The American Credo

From the very birth of our republic, the American credo has been rooted in the tradition of natural law; it has been imbued with the belief that there is a higher standard by which all man-made rules must be measured. In the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson justified the American case for separation from Great Britain with a classic appeal to the natural law:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independent station to which the laws of nature & 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 change.

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from the equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness… [Italics added.]

In Jefferson’s view, the American Revolution did not break lawful ties to a sovereign realm, but reclaimed transcendent liberties from an illegitimate and corrupt monarchy.

Just six years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson wondered what disbelief in natural law might mean for America’s future. “Can the liberties of a nation be secure,” he asked, “when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

It should be noted that Jefferson was influenced by a Virginia Catholic neighbor, Italian immigrant Philip Mazzei. Born in Tuscany in 1730, Mazzei studied medicine in Florence and immigrated first to England where he met Benjamin Franklin. It was Franklin who convinced Mazzei to move to Virginia to raise grapes and olives. Mazzei settled in 2,000 acres next door to Jefferson. The two men hit it off and spent hours discussing their concepts of liberty. Siding with the American colonies, Mazzei wrote and distributed pro-American pamphlets and articles. A statement he made in a 1774 edition of the Virginia Gazette certainly influenced Jefferson’s prose in the Declaration of Independence: “all men by nature are created free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. It is necessary that all men be equal to each other in natural law. A true Republican government cannot exist unless in their natural rights.”

The author of the Declaration of Independence was not the only founding father to view the natural law as the fulcrum of society. Alexander Hamilton wrote this defense of the legality of actions by the Continental Congress:
There are some events in society to which human laws cannot extend, but when applied to them lose their force and efficacy. In short when human laws contradict or discountenance the means which are necessary to preserve the essential rights of any society, they defeat the proper end of all laws and so become null and void….The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written as with a sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. [Italics added.]

For Hamilton “no tribunal, no codes, no system can repeal or impair the law of God, for by his external laws it is inherent in the nature of things.”

George Mason’s Declaration of Rights (1787), which was adopted as the preamble of the Virginia Constitution, refers to the natural law:
That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent right, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

At his first inauguration (1789), George Washington declared “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act my fervent supplications to the Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect…” In his Farewell Address, Washington reminded the nation that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports….Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” John Adams agreed. “Our Constitution,” he wrote, “was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

It should be obvious that for the Founding Fathers, man—the person—had intrinsic value. The cornerstone of American democracy is the concept of the person: of his dignity and of his inalienable rights, duties, and freedoms, within the natural law.

Happy Independence Day!

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.