The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Declaration of Independence: It’s Greek to Me

The stirring words of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence said that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights. To Jefferson these rights existed before the founding of government and the function of government is “to secure these rights.” But he himself said that his ringing words did not express a new idea: “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, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”(1)

Jefferson was correct. The Resolutions of the Town of Boston (1772) said that all men had natural rights and “Among the Natural Rights of the Colonists are these. First a Right to Life: Secondly to Liberty; Thirdly to Property; together with the Right to support and defend them in the best manner they can.” The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) proclaimed that “all men . . . have certain inherent rights . . . namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property.”

The American Revolutionaries talked about natural rights and natural laws. John Dickinson in 1766 argued rights “are not annexed to us by parchments and seals.” Instead, “They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.”(2)

Ethan Allen said “knowledge of nature is the revelation of God . . . acquired through reason.”(3) As Deists, some of the most prominent of the Founders believed in a divine creator who withdrew from the affairs of man after his act of creation. But the creator devised an orderly universe with natural laws that could be understood by man. Through reason the laws of nature could be discerned, and once natural laws were understood, natural rights automatically followed. Historian Paul Conkin of the University of Wisconsin, in his book Self-Evident Truths, described the deistic beliefs of men like Adams, Jefferson, and Madison:

God published all laws necessary for political order in nature, made them available to ordinary human understanding, and placed the needed sanction in the dire consequences of avoidance or disobedience. The appeal of natural rights was to divine authority, the way God willed all things. But this appeal was not slavish; just the opposite. Almost every influential political theorist from Locke on had assumed divine benevolence or, in Franklin’s terms, that God wanted men to be happy and thus gave them the means of happiness.(4)

This view was widely held by the classical liberals of the Enlightenment. J. Salwyn Schapiro said these classical liberals “beheld a world governed beneficently by impersonal natural laws.”(5) Schapiro said natural law was an “old idea,” but that it was made “the acid test of the legitimacy of the existing order of government and society.” In “human affairs, as in those of nature, there existed natural laws that could be discovered by the scientific method of investigation.”(6)

In Western society, Conkin notes, “Natural-law theories originated in Greek philosophy. Plato and Aristotle affirmed not only a formal logical order in the world but an inherent purposefulness in all things. Nature stood for both the order and the purpose. Aristotle’s universe was one vast congeries of yearnings, of informed objects moving toward their own perfection and, in a sense, trying to imitate the objects above them in a chain of being stretching to a perfect mind which pulls all things toward it. Man, by his intellect, can grasp the formal truth in objects, can understand the structure of the universe. More importantly he can understand himself, grasp his own nature, which is also to perceive his own highest good.”(7) The natural law of the Greeks and the Founders was one grasped and understood through the use of reason.

This Greek concept of natural law was later grafted onto Western Christian thinking by Thomas Aquinas, but it originated outside theology. Conkin says, “For Aristotle, lawfulness and purpose inhered in a reality that was, itself, eternal and in no sense the product of creative intelligence.” The Jesuit philosopher Thomas E. Davitt noted that “If the word ‘natural’ means anything at all, it refers to the nature of a man, and when used with ‘law’, ‘natural’ must refer to an ordering that is manifested in the inclinations of a man’s nature and to nothing else. Hence, taken in itself, there is nothing religious or theological in the ‘Natural Law’ of Aquinas.”(8) The Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius defended the concept of natural law in his De Jure Belliac Pacis, where he said such natural-law theories “would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness, that there is no God.”(9) For many, the idea of “natural” law was used to distinguish it from “supernatural” law. The former was the product of reason; the latter was the result of faith. Reason required questioning while faith required obedience. Questioning required liberty while obedience required authority alone.

The Catholic Counter-Reformation re-emphasized the Thomistic rediscovery of natural law. The Jesuit Francisco Suárez was the leading publicist of the Counter-Revolution and one of his arguments against Luther, according to J.G. Merquior, was that Luther had “dismissed natural law.” Suárez found Luther’s “dark view of human sinfulness” incompatible with the idea that a just society could be found on earth. Suárez also found a natural-rights argument useful for Catholics living in areas dominated by Protestantism and argued for a “full return to the natural law perspective.”(10) Suárez, however, did not see these rights so much as individualistic but holistic and limited by the social-moral framework of society. He, like Grotius, accepted “natural law does not proceed from God as a lawgiver, for it is not dependent on God’s will.”(11) According to Merquior, it was Grotius who first used these natural rights views “to build an individualist account of society” and that he “redefined natural law apart from theology.”(12)

Aquinas and his fellow churchmen of the Counter-Revolution returned to older Greek ideals of philosophy. Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, said that “our western civilization comes from the Greeks.” This means the Greeks “began that greatest of all revolutions . . . the transition from the closed to the open society.”(13) The revolution of the Greeks was a revolution of ideas.

Barbara Ward, in her Faith and Freedom, writes the “Greek philosophers were the first people to think systematically about these problems of knowledge — of the knower and the known — and it led them to their belief in the supremacy of reason.”(14) For the Greeks, “order in man’s knowledge called for a comparable order in external reality. A rational mind could hardly make sense of an irrational universe.” This meant that the external world was one which contained rational laws that could be discovered by reason. This did more than change how man perceived “facts of nature” or science; it also changed how man related to man.(15)

Ward says “this sense of rationality and law permeated all Greek thinking” and “lies at the basis of Greek political thought.” Prior to the Greeks, “government had been arbitrary.” These “archaic societies . . . developed from primitive religion and magic”; “government was universally despotic, a private matter for king or priest, arbitrary, unpredictable.”(16) But “despotism was anathema to the Greeks” because it “denies objective and intelligible law. The whim of an autocrat of whatever kind exposes a man to irrational and unpredictable hazards.” “Only if government conforms to law . . . can the citizen be said to be free.”(17)

Ward says America’s Founders were directly influenced by this Greek view: “The country gentlemen of Virginia were versed in the classical tradition and derived from it their sense of law. Some of the leading spirits in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence were keen students of the idea of natural law, which was in part a harking back to the ancient tradition of the Greeks, to the idea of dike — eternal law — lying at the foundation of the universe.”(18)

F. A. Hayek, in The Constitution of Liberty, traces the very concept of the rule of law to the Greeks as well. But such should be expected. If the Greeks advocated natural law they would also advocate the rule of such law. This is what Aristotle meant when he said “it is more proper that the law should govern than any of the citizens.” Hayek said Aristotle “condemns the kind of government in which ‘the people govern and not the law’ and in which ‘everything is determined by majority vote and not by law.’”(19) Hayek went to great lengths, especially in his three-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty, to distinguish between law and legislation. Law, in the Greek sense, is natural and like other facts of nature is discovered, while legislation is merely imposed. Hayek said all schools of natural law agree on “the existence of rules which are not of the deliberate making of any lawgiver.”(20) It was to this concept the Founders appealed in their Declaration of Independence. They felt the British government had violated such natural laws and thus the laws of nature justified their revolution.

Jefferson was right. The radical ideas of the Declaration of Independence were not new. They were widely held by the best minds of the Enlightenment, and before them by men such as Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the American Revolution, based on natural rights and natural laws, was a revolution begun thousands of years earlier by the great Greek thinkers in the tiny city of Athens.

(Footnotes below.)

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  1. Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, in Paul Ford, ed., The Letters of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10. (New York: Putnam’s, 1892–1899), p.268.
  2. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 77.
  3. Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (Bennington, Vt.: Hasswell & Russell, 1784), p. 30.
  4. Paul Conkin, Self-Evident Truths (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1974), p. 121.
  5. J. Salwyn Schapiro, Liberalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1958), p. 17.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Conkin, p. 77.
  8. Thomas E. Davitt, “St. Thomas Aquinas and Natural Law,” in Arthur L. Harding, ed., Origins of the Natural Law Tradition (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1954), p. 39.
  9. Quoted in Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982), p. 4.
  10. J.G. Merquior, Liberalism: Old and New (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), p. 20.
  11. Quoted in A.P. d’Entreves, Natural Law (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1951), p. 71.
  12. Merquior.
  13. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, vol. 1 (London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1945), pp. 151, 153.
  14. Barbara Ward, Faith and Freedom: A Study of Western Society (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1954), p. 38.
  15. Ibid., p. 39.
  16. Ibid., p. 40.
  17. Ibid., p. 41.
  18. Ibid., p. 139.
  19. F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960), p. 165.
  20. Ibid., p. 237.



A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.