Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Founders & Higher Law:

Ed Brayton sent me this post from Nathan Bradfield, a sort of clownish figure from the religious right on the Founding and Religion. The post has some quotations from our Founding Fathers about "higher law" that are easily misinterpreted. The Founders believed in both man made "positive" law, and God given "natural" law, which positive law, by right could not contradict. However the content of natural law was ascertainable entirely by man's reason, arguably unaided by revelation. Or, if revelation had any role to play in determining "the laws of nature and nature's God," it was to assist or provide support for man's reason, not the other way around. Further, though these Founders believed that reason and revelation mostly agreed, they also believed that some revelation was not legitimately given by God and had to pass the "reason" smell test to be true or part of the "higher" law that rules us and which no positive law could contradict. That is the lens through which we need to view the following quotations that Mr. Bradfield offers:

All laws, however, may be arranged in two different classes. 1) Divine. 2) Human. . . . But it should always be remembered that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same Divine source: it is the law of God. . . . Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine. --James Wilson, Signer of the Constitution; U. S. Supreme Court Justice--

The law . . . 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. --Alexander Hamilton, Signer of the Constitution--

The . . . law established by the Creator . . . extends over the whole globe, is everywhere and at all times binding upon mankind. . . . This is the law of God by which he makes his way known to man and is paramount to all human control. --Rufus King, Signer of the Constitution--


In fact, what Bradfield quoted from Hamilton is taken out of context; the actual quotation shows Hamilton referring to the "law of nature" and "nature" by its very definition in the Founding era refers to what man can discover from reason as opposed to revelation. To repeat, what is "dictated by God Himself" in this context, refers to reason, not the Bible. Here is the entire quotation from Hamilton:

Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval 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; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original." Blackstone.

Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.

Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property or liberty; nor the least authority to command, or exact obedience from him; except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity.


Though he quotes from Blackstone, he does so in the context of arguing the "state of nature" theory, which is Hobbsean/Lockean in origin, and, as Leo Strauss put it, "wholly alien to the Bible." In any event the context of the quotation shows Hamilton clearly arguing for rules established by natural reason, not the Bible. Finally, note that when Hamilton wrote this, he was not a Christian and didn't become one until the end of his life after he had done his work "Founding" the nation. He believed in the same system of theistic rationalism/theological unitarianism, in which Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Madison believed.

Moreover, here is John Adams on the matter explaining that the laws of nature and nature's God are discovered by Reason, not Revelation.

To him who believes in the Existence and Attributes physical and moral of a God, there can be no obscurity or perplexity in defining the Law of Nature to be his wise benign and all powerful Will, discovered by Reason.

-- John Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, March 19, 1794. Adams Papers (microfilm), reel 377, Library of Congress. Seen in James H. Hutson's, "The Founders on Religion," p. 132.


Adams clearly regarded reason superior to revelation. In the following letter to Jefferson (Dec. 25, 1813), he discusses Joseph Priestly's work and prefaces his statement to Jefferson by noting that Man's Reason is the Ultimate discerner of the Truth and that it takes precedence over Revelation; indeed it makes Revelation entirely unnecessary:

Priestly ought to have done impartial justice to Phylosophy and Phylosophers, Phylosophy which is the result of Reason, is the first, the original Revelation of The Creator to his Creature, Man. When this Revelation is clear and certain, by Intuition or necessary Induction, no subsequent Revelation supported by Prophecies or Miracles can supercede it.


Writing in 1735, here Ben Franklin says basically the same thing (note Franklin states these ideas in the context of defending a Presbyterian minister -- Samuel Hemphill -- from charges of "heterodoxy"; Hemphill was one of many ministers during the Founding era who preached what the orthodox termed "infidelity" from the pulpit):

Now that natural Religion, or that the Laws of our Nature oblige us to the highest Degrees of Love to God, and in consequence of this Love to our almighty Maker, to pay him all the Homage, Worship and Adoration we are capable of, and to do every thing we know he requires; and that the same Laws oblige us to the Love of Mankind, and in consequence of this Love, as well as of our Love to God, (because he requires these things of us) to do good Offices to, and promote the general Welfare and Happiness of our Fellow-creatures...What Hemphill means by the first Revelation which God made to us by the Light of Nature, is the Knowledge, and our Obligations to the Practice of the Laws of Morality, which are discoverable by the Light of Nature; or by reflecting upon the human Frame, and considering it's natural Propensities, Instincts, and Principles of Action, and the genuine Tendencies of them.


Franklin goes on to describe the proper relationship between reason and revelation and, like Adams above, positioned scripture as secondary revelation, with "reason" or "the light of nature" as primary revelation that God gave to man:

Now, that to promote the Practice of the great Laws of Morality and Virtue both with Respect to God and Man, is the main End and Design of the christian Revelation has been already prov'd from the Revelation itself. And indeed as just now hinted at, it is obvious to the Reason of every thinking Person, that, if God almighty gives a Revelation at all, it must be for this End; nor is the Truth of the christian Revelation, or of any other that ever was made, to be defended upon any other Footing. But quitting these things; if the above Observations be true, then where lies the Absurdity of Hemphill's asserting,

Article I.

That Christianity, [as to it’s most essential and necessary Parts,] is plainly Nothing else, but a second Revelation of God’s Will founded upon the first Revelation, which God made to us by the Light of Nature.


In the following, Franklin clearly noted that revelation must be "reasonable" in order to be true. And the difference between this system and orthodox Christianity makes a difference. Franklin argues for this method in the context of denying original sin and that non-Christians, because of such, deserve eternal damnation and will go there if they die without Christ. Franklin disagrees: "to suppose a Man liable to Punishment upon account of the Guilt of another, is unreasonable; and actually to punish him for it, is unjust and cruel." He then writes:

Our Adversaries will perhaps alledge some Passages of the sacred Scriptures to prove this their Opinion; What! will they pretend to prove from Scripture a Notion that is absurd in itself, and has no Foundation in Nature? And if there was such a Text of Scripture, for my own Part, I should not in the least hesitate to say, that it could not be genuine, being so evidently contrary to Reason and the Nature of Things. But is it alledg'd, that there are some Passages in Scripture, which do, at least, insinuate the Notion here contradicted? In answer to this, I observe, that these Passages are intricate and obscure. And granting that I could not explain them after a manner more agreeable to the Nature of God and Reason, than the Maintainers of this monstrous System do yet I could not help thinking that they must be understood in a Sense consistent with them, tho' I could not find it out; and I would ingeniously confess I did not understand them, sooner than admit of a Sense contrary to Reason and to the Nature and Perfections of the Almighty God, and which Sense has no other Tendency than to represent the great Father of Mercy, the beneficent Creator and Preserver of universal Nature, as arbitrary, unjust and cruel; which is contrary to a thousand other Declarations of the same holy Scriptures. If the teaching of this Notion, pursued in its natural Consequences, be not teaching of Demonism, I know not what is.


James Wilson, whom Bradfield quotes, likewise believed the same. He once stated "the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supersede the operations of reason and the moral sense." Indeed, he believed revelation's task was to support reason, not the other way around: "Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance." And yes, Wilson, like Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, and Jefferson, was not a Christian but a "theistic rationalist."

In sum, when the Founders spoke of higher law which no positive law could contradict, they referred to natural law which was discoverable by reason, and not necessarily what's in the Bible. Indeed, only those "reasonable" parts of the Bible were part of such "higher" law which, they believed, formed the organic law of our nation. Thus, the higher law/natural law dynamic of our Founding lends more support to an "Enlightenment" worldview than a "Biblical" one.

7 comments:

Nathan said...

Ed Brayton sent me this post from Nathan Bradfield, a sort of clownish figure from the religious right on the Founding and Religion.

Sent by Ed Brayton? Losing most of your credibility in the first two words. That's about like saying John Kerry is honest.

Clownish figure? Yup. All credibility gone. No need to read further.

Sarah said...

Wow Nathan, you really broke down the arguments here with your wit! In other words, you can't refute it.

Hercules Mulligan said...

I am finally able to respond to you, after not being able to sit down and consider your comment on my blog.

I responded to this in the comments section on my blog, under the post on which you commented. Here, I will just post a quote from Hamilton, taken from a letter he wrote in 1802.

"Nothing is more fallacious than to expect to produce any valuable or permanent results in political projects by relying merely on the reason of men. Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals, for the most part governed by the impulse of passion. ... In my opinion, the present Constitution is the standard to which we are to cling. Under its banners, bona fide, must we combat our political foes, rejecting all changes but through the channel itself provides for amendments. By these general views of the subject have my reflections been guided. I now offer you the outline of the plan which they have suggested. Let an association be formed to be denominated “The Christian Constitutional Society.” Its objects to be: 1st. The support of the Christian religion. 2d. The support of the Constitution of the United States." There is another quote by Sam Adams in my comment, and there will be more presented when I publish my responding post.

Jonathan said...

I would suggest that the quotation you offer from 1802, shortly after Hamilton had his "born-again" experience and became an orthodox Christian, contrasts with the earlier ones from the 1770s we reproduced in our original posts.

There is nothing "Biblical" or distinctively Christian about the following sentiment of Hamilton's from years earlier:

"Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beautifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which to discern and pursue such things as were consistent with his duty and interest; and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty and personal safety.

"Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property, or liberty; nor the least authority to command or exact obedience from him, except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity."

First thing we need to do is get our terminology straight: The law of nature refers to what man discovers from reason. The law of revelation refers to what is written in the Bible. Even though Blackstone in his original talks of both the law of nature and revelation, Hamilton and our key Founders tended to emphasis nature and jettison revelation when they invoked higher law which is exactly what he does in his earlier quotation from the 1770s.

You should also keep your eye out for when Founding era orthodox Christians incorporate a-biblical notions into their arguments right next to biblical citations.

There is nothing biblical about the notion of a "state of nature." The non-Christian Hobbes originally invented this concept and though Locke refined it and made such more seemingly consistent with Christianity, Locke's notion of a "state of nature" is likewise wholly alien to the Bible.

I agree that Samuel Adams, unlike John, was an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. But when he invoked the "state of nature" in his arguments, he is not putting forth any kind of authentically Christian or Biblical argument, but an Enlightenment notion.

I've heard your side argue something along the lines of even the Deists like Jefferson and Franklin (btw: they weren't Deists, but that's usually how the argument goes) were influenced by a Biblical worldview. To some extent that might be true. But the converse is true as well: Even the orthodox Christians like John Witherspoon and Sam Adams were influenced by the Enlightenment worldview. Anytime you see them speak of the concept of "state of nature," they are speaking in Enlightenment not Biblical terms, regardless of whether the speaker is a theistic rationalist like Jefferson, Franklin, or Adams, or an orthodox Christian like Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, or John Witherspoon.

Hercules Mulligan said...

"There is nothing "Biblical" or distinctively Christian about the following sentiment of Hamilton's from years earlier:

'Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beautifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which to discern and pursue such things as were consistent with his duty and interest; and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty and personal safety.

'Hence, in a state of nature, no man had any moral power to deprive another of his life, limbs, property, or liberty; nor the least authority to command or exact obedience from him, except that which arose from the ties of consanguinity.' "

Don't mean to sound rude, but I vehemently disagree with your statement. THIS IS TOO BIBLICAL!

(1) Hamilton refers to the Supreme Being creating man, and endowing him with rational faculties. The Bible obviously says that God created man. God also treats man as a rational creature, capable of choice. In Isaiah 1:18, it says " 'Come, let us REASON together,' saith Jehovah." And in the New Testament, Paul makes use of reason (and confirms God's law revealed in nature) in the book of Romans.

(2) If you look at the Old Testament, especially the Law of Moses, God places a whole lot more emphasis upon "life, liberty, and property," and one finds that God treats all people as having an inherent equal value because He created all men in His own image.

I would suggest that before you call the Founders' ideas un-Biblical (I am not saying that ALL the ideas that ALL of them had agreed perfectly with the Bible, but that their BASIC ideas agreed generally with the BASIC Biblical truths) that you study the Bible (the most important book in the world) -- not just read it; STUDY IT, without looking through the eyes of John Calvin or St. Augustine.

Jonathan said...

Not being rude at all.

"Hamilton refers to the Supreme Being creating man, and endowing him with rational faculties...."

Okay, but this is exactly what the deists, theists and unitarians like Jefferson believed. That's what I mean by not distinctively Christian or biblical.

I don't mean to argue, and I do not argue, that the Founders' theistic arguments were "anti" or "un-Biblical" as some do. Many things written in the private letters of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin, probably do qualify as such. But often when they made public arguments, they spoke in the language of general theism and used philosophical terms for God like "the Supreme Being."

These terms could be consisent with orthodox Christianity or a variety of theistic beliefs, not orthodox Christianity at all (for instance, God is referenced as "the Supreme Being" in the French Revolution's documents; deists like Thomas Paine embraced terms like "Providence" and "Nature's God").

The Founders' generic theism and their theistic arguments undergirding government institutions (i.e. that "Nature's God" grants men unalienable rights) I would categorize as "a-biblical" not necessarily "anti-biblical."

In terms of my knowledge of the Bible -- and this is important -- I'll admit, though I read the good book quite a bit because much of my research on the Founding & Religion depends on being biblically literate, plenty of folks know the Bible far better than I.

That said, my arguments on this site often come straight from authorities, many of them devout conservative evangelicals and Catholics of impeccable orthodoxy who know the Bible as well as anyone.

The whole concept of theistic rationalism that I endorse was formulated by Dr. Gregg Frazer, a conservative evangelical professor of political science at The Masters' College, whose President (and Dr. Frazer's minister) is John MacArthur, whose theology certainly ain't my cup of tea -- but McArthur's bona fides as an evangelical theologian are beyond reproach.

Similarly, I rely on the work of Dr. Robert Kraynak of Colgate, a devout Catholic, a conservative Republican, and one of the nation's leading conservative Catholic public intellectuals. Likewise, Drs. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden (authors of "The Search for Christian America") are three of the most distinguished evangelical scholars in the world.

I talk about this in this post where I note the irony that some of the most effective debuking of "The Christian Nation" thesis has come, not from secular leftist scholars, who, in their own way, engage in mythmaking, but rather from conservative evangelicals and Catholics, like those above mentioned.

When they say principle X or Y is or is not found in the Bible, I always confirm it for myself, but invariably find that, as foremost authorities on the Bible, they are right.

Jonathan said...

Also, regarding the "life, liberty, and property," in the law of Moses, I would direct you to this post where I discuss Drs. Gregg Frazer's and Robert Kraynak's opinion on the matter. Virtually every culture recognizes some kind of life and ownership rights. Regarding individual political liberty, from my post:

First, as Kraynak pointed out, “the biblical covenant is undemocratic: God is not bound by the covenant and keeps His promises solely out of His own divine self-limitation.” Second, “(t)he element of voluntary consent is missing from the covenant with Israel….There is nothing voluntary or consensual about the biblical covenant; and the most severe punishments are threatened by God for disobedience.” Third, “insofar as the covenant with Israel sanctions specific forms of government, the main ones are illiberal and undemocratic;” including patriarchy, theocracy, and kingships established by divine right. Fourth, “the Bible shows that God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and supports national liberation, not for the purpose of enjoying their political and economic rights, but for the purpose of putting on the yoke of the law in the polity of Moses.” Fifth, “the content of the divine law revealed to Moses consists, in the first place, of the Ten Commandments rather than the Ten Bill of Rights, commanding duties to God, family, and neighbors rather than establishing protections for personal freedom.” Finally, the combination of judicial, civil, ceremonial, and dietary laws imposed on the people “regulate all aspects of religious, personal, and social life.” The history of Israel, therefore, had to be radically rewritten to provide support for the demands of political liberty and for republican self-government. – Kraynak, 46-49 quoted in Frazer, “The Political Theology of the American Founding,” Ph.D. dissertation, 18-19.