The Law of Nature and of Nature’s God
To Be Just, the Law Must Be LimitedSadly, this is the very situation our Founding Fathers warned us against. In 1788 James Madison wrote: "It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they... undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?" Since law is force, it should be restricted to the one purpose for which individuals may legitimately use force--to protect our natural rights. As Thomas Jefferson put it, the law should "restrain men from injuring one another" but "leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits." Therefore, whenever a new bill comes before a legislative body, each member ought to ask himself.. "Do I have the right to use force against my neighbor to achieve this goal? Would I be willing to forcibly take his property, lock him in jail, or (in some cases) put him to death for failing to obey this law?" If a legislator isn't certain it would be just to do so, he should vote against the bill.
Natural Law: The Basis of Proper GovernmentAmerica's founders knew that the only reliable basis on which to found a government was on a foundation that never changes. They called it "the laws of nature and of nature's God."
What is Natural Law?First of all, Cicero defines Natural Law as "true law." Then he says:
"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 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 Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and 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."It can also be defined as "the rules of moral conduct implanted by nature in the human mind, forming the proper basis for and being superior to all written laws; the will of God revealed to man through his conscience." Natural law was central to American thought even before the Revolution. For example, here's what Massachusetts patriot James Otis wrote in 1764 to oppose an unjust revenue act passed by the British Parliament: "The supreme power in a state is jus dicere [to declare the law only: jus dare [to give the law, strictly speaking, belongs alone to God.... There must be in every instance a higher authority, [namely,] God. Should an act of Parliament be against any of His natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity, and justice, and consequently void." When the U.S. Constitution was completed, its framers looked upon it as an expression of this higher law. According to Madison, it was a product of "the transcendent law of nature." Alexander Hamilton called it "a fundamental law" and concluded that "no legislative act... contrary to the Constitution can be valid."
Who Taught the Founders About This?Where did the Founders learn about natural law? In their historical and political studies, it was a familiar thread that ran through the Greek and Roman philosophers (such as Aristotle, Demosthenes, Seneca, and especially Cicero); the Anglo-Saxon tradition of common law; and many of the European and English political philosophers (such as Sir Edward Coke, John Locke, Baron Charles de Montesquieu, and Sir William Blackstone). This passage from Blackstone is representative of what they encountered in their reading:
"Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator.... These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all His dispensations conforms; and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions. Such, among others, are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to everyone his due.... This law of nature... is binding over all the globe, in all countries and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this."