospel, “that perfect law of liberty,” and have our sentiments, our temper, and manners, formed by its divine doctrines and rules. Let us cherish in our hearts the fear and love of God, with that benevolence and charity which is the fulfilling of the law, and which only can effectually correct the inordinacy of those selfish affections which are the malignant root of these abuses. And, to add no more, let it be our care to understand, distinctly, the nature and extent of our liberty, and of our duty, in their connection and consistency with each other; and that our freedom can no otherwise be maintained and exercised, so as to be any real privilege, than by our being the servants of God, and “by love serving one another.”

https://wallbuilders.com/sermon-election-1784-massachusetts/

For in this we find the purpose of life, honoring God in our freedom with an outlook on eternal life. Longing to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” as we join the Lord in eternity.

Edwin Vazquez

Christian, family oriented American Patriot. Political commentator, writer, and researcher. Retired Chief Biomedical Engineer and PhD student - Public Policy (Economics). United States Armed Forces and Gulf War veteran.

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3 Comments

  1. Amazing discussion, Edwin!

    Expect atheists and agnostics to bring up pseudo-science based arguments challenging the truth of God. Science is a form of inquiry, not truth. It seeks to find truth in nature but lacks a firm foundation. No doubt useful, but certainly not the last word on any matter. Science changes as humans struggle to understand Creation. Science is beneath God. One day, the hubris of men who think they’re smarter than the Almighty, will come face to face with Him and be forced to give account for their folly. The connection between natural law and society lies not in theory but in the Word of God. God Bless you and thank you.

    S

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