Natural Law: The Basis of Moral Government

Every year U.S. citizens are bound by literally hundreds of new government mandates. As business owners can attest, it is difficult and expensive to comply with these constantly changing legal requirements – or even to keep track of them all!

This is the very situation our Founding Fathers warned us against. Shortly after the Convention 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?" (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 246)

Since law is force, it should be restricted to the one purpose for which individuals may legitimately use force – to protect natural rights. As Thomas Jefferson put it in his First Inaugural Address, 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, the members ought to ask themselves, "Do I have the right to use force against my neighbor to achieve this goal? Would I be willing to forcibly take his property or lock him in jail for failing to obey this law?" If a lawmaker is uncertain, the bill probably should not become law.

In this and other ways, laws should always conform to basic moral principles. As French statesman Frederic Bastiat observed in 1848, "When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law." (The Law, p. 12)

Natural Law: The Basis of Moral Government

Throughout human history, enlightened societies who tried to align their legal codes in accordance with Natural Law have prospered. America's founders understood this key to human happiness and regarded natural law as an essential element in our nation's "freedom and unity" formula. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence begins with an appeal to "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." (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 40)

In 1764, James Otis, a patriot from Massachusetts, defined Natural Law 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." (Annals of America, 2:11) Closely tied to the idea of natural law are other vital principles such as justice, equality, and natural rights. In explaining his reasons for opposing an unjust revenue act passed by the British parliament, Otis declared, "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." (Federalist Papers, Nos. 43 & 78)

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." (The 5000 Year Leap, p. 138)

The Bible and Natural Law

But the most ancient and most influential source from which the Founders drew their understanding of natural law was the Holy Bible, which they had studied from their childhood. "I will give thee... a law," the Lord declared to Moses (Exodus 24:12), and He inscribed it on stone tablets to govern the house of Israel. When they vowed to obey this law, God accepted their covenant and promised that if they remained faithful, He would make them "high above all nations ... an holy people unto the Lord." (Deuteronomy 26: 16-19)

Biblical teachings had a powerful impact on America's founders. In fact, between the years 1760 and 1805, the Bible was the most frequently cited source in American political writings. John Adams, who regarded politics as "the divine science," once said: "Suppose a nation... should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. What a paradise would this region be!" (Quoted by Norman Cousins, In God We Trust, New York: Harper Brothers, 1958, p. 362)

America Was Built on Natural Law

As our forefathers sought to build "one nation under God," they purposely established their legal codes on the foundation of Natural Law. They believed that societies should be governed, as Jefferson put it, by "the moral law to which man has been subjected by his Creator, and of which his feelings, or conscience as it is sometimes called, are the evidence with which his Creator has furnished him. The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature accompany them into a state of society,... their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation." (Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 3:228)

Throughout the first century of US. history, natural law was upheld as a key principle of government by the American people and their leader, not only by Presidents and the Congress, but also by the Supreme Court. In the view of the Court, its members were to decide cases by exercising "that understanding which Providence has bestowed upon them." (Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. 1, 186-87, 1824). Since the laws they adjudicated were based on "the preexisting and higher authority of the laws of nature," (The West River Bridge Company v. Joseph Dix, 47 U.S. 507, 532, 1848), they relied less on judicial precedent than on "eternal justice as it comes from intelligence... to guide the conscience of the Court." (Rhode Island v. Massachusetts, 39 U.S. 210, 225, 1840).

So What Happened in the Twentieth Century?

In the 1900s, however, the Court began to depart from the original American philosophy. By 1947, Justice Hugo Black (following the earlier reasoning of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) was urging that "the 'natural law' formula ... should be abandoned"; he even argued that it was "a violation of our Constitution!" (Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 75, 1947).

The other branches of the federal government have followed the court's lead, and today the United States has all but severed its connection to "the laws of nature and of nature's God." We've sold our birthright for a "mess of pottage," and we now find ourselves harvesting the fruits of that decision.

We are reminded of this sober admonition from the Old Testament Prophet Hosea: "Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land.... My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, ... seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children."

We Must Return to the "Freedom and Unity" Formula

More than ever before, America needs moral, God-fearing statesmen who have the knowledge, integrity, and determination to lead us back to the inspired principles on which this nation was founded. Among the most important of these is natural law. Only by adhering to this law, which is the will of our Creator revealed through the scriptures and through the conscience of every person, can our society enjoy peace, stability, and happiness.

In modern times, many people have accepted the notion that all "truth" is relative and thus every opinion is equally valid, even in life's most crucial issues. Such a philosophy inevitably tends toward confusion, corruption, and social discord. But absolute, eternal truth – the very substance of natural law – provides a sure standard for consensus by which we can "form a more perfect union" without violating the free will of any citizen.

In fact, we may say that revealed truth is the very center of America's original freedom and unity formula. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that the divine truths implanted in us by heaven are "those principles ... in which God has united us all." Ironically, they not only unify us but also liberate us, as Jesus assured His disciples. "Ye shall know the truth," He said, "and the truth shall make you free."

Family and Community Applications

Here are a few suggestions that can help each of us implement these important principles in our homes and communities:

  • Discuss the ideas in this letter with your family members, friends, and neighbors.
  • Sponsor or attend an NCCS seminar. Click here to learn how to host a seminar in your area. You can also watch our recorded seminar online.
  • Study and ponder the Holy Scriptures and the Founders' teachings in order to understand the "laws of nature" that should govern us individually and as a society. Use your influence to encourage your political leaders to act in accordance with these truths.
  • Study current legislation in your state or on the national level and determine which bills conform to Natural Law principles and which violate them.
  • Pray for America, its leaders, and its citizens. Congress has declared the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer; this annual event is supported by many churches and by Christian organizations such as Focus on the Family, and we strongly endorse it.

God still controls the destiny of all nations, and He will respond to our fervent prayers. He can withhold His judgments for the sake of a righteous minority (see Genesis 18:20-32), So it's also vital that we strive to live by the truths He has revealed.

How grateful we are to be involved with you in this important cause! May the Lord bless and sustain you in your efforts.


Earl Taylor, Jr.

1 comment

Apr 20, 2023

Is Mr. Earl Taylor still with us? I met him at the Spring Hill Library in Spring Hill, TN 10-15 years ago and continue to reap from his passioned seminar. I wish to make a difference in enlightening people about our freedoms and find it difficult to know how to position myself to be inviting to those who lack basic education (my own level) about our founding principles. I am also frankly intimidated by the governmental controls that are being and will continue being encroached upon ’we the people." Will our liberties be too confined to reach hearts and change momentums? IDK, I just know that I want to find how to do what I can with a Ben Carson type disposition that educates listeners.

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