Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Will you be celebrating Natural Law this July 4th? You should be. Your Founding Fathers did.
In declaring their independence and asserting their God-given rights, the Founding Fathers—particularly the pen of Thomas Jefferson—acknowledged the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” These were no minor things. Indeed, maintained the Founders, you were entitled to them. (These were days when an entitlement meant something rather than any new thing.) The Founders believed that, in the course of human events, they had at long last arrived at that point where they and their countrymen could rightfully assume these rights “among the Powers of the Earth.” They were not only declaring their independence from the British Crown (itself a huge deal); they were asserting self-evident truths and claiming certain unalienable rights that were theirs not only as Americans but as humans.
So, what of this Natural Law stuff? What did and does it mean? And why does it still matter?
“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,” states Robert Barker, professor emeritus of law at Duquesne University, and an eloquent expert on the subject. Addressing the American Founders Lecture Series, held quarterly at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Club by the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College, Barker defines Natural Law thusly: “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 manmade law, and which is knowable by human reason.”
The Natural Law as understood by the Founders, says Barker, was the same that for two millennia had been a “traditional and essential” element of Western civilization.
To illustrate the point, Barker marshals the likes of Aquinas, Sophocles, Aristotle, and Cicero. Among them, he cites Sophocles’ play Antigone, where the heroine (of the same name), condemned to death by an unjust king, informed the king that he was violating a superior, natural law. “I had to choose between your law and God’s law,” she told the king, “and no matter how much power you have to enforce your law, it is inconsequential next to God’s. His laws are eternal, not merely for the moment. No mortal, not even you, may annul the laws of God.”
As Aristotle put it, the Natural Law is a universal law that transcends earthly regimes and stands common to all human beings, “even when there is no community to bind them to one another.”
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."