Our Founders Really Were Trouble-Makers
If causing trouble was the goal of the Founding Fathers in 1776, attacking the notion that rulers derived their authority to govern from the Divine Right of Kings was certainly the way to go.
The ruling establishments of the most powerful nations on Earth pushed the idea that their kings were chosen directly by God and that their authority, therefore, could not be questioned, nor could the people hold their kings accountable for their actions. Kings, as alleged representatives of God, therefore, were not subject to any earthly authority, certainly not to the people or even the aristocracy of their kingdoms. They were, in a very real sense, above the laws of man and answerable only to God, Himself.
Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the other trouble makers in America had a different view, however. They believed that rulers gained their legitimacy from the consent of the governed and from Natural Law, a system of laws of morality, derived from the natural order of things to which all humans are ethically bound.
The Greatest Proclamation of Natural Law
“No public document gives more prominence to the idea of natural law, nor relies more crucially upon natural law as a premise, than the Declaration of Independence,” wrote Dr. James R. Stoner, Jr., professor and head of the political science department at Louisiana State University. He cites, as an example, the most famous passage from the Declaration:
“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; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem more likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The Founder’s declaration of support of the idea of natural law was radical at the time and still is, to some extent. It sent shockwaves through the halls of power in nations all over the globe because of several principles that challenged the rule of those who governed based on the Divine Right of Kings.
Natural Law, a Radical Idea
First, the Declaration asserted there were universal truths, ideas that exist that the human mind can discover through reason and discernment. By referring to “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the Declaration asserts that Nature is rational, knowable and that it contains political and moral truths that man can learn through studying, experimenting, questioning and learning. It posits that Nature is a larger whole in which man is but a part, yet he can understand Nature because it is knowable, intelligible and rational.
Second, the Declaration proclaims that all men are created equal because they can all choose right from wrong, because, unlike animals, they can choose to reject desires and appetites in favor of reason and doing what is right. The Declaration also proclaims that no man, regardless of position, is a god or an animal, that it is as wrong to treat a man as if he was a god as it is to treat him as if he was an animal.
Third, because human beings can choose right from wrong, because each person naturally owns his or her life, mind and body, the natural right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is intrinsically part of the nature of being human. These natural rights don’t belong to people because of their race, ethnicity, wealth, religion or gender, but simply because they are human, the creation of Nature and God.
And, fourth, government exists solely for the purpose of protecting and preserving the natural rights of citizens who consent to be governed. Because all men are created equal by Nature and God, no man is authorized to rule over others without their willing consent. And, because citizens can give their consent to be ruled, they can also withdraw it.
Natural Law Versus The Rule of Royalty
These ideas were a radical departure from the way most people in the world saw their relationship to their government and set America and, eventually, the rest of the Western world on a new course away from monarchy and similar forms of government towards representative democracy under a republican form of government. They freed men from the idea that their rights were gifts from a king, teaching them, instead, that their rights were theirs by nature of being human, that they were gifts of nature and of God that could not be taken from them by any man, even by a king.
Stoner, James. 2007. “Natural Law, Common Law, and the Constitution.” In Common Law Theory, ed. Douglas E. Edlin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 171-184. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration The Declaration of Independence National Archives http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/articles.aspx?article=983