With only one week left in my first graduate class, the professor referenced (for the umpteenth time) the so-called natural rights philosophy as being the primary source of influence for the beliefs of a particular American Founding Father, regarding a particular issue. After seven weeks of hearing this natural rights philosophy so often spoken of, I realized that the professor had never given a definition as to what that philosophy actually consisted of. What did it teach? Who and what influenced it? Was it ever even claimed by its alleged followers? These were all questions that he never took the liberty of answering.
In the specific case mentioned above, the discussion was over the issue of slavery. The professor asserted that “Jefferson [and others] understood the notion that slavery was immoral based on the influence of natural rights philosophy.” While technically correct, there is more to it than that. Once in a letter to friend Edward Coles, Jefferson was very clear about what served as the basis for his conclusion that slavery was immoral, referring to emancipation as a “doctrine truly Christian.”
Countless Founders cited Christianity and its principles as their source of influence for more than just how they felt about slavery. Yet the professor almost always cited natural rights philosophy as being that source of influence and moreover, pitted this so called philosophy in competition against Christianity. The dilemma here was that in the mind of this particular professor, he could not fathom any legitimate connections between Thomas Jefferson and Christianity because of Jefferson’s unorthodox religious nature. He therefore [falsely] argues that Christianity could not have been the source of influence for Jefferson’s beliefs and that there must have been another philosophy that served that purpose.
Even though Jefferson thought himself to be a “real Christian”, the reality is that he and certain other professed Christian Founders held several beliefs that were not quite in line with orthodox Christianity. I imagine that both the professor and I can agree on this point. That said, the purpose of this work will not be to delve into those specific Founders and their specific beliefs, but rather to look at whether or not the so called natural rights philosophy was compatible with or contained within Christianity.
From my research, I could not trace the usage of the term “natural rights philosophy” back any further than the 1930s. It seems as though this term was created by modern historians and not explicitly spoken of by any of those claimed to have been disciples or teachers of said philosophy. Jefferson never called himself a follower of natural rights philosophy, nor did Adams, Franklin, Washington or any other Founder (though to note, they all in some form or another, claimed to be Christians… but let’s not go there). Moreover, the asserted founders of that philosophy never referred to themselves as natural rights philosophers. There’s nothing wrong with placing individuals into a group and then applying a label to represent that group, but you must be able to summarize what that group actually believed and taught.
In one of America’s and history’s most important political/philosophical documents, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson speaks of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. What was he referring to? Historically, the phrase “Law of Nature” was meant to be inclusive of all the “Laws of Nature” in the same way in which we refer to “the Law” in the general sense, or to “a law” in the specific sense. Founder Noah Webster, in his revolutionary 1828 American dictionary, defined a Law of Nature as:
“a rule of conduct arising out of the natural relations of human beings established by the Creator, and existing prior to any positive precept. Thus it is a law of nature, that one man should not injure another, and murder and fraud would be crimes, independent of any prohibition from a supreme power.”
Jefferson himself wrote:
“Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature.”
“… upon those rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all. The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.”
“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?”
Friend and political rival of Jefferson, fellow Founding Father John Adams wrote extensively on the topics of liberty, rights, the law of nature and the law of God:
“The great and Almighty author of nature, who at first established those rules which regulate the world, can as easily suspend those laws whenever his providence sees sufficient reason for such suspension.”
“From a sense of the government of God, and a regard to the laws established by His providence, should all our actions for ourselves or for other men primarily originate…”
“For God governs his great kingdom, the world, by various general laws.”
“But is the existence, the omnipotence, the eternity, the alpha and omega, and the universal Providence of one Supreme Being governing by fixed laws, asserted by St John in his Gospel, or in the Apocalypse (whether his or not) in clearer or more precise terms?”
“The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”
“It would be as reasonable to say, that all government is altogether unnecessary, because it is the duty of all men to deny themselves, and obey the laws of nature and the laws of God.”
So who were the so called, natural rights philosophers? I think both the professor and I would agree that this group would consist primarily of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Richard Hooker. Many of the American Founders cited and quoted from these three men and their works quite often. For the purpose of our discussion here, it should be noted that each of these three men were professed Christians, with the oldest of them and arguable originator of this philosophical movement, Richard Hooker, being an Anglican priest and theologian. What did these three men teach about natural law, from whence natural rights are derived from? When we look at the writings of the so called natural rights philosophers (Locke, Hobbes, Hooker), we find some pretty explicit explanations of what was meant by these terms and concepts:
“for the law of nature being unwritten, and so nowhere to be found but in the minds of men”
“Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God…”
“[Nature is] the Art whereby God hath made and governs the World.”
“Before that time [Ten Commandments given to Moses] there was no written Law of God, who as yet having not chosen any people to bee his peculiar Kingdome, had given no Law to men, but the Law of Nature, that is to say, the Precepts of Natural Reason, written in every mans own heart [Romans 2:15]… Some of them [Levitical laws] were indeed the Laws of Nature, as all the Second Table; and therefore to be acknowledged for Gods Laws; not to the Israelites alone, but to all people…”
“But God declareth his Laws three ways; by the Dictates of Natural Reason, by Revelation, and by the Vice of some man, to whom by the operation of Miracles, he procureth credit with the rest.”
“For which cause the law of God hath likewise said, ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers [Romans 13:1].’ The public power of all societies is above every soul contained in the same societies. And the principal use of that power is to give laws unto all that are under it; which laws in such case we must obey, unless there be reason shewed which may necessarily enforce that the law of Reason or of God doth enjoin the contrary.”
“To find out supernatural laws, there is no natural way, because they have not their foundation or ground in the course of nature… Laws therefore concerning these things are supernatural, both in respect of the manner of delivering them, which is divine; and also in regard of the things delivered, which are such as have not in nature any cause from which they flow, but were by the voluntary appointment of God ordained besides the course of nature, to rectify nature’s obliquity withal.”
“That which doth guide and direct his reason is first the general law of nature; which law of nature and the moral law of Scripture are in the substance of law all one… Human laws are measures in respect of men whose actions they must direct, howbeit such measures they are as have also their higher rules to be measured by, which rules are two- the law of God and the law of Nature; so that laws human must be made according to the general laws of Nature, and without contradiction to any positive law of Scripture, otherwise they are ill made.”
In summary, the argument of these so called natural rights philosophers is as follows:
- The Divine Law, all of which is instituted by God, consists of both natural/general law and supernatural/revealed law (Romans 1:20, Job 38:33, Jeremiah 33:20-26)
- Liberty, that is unalienable rights, ultimately comes from God.
- Through the use of reason we can recognize our “natural rights” evidenced by the “laws of nature”, which were established by God as the “unseen” law that God has “placed man’s hearts and minds” (Romans 2:15).
As John Adams famously remarked, “The general principles, on which the fathers achieved independence, were… the general principles of Christianity… and the general principles of English and American liberty.” If the teachings of both are properly understood, it cannot be argued that the so called natural rights philosophy is incompatible with, let alone in opposition to, Christianity. Moreover, the reality is that this philosophy was actually developed by professed Christians who were influenced by Christian principles. It would therefore be most correct to say that this philosophy is itself contained within the greater philosophy of Christianity.
- Thomas Jefferson, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Henry S. Randall, editor (J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1871) Vol. III, pp. 643-644, letter to Edward Coles, 24 August 1814
- Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Henry A. Washington, editor (Washington DC: Taylor and Maury, 1854) Vol. VI, p. 518, to Charles Thompson, 9 January 1816.
- Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828. Found under entry for “Law”. Accessible at http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,law
- Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Paul Leicester Ford, editor (New York: GP Putnam’s Sons and Knickerbocker Press, 1892) Vol. I, p. 376, Argument in case of Howell v. Netherland , April 1770.
- Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Henry A. Washington, editor (New York: Edwards, Pratt & Foster, 1858) Vol. I, p. 142, Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774.
- Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Henry A. Washington, editor (Washington DC: Taylor and Maury, 1854) Vol. VII, p. 408, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Frances Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1854) Vol. II, pp. 7-8, diary entry for March 1, 1756.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Frances Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1854) Vol. II, pp. 22-23, diary entry for June 14, 1756.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Frances Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1854) Vol. II, p. 16, diary entry for May 7, 1756.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Frances Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1856) Vol. X, pp. 71-73, letter to Thomas Jefferson, September 22, 1813
- John Adams, A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (Philadelphia: William Young, 1797), Vol. III, p. 217, “The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth Examined,” Letter VI.
- John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Frances Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1851) Vol. VI, pp. 64, Thoughts on Government.
- John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, (London: 1821) p. 305
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Henry Morley, editor (London: George Rutledge & Sons, 1886) p. 11, p.187, p. 234
- Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity , The First Book: Concerning Laws and Their Several Kinds In General, Richard William Church, editor (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1888) p. 103, p.79,
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856), Vol. X, pp. 45-46, to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813.