The Founding Fathers made the concept of "the state of nature" key in declaring independence. The following passage from Alexander Hamilton in 1775 constitutes a typical Whig use of the concept:
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.
Hence also, the origin of all civil government, justly established, must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations, as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter; for what original title can any man or set of men have, to govern others, except their own consent?
[I want to make this post brief. It could be much longer if I decided to try to reproduce every quotation from the founding era relying on the s.o.n. concept.]
The idea of the state of nature traces to Hobbes. Though the form that our Founders embraced was Locke's. This is important: Locke's state of nature differed from Hobbes' and provided the model our Founders followed when they declared independence; but the concept of the state of nature itself was nonetheless formulated by Hobbes.
Why is this important: Locke may have been a Christian (this is disputed; he called himself Christian and defended his understanding of the Christian religion; but he denied original sin, and on the Trinity was an Arian heretic) but Hobbes clearly wasn't. Locke's notion of a state of nature may have seemed more consistent with Christianity than Hobbes' (though, ironically, Hobbes' belief on the depravity of human nature is closer to orthodox Christianity than Locke's Tabla Rasa which denies original sin) but the concept of the state of nature, be it Hobbes', Locke's, or Rousseau's, is, in the words of Leo Strauss, "wholly alien to the Bible." Thus, whichever of the three philosophers' concepts of the state of nature is being invoked, we are speaking in Enlightenment, not Biblical terms whether the speaker is a Christian, a Deist, something else, or whose religious beliefs are disputed.
Again, because of the desired brevity of this post, I am not going to detail the differences between the three philosophers' understandings of the states of nature, but will reproduce Locke's own words, which are key to our Founding:
4. To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.
A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.
5. This equality of men by Nature, the judicious Hooker looks upon as so evident in itself, and beyond all question, that he makes it the foundation of that obligation to mutual love amongst men on which he builds the duties they owe one another, and from whence he derives the great maxims of justice and charity. His words are:
"The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty to love others than themselves, for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man's hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men weak, being of one and the same nature: to have anything offered them repugnant to this desire must needs, in all respects, grieve them as much as me; so that if I do harm, I must look to suffer, there being no reason that others should show greater measure of love to me than they have by me showed unto them; my desire, therefore, to be loved of my equals in Nature, as much as possible may be, imposeth upon me a natural duty of bearing to themward fully the like affection. From which relation of equality between ourselves and them that are as ourselves, what several rules and canons natural reason hath drawn for direction of life no man is ignorant." (Eccl. Pol. i.)*
* Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.
6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence; though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure. And, being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of Nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us that may authorise us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another's uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind, and not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.
7. And that all men may be restrained from invading others' rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of Nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of Nature is in that state put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation. For the law of Nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody that in the state of Nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders; and if any one in the state of Nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so. For in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.
8. And thus, in the state of Nature, one man comes by a power over another, but yet no absolute or arbitrary power to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats or boundless extravagancy of his own will, but only to retribute to him so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint. For these two are the only reasons why one man may lawfully do harm to another, which is that we call punishment. In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind; the tie which is to secure them from injury and violence being slighted and broken by him, which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of Nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and, by his example, others from doing the like mischief. And in this case, and upon this ground, every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of Nature.
Now, because Locke 1) has God take a central role in this theory, and 2) called himself a Christian and defended the Christian religion as "reasonable," otherwise uninformed folks could easy confuse Locke's teachings from his second treatise with authentically Christian principles. However, they are not. When one opens his Bible and compares what Locke wrote with Genesis, one unmistakably concludes, in Dr. Gregg Frazer's words:
The biblical account of Eden and the origin of human society bears little resemblance to a world of free agents restrained only by natural law forming society on the basis of voluntary consent. (Ph.D. dissertation, p. 369.)
Just because Locke had God play a central role in his liberal democratic theory does not mean there is anything authentically biblical or Christian about Locke's teachings. As Dr. Robert Kraynak of Colgate University, a devout Catholic, put it, instructing Christians of the a-biblical origins of America's Founding thought: "We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be." Because the biblical God wasn't as "republican" as the Founders needed Him to be, they remade Him in accord with their Whig sentiments. And in doing so, arguably they invoked a different God -- a benevolent unitarian deity -- the God of the theistic rationalists, not the biblical God.
Anyway, such Enlightenment rationalist system of thought was so effective and attractive that even orthodox Christians became imbibed in it, and relied on such when they argued for America's independence. I've heard it said that even the supposed Deists like Jefferson and Franklin were influenced by a "biblical worldview." To some extent, this is true; they grew up attending orthodox Christian Churches. Yet the converse is also true: Even orthodox Christians like John Witherspoon, Sam Adams, Patrick Henry and John Jay were influenced by an a-biblical Enlightenment worldview, especially when they argued for republicanism.
Orthodox Christians needed to rely on such an a-biblical Enlightenment system of thought because the Bible simply doesn't speak to issues with which the Whig republicans were concerned (like a right to revolt). I was listening to a speech given by John MacAurthur -- a fire breathing fundamentalist whose theology certainly ain't my cup of tea -- where he made a very apt point: Jesus didn't overturn one social institution. Not slavery, not any of the illiberal forms of government. Not one. He was concerned with spiritual not temporal issues. And indeed, Paul instructs Christians, in Romans 13, in no uncertain terms, to obey an illiberal, undemocratic, unelected tyrant who never sought consent to rule over believers. Arguably speaking, the Bible forbids all revolt (which would make the American Revolution an un-Biblical act -- exactly what the orthodox Christian Tories argued). The best Christians can argue is Romans 13 applied only to a certain time period and doesn't stand in the way of revolting against tyrants. Perhaps. But nowhere does the Bible instruct or explicitly permit such revolt.
What I've shown doesn't mean Christians should stay out of politics. But it does show that those who argue the Founders, in establishing 18th century republicanism, gave us the true "biblical" form of government (the "Christian Nation" thesis) peddle an historical fraud.
Knowing what we now know about "the state of nature" and its a-biblical etiology, let me conclude with an example of an orthodox Christian speaking in such Enlightenment terms. Samuel Adams:
I. Natural Rights of the Colonists as Men.
Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.
All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.
When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.
Every natural right not expressly given up, or, from the nature of a social compact, necessarily ceded, remains.
All positive and civil laws should conform, as far as possible, to the law of natural reason and equity.
Now, Samuel Adams may have been, unlike John, an orthodox Christian, but there is nothing biblical about what I've just reproduced; it is pure Lockean liberalism which is Enlightenment rationalism to the core. And Adams tells us exactly where he got his ideas from: Locke.
And it is now generally agreed among Christians that this spirit of toleration, in the fullest extent consistent with the being of civil society, is the chief characteristical mark of the Church. Insomuch that Mr. Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to all whose doctrines are not subversive of society. The only sects which he thinks ought to be, and which by all wise laws are excluded from such toleration, are those who teach doctrines subversive of the civil government under which they live. The Roman Catholics or Papists are excluded by reason of such doctrines as these, that princes excommunicated may be deposed, and those that they call heretics may be destroyed without mercy; besides their recognizing the Pope in so absolute a manner, in subversion of government, by introducing, as far as possible into the states under whose protection they enjoy life, liberty, and property, that solecism in politics, imperium in imperio, leading directly to the worst anarchy and confusion, civil discord, war, and bloodshed.
I've long shown that the key Founders -- those most responsible for declaring independence, constructing the Constitution, and then leading the newly formed nation -- were not orthodox Christians, but theistic rationalists. Their "enlightened" God better fit the needs of Whig republicanism than the Biblical God did. Perhaps that's one reason why non-Christians played such leading roles. Without question, Jefferson, (John) Adams, and Franklin were theistic rationalists. I'd argue that Washington, Madison, and Hamilton were as well (though their creed remains disputed). But ultimately the ideas that dominated America's Founding were Enlightenment rationalist ideas, not authentically Christian ideas. And that's because the Bible spoke little to what the Whigs were trying to accomplish. Whether, for instance, Hamilton was an orthodox Christian or a theistic rationalist when he wrote the above reproduced, The Farmer Refuted in 1775 ultimately is irrelevant. The ideas Hamilton posited there were Enlightenment rationalist not Biblical notions.