The Americans of the founding period were a strongly Protestant people of various denominations including dissenting Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists. Some historians have estimated that Protestants made up over 98% of the American population. Their Protestantism was characterized by a strong dissenting tradition against religious and civil tyranny as well as a strong streak of individualism.
Their Protestantism—especially the Puritan tradition—was also exemplified by appeals to the natural law in its covenant theology that was consistent with Lockean social compact theory. Covenant theology caused Americans to view themselves as a Chosen People of a new Israel who formed a covenant with God. The natural law of covenant theology was consistent with both reason and revelation as they reconciled their reason and faith in the natural law and natural rights philosophy of the American Revolution.
The American founders drew from a variety of traditions in arguing for their natural rights and liberties. Ancient thought from Greece and Rome, the English tradition, and the ideas of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers combined with Protestantism for a rich tapestry. While the Enlightenment provided a strong influence on the founders, the contribution of their religious beliefs has often been downplayed or ignored. The average American colonial farmer or artisan may not have read John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government or ancient philosophy, but they heard dissenting religious ideals and Lockean principles from the pulpit at religious services.
Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson had cause to reflect on the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, a document which later influenced the United States Constitution. He wrote to Henry Lee in 1825 about the purpose of the Declaration:
“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day.”
The “harmonizing sentiments” of the 1760s and 1770s supported a natural law opposition to British tyranny in the American colonies. James Otis was one of the earliest articulators of natural law resistance. In 1764, he wrote, “Should an act of Parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity, and justice, and consequently void.”
In 1774, Thomas Jefferson expressed the same sentiments in his Summary View of the Rights of British America. In the pamphlet, he wrote that God was the author of natural rights inherent in each human being. The Americans were “a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate… the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”
A year later, a young Alexander Hamilton wrote a pamphlet, Farmer Refuted, in which he eloquently described the divine source of universal rights. “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
These “expressions of the American mind” were common formulations of natural rights that influenced the Declaration of Independence. The four mentions of God in the document demonstrate their understanding of the divine, but it also showed that God was the author of good government according to natural law.
First, the Declaration appeals to the “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and 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 the separation.” This first mention of God is that of Protestant and Enlightenment natural law. They saw God as the author of truth in the moral order of the universe. This moral order defined their thinking about republican self-government.
Second, the Declaration asserts that, “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.” God is the Creator and author of natural rights in this formulation. Since rights are from a higher authority, no earthly power can violate an individual’s inherent rights. Interestingly, God here acts as a supreme legislator who makes the natural law and grants natural rights.
Third, the Declaration appealed to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” God is a judge who authored the idea of justice and who judges human actions. God here represents the judicial branch of government.
Fourth, the Declaration stated that, “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Americans believed that God was a providential God who intervened in human affairs and protected his Chosen People. This conception of God represents the executive branch of government.
The Declaration of Independence was a reflection that the American natural rights republic was rooted in the natural law. Reason and divine revelation supported the natural law that shaped a good government built upon the understanding of human nature and the rights given to human beings by God.
In Federalist #1, Alexander Hamilton explained the entire purpose of establishing free government based upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. He stated that Americans had the opportunity and responsibility to form good government by “reflection and choice,” not by “accident and force.” The United States was founded uniquely upon a set of principles and ideals.
In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln had occasion to reflect upon the principles of the American Founding. Using a biblical metaphor, he thought that the Declaration of Independence was an “apple of gold” because it contained the foundational principles of the new country. The Constitution was the “picture of silver” framing the apple with the structures of republican government, thus preserving the purpose of the Declaration. In the mind of Lincoln—and those of the Founders—an inextricable link bound together the two documents in creating a free government.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America, with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.