Early Attacks on Natural Law

by Dec 9, 2020

In a previous article, I discussed how Christians and non-Christians originally agreed on a common framework for the establishment of a government for the United States at its founding, which was built on natural law. However, the non-Christians, who embraced a more naturalistic worldview, began chipping away at this foundation almost from the beginning.

This effort began as the Unitarians of the day proposed and worked to establish government-run systems of common schooling.[i] The proponents of such education believed that people needed to be instructed in such a way as to become committed to the intellectual and scientific approach to life. For the naturalist, this seemed to be fundamental to their own religious beliefs. They promoted public schooling as a common institution in which good citizens could be molded. However, in truth, common schools were merely institutions that used government control to indoctrinate people into the naturalistic view of life. That is, the common schools were to be owned and operated by government authorities for government purposes.

Because this effort was spawned at the state level it did not pose an immediate threat to the national understanding of the purpose of government. Nevertheless, it amounted to a breach of the agreed upon purpose of government at the state level. It violated the individual’s basic right to his own property by channeling his taxes toward a nongovernmental function and this infringed upon the individual’s right to pursue his own happiness_

Regrettably, by running counter to the original principles and purposes of government as espoused in the founding documents, the effort eroded an important principle that allowed people of opposing religious views to live together in relative peace. According to the original agreement, each side recognized the right of the other to hold views that they considered to be erroneous and detrimental. Both sides agreed that each individual is responsible for his own actions. Moreover, each side recognized that the natural order of things would tend to penalize error while rewarding the truth and, thus, they were inclined to leave one another alone to pursue religious worship according to the dictates of conscience. In this way of thinking, both sides held the belief that an erroneous position would eventually result in some kind of suffering and that religious truth would be made clearer to anyone willing to make an honest assessment of the case.

Mindset of Rousseau

However, the Unitarians of the early nineteenth century were not willing to leave the matter of what a “proper” education was to the individual decision maker. The common school movement amounted to an effort to strip people of their ability to seek education on their own terms. As a result, they began formulating plans to press for the establishment and extension of government funded schooling.[ii] In doing this they inadvertently adopted the mindset of Rousseau who thought that human beings are naturally complete and self-sufficient and can only be made into a society by the imposition of a legal code given by a lawgiver. Such an idea was alien to the original agreement between the early Americans who recognized the inherent social nature of man. Frederic Bastiat accurately addressed this issue when he wrote:

The idea of Rousseau that the lawgiver invented society—which is false in itself—has been disastrous in that it has led to the belief that solidarity is a mere creature of legislation; and we shall soon see that modern lawgivers use this doctrine as a basis for imposing upon society an artificial solidarity, which directly contravenes the action of natural solidarity. In all things the guiding principle of these great manipulators of the human race is to put their own creation in the place of God’s creation, which they misunderstand.[iii]

In essence, the Unitarians had denied the agreement and had embraced an alternative stance that essentially took the position that individual responsibility could not lead to harmony and, therefore, if harmony were to be achieved, it would have to be forced by the state. In time, this perspective on the appropriate use of collective power continued to grow and was extended to the federal level. In addition, Christians began to embrace the notion that government could be used to promote their agenda as well and this has finally resulted in the current cultural battle for political control.

As this has happened, American political thought has tended to follow Rousseau’s notion of the “Social Contract” and has, thus, rejected the natural law basis on which the nation was founded. Abraham Kuyper analyzed the necessary path of this change in mindset well in his lecture on politics. In regards to this political theory that has so captured the world, Kuyper observed:

The sovereign God is dethroned and man with his free will is placed on the vacant seat. It is the will of man which determines all things. All power, all authority proceeds from man. Thus comes from the individual man to the many men; and in those many men conceived as the people, there is thus hidden the deepest fountain of all sovereignty [which is human will.] …But here, from the standpoint of the sovereignty of the people, the fist is defiantly clenched against God, while man grovels before his fellowmen, tinseling over this self-abasement by the ludicrous fiction that, thousands of years ago, men, of whom no one has any remembrance, concluded a political contract.… Now it was to be not the sovereignty of the people [that would eventually serve as the underlying assertion of the purpose of government], but the Sovereignty of the State… [This assertion was a product of German philosophy which has increasingly been pressed upon the peoples of the world and on this basis] the law is right, not because its contents are in harmony with eternal principles of right, but because it is law.[iv]

As this political philosophy has been embraced, tyranny and despotism have spread across the world to the great detriment of the human race. In some places statism has resulted in some truly gruesome things such as the annihilation of people in the Jewish holocaust and the extermination of millions of people in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. In other places, it has merely infringed on the individual rights of people thus limiting their ability to make economic progress. Whatever the consequences have been in different places, the spread of this political theory has eroded human freedom. Moreover, to the degree that human freedom has been destroyed, the free market has been undercut since economic freedom is fundamental to it.

[i]  For an excellent history of the public school movement see, Samuel L. Blumenfeld, Is Public Education Necessary?, (Old Greenwich, Connecticut: The Devin-Adair Company, 1981).

[ii]  In truth to the history of the matter of state funded schooling, the Puritans had tried to collectivize education for the purpose of promoting the Christian religion. In doing so, they had adopted laws requiring tax-funded education. However, over the years private schools developed and displaced these public institutions. As a result, this earlier effort had waned and the existing common schools had a minimal role in Massachusetts during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Unitarian movement was a much more aggressive and pervasive effort in collectivizing education.

[iii]  Frederic Bastiat, Economic Harmonies, (Irvington, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1964) p. 513.

[iv]  Kuyper, op. cit., pp. 87-89.

Paul Cleveland

Boundary Stone was started by Dr. Paul Cleveland. Working as a professor for over 35 years has allowed him to study and think deeply about issues of political economy. He has discovered ways to communicate these sometimes illusive concepts to today's students, often through story telling, which makes understanding these principles more accessible to all of us.


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