Natural Law and the United States Constitution

By Barker, Robert S. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Natural Law and the United States Constitution

Barker, Robert S., The Review of Metaphysics

ON JULY 4, 1776, the United States of America, in declaring their independence, invoked "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," proclaimed that men are "endowed by their Creator" with unalienable rights, appealed to "the Supreme Judge of the world," and concluded by expressing their reliance on "Divine Providence." (1)

There can be no doubt that those delegates in Philadelphia who adopted that Declaration believed in, and, based the nation's independence on, the Natural Law; that is, that God, in creating the universe, implanted in the nature of man a body of Law to which all human beings are subject, which is superior to all manmade law, and which is knowable by human reason. (2)

Eleven years later, another group of delegates, representatives of the States, assembled in the same hall in Philadelphia, this time with the eminently practical task of creating a new structure of government for the United States, one that would establish "a more perfect union." (3) That document, written in 1787, was ratified by the several States, (4) and entered into effect in 1789 as the Constitution of the United States of America.

Since the Constitution was designed to be a practical-juridical document for the operation of a more effective government, one should not expect to find there the ringing statements of principle that characterize the Declaration of Independence, (5) and, indeed, no such philosophical statements are present. But several important characteristics of the Constitution--indeed its most important characteristics--are clear and admirable applications of the Natural Law.

Before examining those characteristics of the Constitution, it is important to emphasize that the Natural Law as understood by the Founding Fathers of the Constitution was the Natural Law that for two millennia had been a traditional and essential element of Western Civilization; that is, Natural law as understood and explained by, for example, Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco de Vitoria. (6) It was the Founders' traditional understanding of Natural Law, rather than the various "Enlightenment" versions, that was most influential in the thinking that characterizes the United States Constitution.

The fundamental difference between the classical-traditional understanding of the Natural Law and that of the Enlightenment is that the classical-traditional thinkers knew and declared that God is the author and source of the Natural Law, and that human reason is the faculty by which the Law established by God is made accessible to man, while the philosophers of the Enlightenment (who inspired the French Revolution) rejected God as the author of the Natural Law, or diminished His significance, and elevated human reason, or its variants, such as the general will or a legislative majority, to the position of supremacy. In the words of one historian, the Enlightenment philosophers "deified nature and denatured God." (7) These differences can produce, and in fact have produced dramatic differences in the activities of the governments of the nations of the world. (8)

The most influential Founders of the United States Constitution saw God as the source of the supreme rules of law and government, and applied the Natural Law in their work in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Let us examine the thinking of the four most influential delegates at the Convention.

James Madison, of Virginia, considered the "Father of the Constitution," wrote, two years before the Philadelphia Convention, of the duty that man owes to God:

   This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of
   obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be
   considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a
   subject of the Governor of the Universe. (9)

Alexander Hamilton, of New York, wrote in 1775 that God:

   has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is
   indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human
   institution whatever. 

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