The Meaning of Our American Creed

Story Stream
recent articles

Plesse See The Origins of Our American Creed

In 1776, the American people were at war, fighting to preserve the common principles that bound them together in society. They were fighting to defend the fundamental truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence “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.”

Today, we still celebrate our independence and pay tribute to our founding charter, but do we really understand it? Do we know the meaning of our creed? If we think Congress can regulate virtually every aspect of our being, then the answer is no. If we believe government should take money from one to give to another, then the answer is no. And if we accept a president who claims a power to kill Americans charged of no crime simply because he deems them a threat to society, then the answer is definitely, positively, and unquestionably no.

In the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, our founders wrote that the American people were breaking from British rule to live by the tenets of Natural Law — “to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and coequal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them.” To understand the meaning of our creed, we must come to know Natural Law.

Natural Law philosophy, which was first developed over 2,000 years ago, is the idea that universal laws govern all human interactions and that these laws, or truths, are discoverable by human reason. Aristotle wrote in Rhetoric (ca. 350 BC), “Universal law is the Law of Nature. For there really is, as everyone to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other.” 

British philosopher John Locke wrote in 1690, “The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone; 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.” British legal scholar William Blackstone similarly wrote in 1765 that “the rights of all mankind ... may be reduced to three principal or primary articles: the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of personal property.” 

Locke and Blackstone greatly influenced American political thought in the revolutionary period — in fact, their written works and have been referred to as “the political Bibles of the constitutional fathers.” Not surprisingly then, the founding fathers’ first declaration of colonial rights in 1774 likewise asserted that the American people, “by the immutable Laws of Nature ... have the following rights: ... that they are entitled to life, liberty, and property.” 

The three principal natural rights to life, liberty, and property are deduced from our basic condition in the State of Nature, where there is no government or society. 

In this natural state, individuals are created equal by God and are forever His possessions. Locke wrote that people are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; [and because they are] all the servants of one Sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business, they are His property ... made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.” Life is given to us by God, and therefore can only be taken by Him. Blackstone referred to life as “the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual.” He therefore reasoned, “The natural life, being ... the immediate donation of the Great Creator, cannot legally be disposed of or destroyed by any individual, neither by the person himself, nor by any other of his fellow creatures, merely upon their own authority.” The right to life is absolute because the power over life is the province of God.

Show comments Hide Comments