America’s Founders and Natural Law

Some conservatives lament—and many progressives celebrate—the myth that America’s founders were deists, theistic rationalists, or even atheists who were influenced by modern, secular ideas. They rejected the wisdom of their ancestors, and instead believed they could, in the words of Thomas Paine, “create the world anew.” Their new world had no place for the classical and Christian natural law tradition, and instead privileged individualist natural rights that could be exercised with little concern for the common good.

Remarkably, scholars, activists, and popular authors including Patrick Deneen, Thomas Pangle, Andrew Seidel, and Matthew Stewart continue to make such arguments despite a host of works debunking them. One can only hope that Kody Cooper and Justin Buckley Dyer’s excellent The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics: Political Theology, Natural Law, and the American Founding will at least give such authors pause. But it should do more than that.

Cooper and Dyer’s central thesis is that a “careful analysis of the founding period reveals that ideas central to American founding thought are not only compatible with but presuppose classical natural law and natural theology.” The natural law tradition may be traced back to the ancient world. It refers to the moral law that all persons may apprehend by reason. Most Christian thinkers have embraced this tradition, although they often emphasize that natural law is authoritative because it is a “product of the mind of God.”

Contrary to the many scholars who assert that “most” of America’s founders were deists, Cooper and Dyer recognize that only a few founders were deists, at least as the term is commonly defined. To be sure, a handful of important founders were not orthodox Christians—notably Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—but the authors argue that their heterodox views did not include rejecting natural law.

There were, of course, early modern political philosophers who were atheistic materialists. Thomas Hobbes is the most prominent example of such a thinker, and the authors acknowledge that some scholars have argued that the only difference between Hobbes and John Locke is that the latter hid his dangerous ideas better than the former. And yet Cooper and Dyer show that the founders routinely condemned Hobbes and that there is little reason to believe that they embraced a Hobbesian Locke (if such a Locke even exists).

The book’s first substantive chapter considers the extensive pamphlet debate surrounding the events that led up to the War of American Independence (roughly, 1764–1776). Particularly contentious was the question of whether Parliament had the authority to tax American colonists to raise revenue. When Parliament started passing such laws, patriot leaders responded forcefully. In doing so, they often appealed to the British constitutional maxim that there can be no taxation without representation—a principle that can be traced back to the Magna Charta (1215): “No scutage [tax] or aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom . . .” But they also made natural law arguments against Parliament’s actions.

Cooper and Dyer highlight appeals to natural law by James Otis, John Dickinson, Alexander Hamilton, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. In their discussion of them, the authors dispel the common misconception that references to the state of nature or natural rights are evidence that the founders rejected classical and Christian metaphysics and ethics. Although such references could be evidence that an author is an individualistic, materialistic modern, they show that when the founders made them, they did so in a manner that was compatible with traditional Christian thought.

The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the Christian natural law tradition played an important role in the political thought of America’s founders.

The claims in the preceding paragraph are most questionable with respect to Jefferson, which is perhaps why Cooper and Dyer dedicate an entire chapter to showing that the Sage of Monticello “developed a natural theology that has surprising continuities . . . with the classical natural-law tradition.” They recognize that there are some “important discontinuities” as well, but these don’t include rejecting the existence of God or the natural law tradition. They acknowledge the possibility that Jefferson was a closet atheist and materialist, but reasonably point out that the “burden of proof is on the interpreter who would” make this case. In their estimation, as well as my own, no scholar has successfully met this burden.

Relatively few scholars have written on the question of whether the War for American Independence was a biblical and just war. Many of those who have, e.g., Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch, George M. Marsden, Gregg L. Frazer, John Keown, and John D. Roche, either clearly state or strongly imply that the war was unbiblical and/or unjust. To be sure, for more than a thousand years the Christian church understood biblical texts such as Romans 13 to prohibit revolution, but Cooper and Dyer recognize that by the mid-sixteenth century, Calvinists had developed “a full-blown theory of a right to resistance.” Reformed political thinkers came to interpret texts such as Romans 13 to permit, and sometimes even to require, active resistance to rulers who become tyrants. This view was prevalent among American founders, 50–75% of whom are reasonably called Calvinists.

When considering whether the War for American Independence was justified, the authors briefly describe six tenets of the Christian just war tradition but focus on whether the patriots had a just cause. They argue persuasively that the patriots successfully “comingled appeals to first principles with constitutional arguments” to justify going to war. Unlike critics such as Frazer and Keown, they understand that it was not the level of taxation that was at issue, but whether or not Parliament could justly tax the colonists. In the founders’ minds, it could not (a position I also defend in a forthcoming book).

The authors later demonstrate the belief in God’s providence was widespread in the founding era. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the literature of this time, but perhaps it is a point that needs to be made in light of the common assertion that most of the founders were deists. As well, they explore the founders’ view of popular sovereignty which they understood in light of the Christian natural law tradition rather than the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau.

It is probably best to think of most American founders as political thinkers rather than political philosophers. Seldom did they have the time to work out a systematic political philosophy that engaged basic philosophical questions. An exception to this rule is James Wilson’s Lectures on Law. Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, framer of the Constitution, and an early Supreme Court Justice, gave a series of law lectures at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1790–1792. In them, he explicitly articulated a sophisticated account of the Christian natural law tradition and its relation to positive law. Cooper and Dyer provide an excellent overview of this aspect of Wilson’s lectures and respond to scholars who argue that he was not a serious natural law thinker.

The Classical and Christian Origins of American Politics proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the Christian natural law tradition played an important role in the political thought of America’s founders, even for the handful of founders who were not orthodox Christians. They conclude by reflecting on the tradition throughout American history. From Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr., great civic leaders have appealed to the tradition to promote justice for all. They suggest that the tradition remains relevant today, but that we should embrace it along with the founders’ understanding that government should be strictly limited—a qualification that leads them to reject the vision of both Catholic Integralists and, by implication, Protestant advocates of Christian nationalism.