Perhaps one of the most overlooked or least understood statements in the Declaration of Independence is “…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” What exactly are the Laws of Nature and where do they originate? In what way did Thomas Jefferson interpret the Laws of Nature in 1775 and what was his reasoning for including it in the Declaration?
This simple proclamation for mankind’s entitlement to the Laws of Nature really embodies the intent for the new America. While there are modern definitions for the Laws of Nature today, we as Americans, are unequivocally responsible for understanding the meaning of those words and what Thomas Jefferson originally intended for the future America and its citizens.
In an 1823 letter to Justice William Johnson, Jefferson wrote, “…man was a rational animal, endowed by nature with rights, and with an innate sense of justice; and that he could be restrained from wrong and protected in right by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice, and held to their duties by dependence on his own will.”
Clearly Jefferson held the belief that man was born with, capable of, and held the right to making rational decisions, with integrity, and be reasonable in nature. If not, moderate but necessary powers could restrain man from any wrongs while, at the same time, protecting those same rights.
This affirmation is deeply rooted in Amendments V, VI, VII, VIII, and XIII, the Bill of Rights, in the Constitution. These amendments protect citizen rights in the event of any wrongs contrary to the Laws of Nature.
He goes on to say, “…enjoying in ease and security the full fruits of their own industry, enlisted by all their interests on the side of law and order, habituated to think for themselves, and to follow their reason as their guide, would be more easily and safely governed…”.
Jefferson believed that through the Laws of Nature, citizens were capable of directing and making decisions about their own life within the boundaries of law and order which held those protections for them. Enjoying this freedom “in ease”, without fear of government threats or harm, Jefferson believed that as freedom was allowed, without government tyranny, independent thinking would be strengthened, eventually becoming a way of life. This in turn would make governance of the people easier.
Jefferson stated his reason for government necessity to Francois D’Ivernois in 1795, “It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all.” The government was intended to secure our right to the Laws of Nature as Jefferson interpreted them. “A free people [claim] their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” wrote Jefferson in the Rights of British America in 1774. Jefferson believed it was not the government that should declare a man’s rights but rather to secure and protect the rights that come from nature. How far has the government, at all levels, strayed from his original intent?
Jefferson’s letter to John Wayles Eppes in 1813 discussed the laws of nature as it relates to government debt. “But the term of redemption must be moderate, and at any rate within the limits of their rightful powers. But what limits, it will be asked, does this prescribe to their powers? What is to hinder them from creating a perpetual debt? The laws of nature, I answer.”
He explains that through the laws of nature the power of man expires with his life and the same holds true for government debt. “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation…” Is Jefferson saying that as the same with man’s debt ending with his life under the Laws of Nature, the government should also be held account to the same and not possess the ability to pass on debt to succeeding generations? This law of nature has been fully violated today.
As part of his 1770 legal argument defending a slave Jefferson stated, “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.”
His reasoning for these laws by the Author of nature, “…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.“, as written in an 1825 letter to Richard Henry Lee. There was no need for new laws as the laws had already be created and written by the Author of nature, God.
Freedom to live life as one chooses, with necessary boundaries already set for order by God’s nature. “[These are] the rights which God and the laws have given equally and independently to all.” Jefferson wrote in the Rights of British America. There is “…no other obligatory law.” But Jefferson also understood, “All… natural rights may be abridged or regulated in [their] exercise by law.”, as stated in his 1790 Opinion on Residence Bill. In his Notes on Virginia he stated, “Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them.” Jefferson knew that by our own submission to the government, we the people, could have those rights taken by the government.
As these rights were already defined by the Author of nature, Jefferson concluded that the government should not only secure these rights but also protect those rights for others as he wrote to Francis Gilmer in 1816, “No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.”
Jefferson was a devoted supporter of education, but his reasoning went beyond just traditional academic knowledge. “Of all the views of this law [for public education], none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty.” written in his Notes on Virginia. As part of his 1806 6th Annual Message he stated, “Education is… yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.” Continuing his thoughts on education written to Wilson C. Nicholas in 1816, “My partiality for that division “…infinitely more as the means of a better administration of our government, and the eternal preservation of its republican principles.”
Understanding that educating citizens about the Laws of Nature and the rights derived from those laws was critical for the Republic to survive, Jefferson believed that all citizens should be educated, writing in his 1821 autobiography, “The less wealthy people…by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen.”
We have failed Thomas Jefferson, the Republic, and our young. Not only have we failed in maintaining vigilance over our Republic, we have failed to educate ourselves and our young. But this was foreseen by Jefferson, “Lethargy [is] the forerunner of death to the public liberty.” he wrote to William Stephens Smith in 1787. Jefferson offered us guidance in his writing to Mme D’Auville in 1790, “A good citizen should take his stand where the public authority marshals him.” At any time, a good citizen, will take his stand. In his report on Navigation of the Mississippi in 1792, Jefferson gave us more guidance, “Were [a right] to be refused, or to be so shackled by regulations, not necessary for…peace and safety… as to render its use impracticable…it would then be an injury, of which we should be entitled to demand redress.”
Thomas Jefferson knew how fragile the Laws of Nature were, the vulnerability to destruction by man, and left us with as much understanding and knowledge as possible for preserving our rights and the Republic. “Every man, and every body of men on earth, possesses the right of self-government…” Knowing the Laws of Nature, maintaining our knowledge and understanding of those laws, passing that heritage on for the Republic’s future survival, protecting those laws vigilantly, taking a stand when those laws are violated, demanding redress, and exercising our responsibility for self-governance are principles that continue to exist from Jefferson. These principles are still present by the mere fact that the Laws of Nature are forever. This was, and continues to be, the very essence of why Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence with those words. It is time for us to return to those principles and honor Thomas Jefferson’s gift to us.