Natural Law

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Natural Law

webfeller   |   January 21, 2002

The Founders of the United States understood that human rights must be rooted in natural law, not positive law—and this for the reason that the giver of rights retains the power to repeal the rights.  If liberties were awarded by the decrees of the State, then the State could choose to take them away.  But by anchoring rights in natural law, however, the Founders put these rights beyond the jurisdiction of earthly power.  Rights flow from human nature, from the moral order of the universe, from natural law.  And upon these rights, no king or parliament or judge may encroach without consent.

A cursory survey of the Founders’ writings reveals an almost universal belief in a natural, objective law given by a Supreme Being.  Samuel Adams wrote:  “In the supposed state of nature, all men are equally bound by the laws of nature or, to speak more properly, the laws of their Creator.”

Alexander Hamilton noted that the law of nature, “which being coequal with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other.  It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times.  No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this.”

John Jay, the first Chief Justice, wrote:  “The natural law was given by the Sovereign of the Universe to all mankind.”

John Quincy Adams said:  “The laws of nature and of nature’s God…of course, presupposes the existence of God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and of all government.”

Adams appealed to the Declaration and natural law in pleading for the freedom of the Amistad slaves.  Remember the Amistad?  It recently was a movie about a slave ship that went to Boston by mistake.  After lengthy legal proceedings, the slaves aboard were freed.

Note that abolitionists also refused to obey the federal Fugitive Slave Act on the same basis.  They appealed to the Declaration of Independence and to natural law.  And this federal law—the Fugitive Slave Act—passed only a few years before the Civil War required free men in free states to capture and return runaway slaves and to send them back to a lifetime of servitude in a slave state.  Well, as mentioned, abolitionists simply refused to obey that law, and they did on the basis of what we’re now calling “natural law.”

And so a look back to our Founding Fathers is very sobering—and I’m sorry.  We have drifted further and further away from the solid beginning they gave us.

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