I OFTEN WONDER WHAT Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams, George Mason, Benjamin Franklin, and the other Founders would think about today’s America. What about the earliest Boston revolutionaries, men like Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, John Hancock, and Paul Revere? Of course, they would be mesmerized by all the modern inventions and conveniences of everyday life, but what of the ubiquitous nature of the federal government? Surely they would object.
In Liberty and Tyranny I wrote: “So distant is America today from its founding principles that it is difficult to precisely describe the nature of American government. It is not strictly a constitutional republic, because the Constitution has
been and continues to be easily altered by a judicial oligarchy that mostly enforces, if not expands, the Statist’s agenda. It is not strictly a representative republic, because so many edicts are produced by a maze of administrative departments that are unknown to the public and detached from its sentiment. It is not strictly a federal republic, because the states that gave the central government life now live at its behest. What, then, is it? It is a society steadily transitioning toward statism.”1
Moreover, do most Americans appreciate liberty, the civil society, republicanism, and economic prosperity or fear their loss? Of course, if you ask someone the question about himself, he is likely to answer yes, although he might wonder about his fellow citizens’ grasp and gratitude. But the issue is more perplexing and vital to the future of the American republic than one might initially imagine. An incalculable number of philosophers and scholars, ancient to modern, have written extensively about these topics. It is beyond my mortal competence or the physical limitations of this book to catalog or probe them all here. Although five of my six earlier books have addressed these subjects in various ways, there is great value if not urgency in exploring them further from an additional or a more thorough perspective, given what I believe to be their precariousness in modern America. Thus we must tackle the matter of first principles. After all, this is our heritage. This is not a mere academic or theoretical exercise among elitists, of interest only to professors and navel-gazers. It sits at the core of human existence and American society
and, therefore, is relevant to us all. These principles, and understanding them, serve as the antidote to tyrannical regimes and governments.
I am well aware that this book will not change the course of history. But if it can open a few eyes it will have served its purpose. I shall do my best to make my writing accessible and interesting to the broadest audience without compromising content. In this book, I quote substantially and directly from various philosophers and thinkers to provide the reader with a real understanding and feel for what is being argued and proposed. In addition to extensive endnotes, I also provide book and essay titles and sources throughout the body of this book, thereby making it easier for the reader to go to those sources on their own should they want to further explore them. Nonetheless, this book will require the reader’s focus and engagement as it covers much material in relatively short order.
It is fitting to begin our journey with the final letter written by one of America’s greatest Founders, Thomas Jefferson. On June 24, 1826, Jefferson, who was quite ill, wrote to Roger Weightman from Monticello, declining his invitation to participate in the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson would become bedridden two days later and die on July 4, the same day his good friend in later years, John Adams, passed away.
In great pain from numerous ailments, and now writing
with his left hand since he had earlier broken his right hand, which never healed properly, Jefferson wrote:
June 24. 1826
The kind invitation I receive from you on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration of the 50th. anniversary of American independence; as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself, and heightened by the honorable accompaniment proposed for the comfort of such a journey. [I]t adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day. [B]ut acquiescence is a duty, under circumstances not placed among those we are permitted to control. I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. [M]ay it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner,
to others later, but finally to all,) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. [T]hat form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. [A]ll eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. [T]he general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. [T]he palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. [T]hese are grounds of hope for others. [F]or ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them. (Italics added)
I will ask permission here to express the pleasure with which I should have met my ancient neighbors of the City of Washington and of its vicinities, with whom I passed so many years of a pleasing social intercourse; an intercourse which so much relieved the anxieties of the public cares, and left impressions so deeply engraved in my affections, as never to be forgotten. With my regret that ill health forbids me the gratification of an acceptance, be pleased to receive for yourself, and those for whom you write, the assurance of my highest respect and friendly attachments.
As Jefferson wished, we now “refresh our recollection of these rights” and turn straightaway to the Declaration of Independence and carefully examine its language. Its wording is crucial and purposeful. And its link to natural law is inextricable and imperative. It begins as follows: “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.” It states further: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”3
The near-universal appeal of this wording and these principles among America’s Founders is underscored further in other important historical documents of this period. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was adopted on June 12, 1776, thereby predating the Declaration of Independence by a few weeks. It was principally drafted by George Mason, who would also play a significant role at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The prominence of the Virginia Declaration is indisputable as some of its language was, in fact, borrowed by Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Samuel Adams used similar language in drafting future declarations of rights and constitutions for their own states.
Section 1 of the Virginia Declaration provides: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”4
The Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights, adopted on August 16, 1776, and whose main author was Franklin, states, in Section 1: “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”5
Article I of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, adopted in 1780, and whose authors included John Adams and Samuel Adams, states: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.”6
But the Declaration of Independence rightly stands as the formal, consensus proclamation for America’s independence and founding. After several iterations, it was adopted by the Second Continental Congress, which had initially convened in Philadelphia in May 1775 after the battles of Lexington and
Concord. All the colonies were represented. And while most of the delegates initially opposed independence, as Congress’s entreaties for peace were met with intensified British military aggression it became clear that the colonies would have to choose either independence or subjugation.
On May 8, 1825, forty-nine years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, in a letter replying to Henry Lee about the source of the ideas and language in the Declaration, Jefferson succinctly explained: “[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public
right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. The historical documents which you mention as in your possession, ought all to be found, and I am persuaded you will find, to be corroborative of the facts and principles advanced in that Declaration.”7
From where do these all-important ideas come? If we wish to truly understand liberty, the civil society, and America’s founding—that is, our birthright—we must examine further, although in short, the philosophers Jefferson rightly cites as authorities upon whom he and the nation’s forefathers relied for their illumination of natural law—which is the foundational principle at the core of American society. As will become apparent, philosophy and practical politics are linked and, therefore, have a real effect on the life of the individual.
The most influential philosopher during the revolutionary period was the indispensable English thinker John Locke (1632–1704), who in The Second Treatise of Government (1689) inspired countless leading American colonists and Founders, including the delegates who gathered at the Second Continental Congress. Indeed, having studied the philosophical origins of the American Revolution, Harvard University professor Bernard Bailyn found that “[i]n pamphlet after pamphlet the American writers cited Locke on natural rights and on the social and governmental contract. . . .”8
Locke wrote that man is born with God-given inalienable rights—among them, personal and individual liberty. “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges
everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about his business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure. And being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Everyone as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought to be as much as he can preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”9
Locke said that there is a circle of freedom surrounding each person and all people at birth. And within that circle is the absolute human right to live and live freely. This is a natural right born of natural law or the law of nature. It is divine and eternal, unalterable by mankind. Moreover, man also has the ability to reason. And it is through reason that he discovers and discerns natural law, his natural rights, and their application to all of humanity.
Let us explore further Locke’s understanding of reason in this regard. In his essay “Is There a Rule of Morals, or Law of Nature Given to Us? Yes,” Locke acknowledged that “there is the title of right reason, to which everyone who considers himself a human being lays claim, and that it is about which the various parties of men contend so fiercely among themselves, and which each one alleges to be the foundation of its doctrine. By reason, however, I do not think is meant here that faculty of the understanding which forms the trains of thought and deduces proofs, but certain definite principles of action from which springs all virtues and whatever is necessary for the proper moulding of morals. For that which is correctly derived from these principles is justly said to be in accordance with right reason.”10
Locke explained further that while “all people are by nature endowed with reason, and I say that natural law can be known by reason, but from this it does not necessarily follow that it is known to any and every one. For there are some who make no use of the light of reason but prefer darkness and would not wish to show themselves to themselves. But even the sun shows a man the way to go, unless he opens his eyes and is well prepared for the journey. . . .”11
In other words, the fact that every person has the ability to reason and discover natural law, and the divine rights that flow from it, does not mean that all people will do so.
In addition, Locke pointed out that natural law, not man-made law, is the origin and compass of human morality. “[W]ithout
natural law there would be neither virtue nor vice, neither the reward of goodness nor the punishment of evil: there is no fault, no guilt, where there is no law. Everything would have to depend on human will, and, since there would be nothing to demand dutiful action, it seems that man would not be bound to do anything but what utility or pleasure might recommend, or what a blind and lawless impulse might happen perchance to fasten on. The terms ‘upright’ and ‘virtuous’ would disappear as meaningless or be nothing at all but empty names. . . . [F]or the nature of good and evil is eternal and certain, and their value cannot be determined either by the public ordinances of men or by any private opinion.”12
Even before Locke, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, and the Italian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, among others, all explored the true nature of man and the meaning of his existence. Why does this matter? Again, it is the foundation of human morality on which republics are built, including and especially the American republic. The principle of natural law permeated American thought from the beginning of our republic and well before.
Aristotle (384–322 BC), a student of Plato, is one of mankind’s greatest intellectuals and philosophers. Although not the first to do so, Aristotle identified the existence of natural law and, crucially, distinguished it from man-made law. Locke himself referred to Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC), Book I, Chapter 7,” pointing out that Aristotle “says that ‘the
special function of man is active exercise of the mind’s faculties in accordance with rational principle.’ For since in the preceding passages he had shown by various examples that there is a special sort of work each thing is designed to perform, he tried to find out what this may be in the case of a human being also. Thus, having taken account of all the operations of the vegetal and sentient faculties which men have in common with animals and plants, in the end he rightly concluded that the proper function of man is acting in conformity with reason, so much so that man must of necessity perform what reason prescribes. Likewise in Book V, chapter 7, where he drew the distinction between legal justice and natural justice, Aristotle said ‘A natural rule of justice is one which has the same validity everywhere.’ Hence it is rightly concluded that there is a law of nature, since there is a law which obtains everywhere.”13
Locke said that like Aristotle, man is different from other forms of life because, among other things, he has the unique ability to reason. As such, men can discover natural law and distinguish it from man-made law—between that which is naturally just and legally just. Indeed, the late scholar and philosopher Shirley Robin Letwin, author of On the History of the Idea of Law (2005), observed that Aristotle described “the twofold character of law . . . which he calls ‘particular’ and ‘universal.’ Particular law ‘is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members’; universal law ‘is the law of nature.’ Because ‘everyone to some extent divines’ this ‘law of nature,’ we can know that it ‘really is.’ And because of
this divine element in human nature, there is a ‘natural justice and injustice common to all, even to those who have no association or covenant with each other.’ ”14
Why is this important? Remember the key language from the Declaration of Independence about “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—divine and eternal law as distinguished from the rule of man, or in the Founders’ case, the rule of one man—a monarch.
Let us break down the Declaration’s terminology further. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” (knowable through right reason), “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (the divine law of nature obtains everywhere and applies to all), “that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (the right to live freely and happily).
Also referenced in Jefferson’s letter is Cicero (106–43 BC), an iconic Roman scholar, philosopher, and statesman. As Cicero explained, justice—that is, truth and virtue—is intrinsic to the state of nature: “If the principles of Justice were founded on the decrees of peoples, the edicts of princes, or the decisions of judges, then Justice would sanction robbery and adultery and forgery of wills, in case these acts were approved by the votes or decrees of the populace. But if so great a power belongs to the decisions and decrees of fools that the laws of Nature can be changed by their votes, then why do they not ordain that what is bad and baneful shall be considered good and salutary? Or, if a law can make Justice out of Injustice, can
it not also make good out of bad? But in fact we can perceive the difference between good laws and bad by referring them to no other standard than Nature: indeed, it is not merely Justice and Injustice which are distinguished by Nature, but also and without exception things which are honorable and dishonorable. For since an intelligence common to us all makes things known to us and formulates them in our minds, honorable actions are ascribed by us to virtue, and dishonorable actions are matters of opinion, and not fixed by Nature.”15
Therefore, Cicero argues that the source of justice, truth, virtue, etc.—in a word, morality—is natural law. It is permanent and supreme, unalterable by man or his institutions. Cicero wrote: “True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting; it summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions. . . . It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it entirely. We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and at all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is God, over us all, for he is the author of this law, its promulgator and its enforcing judge. Whoever is disobedient is fleeing from himself and denying his human nature, and by reason of this very fact he will suffer the worst punishment.”16
For contemporary readers, no doubt the least-known philosopher among those mentioned by Jefferson is Algernon Sidney (1623–1683). However, to Jefferson, John Adams, and numerous others during the American Revolutionary period, Sidney’s treatise, Discourses Concerning Government (1680), was an essential work for which Sidney, among other reasons, was executed by King Charles II. Sidney wrote Discourses as a response to the proposition that the absolute rule of monarchs is by divine right.17
A contemporary of Locke, Sidney wrote: “The common Notions of Liberty are not from School Divines, but from Nature. . . .” He added: “Tis hard to comprehend how one man can come to be master of many, equal to himself in right, unless it be by consent or by force. . . . No right can come by conquest, unless there were a right of making that conquest. . . .” In the end, he explained, “[t]o depend upon the Will of a Man is Slavery.”18
Like others before him, Sidney believed that man uncovers the state of nature and natural law through reason. “Man’s natural love to Liberty is temper’d by Reason, which originally is his Nature.” “The truth is, man is hereunto led by reason which is his nature. Everyone sees they cannot well live asunder, nor many together, without some rule to which all must submit. This submission is a restraint of liberty, but could be of no effect as to the good intended, unless it were general; nor general, unless it were natural.”19
It is important to emphasize that natural law provides a
moral compass or order—justice, virtue, truth, prudence, etc.—a fundamental, universal, everlasting harmony of mores that transcend human law. Through natural law discovered by right reason, man knows right from wrong and good from bad. Moreover, that which is naturally just may not be legally just. Again, we turn to Locke, given his stature during the American founding. He wrote that “without showing a law that commands or forbids [. . .], moral goodness will be but an empty sound, and those actions which the schools here call virtues or vices, may by the same authority be called by contrary names in another country; and if these be nothing more than their decisions and determinations in the case, they will be still nevertheless indifferent as to any man’s practice, which will by such kind of determinations be under no obligation to observe them.”20
Locke said, as have others, that natural law is forever and enduring, and man-made law, which may vary from place to place and time to time, clearly is not. That which is just and virtuous is just and virtuous regardless of the passage of laws or time. Indeed, as Cicero explained earlier, even just man-made laws and just republics are just because they spring from the principle of or reflect the essence of natural law. Natural law is superior to, and precedes, political and governmental institutions. For example, the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—is a universally recognized moral ethic. It is the Golden Rule because it is true and just.
Again, and importantly, this was the view of practically all of America’s Founders. For example, in February 1775, Alexander Hamilton, later Jefferson’s rival and frequent nemesis, wrote a lengthy and significant pamphlet, which was turned into a newspaper essay—The Farmer Refuted, &c—excoriating a particularly nasty objector to the growing American rebellion against the British Crown. Among other things, Hamilton stressed the natural rights of the individual: “Upon this [natural] law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety. Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty; nor the least authority to command, or exact obedience from him; except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity. Hence also, the origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations, as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man or set of men have, to govern others, except their own consent? To usurp dominion over a people, in their own despite, or to grasp at a more extensive power than they are willing to entrust, is to violate that law of
nature, which gives every man a right to his personal liberty; and can, therefore, confer no obligation to obedience.”21
Throughout the discussion of natural law, there are obviously repeated references by philosophers, thinkers, and the Founders to God, divine providence, an eternal norm, etc. Turning again to the language of the Declaration of Independence, it states, in part, that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . .” There is an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” and “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”22
In Liberty and Tyranny, I ask and answer the question that is also relevant here: “Is it possible that there is no Natural Law and man can know moral and unalienable rights from his own reasoning, unaided by the supernatural or God? There are, of course, those who argue this case—including the Atheist and others who attempt to distinguish Natural Law from Divine Providence. It is not the view adopted by the Founders. This position would, it seems, lead man to arbitrarily create his own morality and rights, or create his own arbitrary morality and rights—right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, would be relative concepts susceptible to circumstantial applications. Moreover, by what justification would “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” be “unalienable Rights” if there is no Natural Law, since reason alone cannot make them inviolable? What then is Natural Law if its origin is unknown or rejected? It is nothing more than a human construct. An individual may
benefit from the moral order and unalienable rights around which society functions while rejecting their Divine origin. But the civil society cannot organize itself that way. It would become unstable and vulnerable to anarchy and tyranny, imperiling all within it, especially the individual. The abandonment of Natural Law is the adoption of tyranny in one form or another, because there is no humane or benevolent alternative to Natural Law.”23
“Some resist the idea of Natural Law’s relationship to Divine Providence, for they fear it leads to intolerance or even theocracy. They have that backwards. If man is ‘endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights,’ he is endowed with these rights no matter his religion or whether he has allegiance to any religion.”24
Nonetheless, although America has deep religious roots, and the Founders were overwhelming religious men—albeit of varying religious intensity and Christian denominations—the Declaration of Independence and most of the arguments undergirding it were not per se expositions or assertions of a particular theological fidelity.
Many decades after America’s founding, Abraham Lincoln relied heavily on the Declaration of Independence and the principles embedded in it to provide the essential moral justifications for liberty, equality, and, of course, ending slavery—the natural and equal rights of the individual. Lincoln revered the Declaration and repeatedly quoted and referenced it in his speeches, debates, and writings before and after he became president. He used it again and again as a cudgel against the
proslavery forces and slavery accommodationists. For example, on August 17, 1858, in Lewistown, Illinois, Lincoln delivered a powerful speech during his campaign for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas, in which he verbally brandished the Declaration in his condemnation of slavery. Lincoln declared:
Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities [the colonies], by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man.
In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children
and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take course to renew the battle which their fathers began—so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was built.
Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to the suggestions which would take away from it grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. Think nothing of me—take no thought for the political fate of any man whomsoever—but come
back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence.
You may do anything with me you choose, if you will but heed these sacred principles. You may not only defeat me for the Senate, but you may take me and put me to death. While pretending no indifference to earthly honors, I do claim to be actuated in this contest by something higher than an anxiety for office. I charge you to drop every paltry and insignificant thought for any man’s success. It is nothing; I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity, the Declaration of American Independence.25
For Lincoln, the Declaration was a definitive statement about the spirit of the individual, morality, and humanity. Moreover, he considered it the essence of America’s exceptionalism and extraordinary political system.
This brings us to the next step in understanding the American heritage—that is, natural rights in the context of natural law and the resulting civil society. Sir William Blackstone (1723–1780), among the most widely admired legal scholars often referred to by the Founders, wrote of natural law as “the foundation of what we call ethics . . . demonstrating that this or that action tends to man’s real happiness, and therefore very justly concluding that the performance of it is a part of the law of nature; or, on the other hand, that this or that
action is destruction of man’s real happiness, and therefore that the law of nature forbids it.”26
He added: “The principal aim of society is to protect individuals, in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; but which could not be preserved, in peace, without that mutual assistance, and intercourse, which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws, is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals.”27
The late constitutional scholar and professor Chester James Antieau explained that Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries also understood that in a civil society there are, by reason and necessity, natural law limitations on the exercise of natural rights. Jefferson said: “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another.” He added that “this is all from which the law ought to restrain him.”28
Jefferson also wrote: “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others.”29
Again, man has the ability, through right reason, to discern what is just, true, virtuous, and moral. But man is imperfect, and if he rejects reason for passion, irrationality, or worse, he is not free to harm or thwart the natural rights of another. Thus, as Antieau observed, “Natural law limitations upon the exercise of natural rights embrace in principle (1) consideration for the common good, (2) respect for the equal rights of others, and (3) realization that when the
basis of the right is absent, the exercise of the claimed right can properly be denied.”30
Therefore, natural law and the civil society or social order are not at odds with the individual’s liberty but in harmony with it—each requiring the other.
The prominent British statesman and scholar Edmund Burke (1729–1797) emphasized another fundamental characteristic of the civil society—valuing human experience, tradition, and custom. Burke was outspoken in his sympathy for the American colonists and condemned the oppressions of the British monarchy that led to the American Revolution. However, he was also repulsed by the French Revolution. Burke saw the latter as a revolt led by elites and anarchists who had as their purpose not only redress against French rule but the utter destruction of French society, traditions, and customs. Burke explained: “There is a manifest, marked distinction, which ill men with ill designs, or weak men incapable of any design, will constantly be confounding,—that is, a marked distinction between change and reformation. The former alters the substance of the objects themselves, and gets rid of all their essential good as well as of all the accidental evil annexed to them. Change is novelty; and whether it is to operate any one of the effects of reformation at all, or whether it may not contradict the very principle upon which reformation is desired, cannot be known beforehand. Reform is not change in substance or in the primary modification of the object, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained
of. So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails, the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was.”31
Burke added: “By this unprincipled facility of changing the state as often, and as much, and in as many ways, as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain of continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”32
Indeed, the Declaration sets forth this same understanding of reform over change: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when 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. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”33
Thereafter, the Founders list the specific injustices “to a candid world.”34