Continuing the discussion about the Magna Carta, and how it influenced the U.S. Constitution, maybe it’s time to take the next step, and start a conversation about Natural Law. This piece is the first in a series discussing the that concept.
However, one cannot talk about Natural Law without talking about Natural Rights. And in order to talk of Natural Rights one must define and differentiate natural rights and legal rights. Natural and legal rights are two different types of rights. Legal rights are those bestowed onto a person by a given legal system. Natural rights are those not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable (i.e., rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws).
During the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of natural laws was used to challenge the divine right of kings, and became an alternative justification for the establishment of a social contract, positive law, and government — and thus legal rights — in the form of classical republicanism.
Conversely, the concept of natural rights is used by others to challenge the legitimacy of all such establishments.
Thomas Paine (1731–1809) further elaborated on natural rights in his influential work Rights of Man (1791), emphasizing that rights cannot be granted by any charter, (Government), because this would legally imply they can also be revoked and under such circumstances they would be reduced to privileges: The fact therefore must be that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.
The Founders DID NOT establish the Constitution for the purpose of granting rights. Rather, they established this government of laws (not a government of men) in order to recognize and secure each person’s Creator-endowed rights to life, liberty, and property, (pursuit of happy happy).
When Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” he was referring to natural law. Natural law is the universal standard that directly reflects human nature; natural law can be determined by careful consideration of the human condition, regardless of cultural influences. Jefferson considered the equality of man, and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (purpose and livelihood) to be born directly from the nature of humanity.
Divine Rights of Kings, limited government and Natural Law.
The divine right of kings or divine right is a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch is subject to no earthly authority, deriving the right to rule directly from the will of God. The king is thus not subject to the will of his people. What a bunch of horse-hockey.
“Limited government” stands in contrast to, among many things, the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Under that doctrine, the King, and by extension his entire government, held unlimited sovereignty over its subjects. Limited government exists where some effective limits restrict governmental power. In Western civilization, the Magna Carta stands as the early example of a document limiting the reach of the king’s sovereignty.
In contrast, The United States Constitution of 1787 created a government limited by the terms of the written document itself, by the election by the people of the legislators and the executive, and by the checks and balances through which the three branches of government limited each other’s power. So, The Founding fathers established the government of this country in stark contrast to this Divine Right of Kings.
Preservation of the natural rights to life, liberty, and property was claimed as justification for the rebellion of the American colonies.
Of Locke’s influence Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Bacon, Locke and Newton I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.