Legal scholar Randy Barnett offer a fascinating section by section reading of the Declaration of Independence, which he says succinctly states the political theory of the American founding. He summarizes it this way:
- The rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but pre-exist its formation.
- The protection of these rights is both the purpose and first duty of government.
- Even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights—or its systematic violation of rights—can justify its alteration or abolition.
- At least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.
But I’d like to draw your attention to his exposition of the first paragraph and his explanation of “The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” In quoting a clergyman of the time, he gives a helpful explanation of what we mean by that much-misunderstood concept of “natural law,” as well as showing how that was a fundamental assumption of the American founders. From Randy Barnett, What the Declaration of Independence Really Claimed – The Washington Post:
It is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims.
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
This first sentence is often forgotten. It asserts that Americans as a whole, rather than as members of their respective colonies, are a distinct “people.” And this “one people” is not a collective entity, but an aggregate of particular individuals. So “they” not it should “declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
To “dissolve the political bands” revokes the “social compact” that existed between the Americans and the rest of the people of the British commonwealth, reinstates the “state of nature” between Americans and the government of Great Britain, and makes “the Laws of Nature” the standard by which this dissolution and whatever government is to follow are judged. As Committee of Five delegate Roger Sherman observed in 1774, after hostilities broke out with the British, “We are Now in a State of Nature.”
But what are these “Laws of Nature”? To answer this, we can turn to a sermon delivered by the Reverend Elizur Goodrich at the Congregational Church in Durham Connecticut on the eve of the Philadelphia constitutional convention. At the time of the founding, it was a common practice for ministers to be invited to give an “election sermon” before newly-elected government officials, in this case the delegates to the Constitutional convention, to encourage them to govern according to God’s ways.
In his sermon, Goodrich explained that “the principles of society are the laws, which Almighty God has established in the moral world, and made necessary to be observed by mankind; in order to promote their true happiness, in their transactions and intercourse.” These laws, Goodrich observed, “may be considered as principles, in respect of their fixedness and operation,” and by knowing them, “we discover the rules of conduct, which direct mankind to the highest perfection, and supreme happiness of their nature.” These rules of conduct, he then explained, “are as fixed and unchangeable as the laws which operate in the natural world. Human art in order to produce certain effects, must conform to the principles and laws, which the Almighty Creator has established in the natural world.”
In this sense, natural laws govern every human endeavor, not just politics. They undergird what may be called “normative disciplines,” by which I mean those bodies of knowledge that guide human conduct—bodies of knowledge that tell us how we ought to act if we wish to achieve our goals. To illustrate this, Goodrich offered examples from agriculture, engineering, and architecture:
He who neglects the cultivation of his field, and the proper time of sowing, may not expect a harvest. He, who would assist mankind in raising weights, and overcoming obstacles, depends on certain rules, derived from the knowledge of mechanical principles applied to the construction of machines, in order to give the most useful effect to the smallest force: And every builder should well understand the best position of firmness and strength, when he is about to erect an edifice.
To ignore these principles is nothing short of denying reality, like jumping off a roof imagining that one can fly. “For he, who attempts these things, on other principles, than those of nature, attempts to make a new world; and his aim will prove absurd and his labour lost.” By making “a new world,” Goodrich meant denying the nature of the world in which we live. He concludes: “No more can mankind be conducted to happiness; or civil societies united, and enjoy peace and prosperity, without observing the moral principles and connections, which the Almighty Creator has established for the government of the moral world.”
The fact that Goodrich was a relatively obscure public figure—though his son would go on to serve as a Federalist congressman from Connecticut—shows the commonplace understanding of natural law. And Goodrich’s task was to remind the Connecticut delegates of the proper understanding “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”
This is an extract from Barnett’s forthcoming book, Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Sovereignty of the People.