“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, 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.”
These famous words form the opening paragraph of one of the most influential documents in all of human history – the American Declaration of Independence. According to this paragraph, the American claim to independence was established upon “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” but what did Thomas Jefferson mean by this phrase? Nearly all of the modern historians who have written about this phrase have accused Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of abandoning the God of the Bible and erecting a more deistic god of nature in His place. But this accusation is entirely false. Jefferson’s reference to the laws of nature and of nature’s God had a very specific meaning that was well understood by eighteenth century Americans.
To understand what Jefferson meant by this phrase, we need to consider how it was used in the time leading up to the writing of the Declaration. The earliest use of this phrase that I have come across is found in an article on suicide in an edition of the Scotts Magazine that was published in 1700. The author of that article described a man who was “deaf to the voice of nature speaking within him, and to the voice of nature’s God.” This description reveals a very important fact about Jefferson’s phrase. Most people assume that Jefferson used the plural word “Laws” to refer to a single system of many laws, but in this article in the Scotts Magazine the voice of nature and the voice of nature’s God are presented as two separate and distinct voices. This means that when Jefferson wrote about the laws of nature and of nature’s God, he may have been referencing two separate systems of law.
This idea that Jefferson was referring to two separate systems of laws is supported by a statement made by John Quincy Adams in a court case in 1841. He claimed that:
“In the Declaration of Independence the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of nature’s God, and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws.”
Here, Adams refers to two separate systems of law – the laws of nature and the laws of nature’s God – and he claims that the Declaration pronounced those two systems of law to be identical to each other. This explanation that the law of nature and the law of nature’s God are two separate but identical systems of laws is strongly supported by the literature of the eighteenth century. For example, in another famous court case in 1741, Miss Polly Baker defended her promiscuity by claiming that she was following her “Duty of the first and great Command of Nature, and of Nature’s God, Increase and multiply.” In Miss Baker’s defense, she equated the law of nature’s God with the commands of the Bible. Could Jefferson also have understood the law of nature’s God to be the Laws contained in the Scriptures?
The answer to that question is a resounding, Yes! Thomas Jefferson was a student of Lord Bolingbroke. He first began studying Bolingbroke’s writings at the age of fourteen, and he read them again at the age of twenty-three as he was preparing for a career as a lawyer. Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book contains more quotations from Bolingbroke than from any other author, and I do not know of a single historian who has not given Bolingbroke the credit for Jefferson’s famous phrase regarding “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” What these scholars keep hidden is the fact that Lord Bolingbroke provided a very specific definition for this phrase.
In a renowned letter to Alexander Pope, Lord Bolingbroke wrote the following words which were to become the basis for Jefferson’s opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
“You will find that it is the modest, not the presumptuous enquirer, who makes a real, and safe progress in the discovery of divine truths. One follows nature, and nature’s God; that is, he follows God in his works, and in his word.”
Here we find a definition from the very individual that all scholars recognize as the source of Jefferson’s phrase. According to Lord Bolingbroke, the law of nature’s God is the Law which is found in God’s Word. This was the definition which was intended by Jefferson, and this was the manner in which his words were understood by our forefathers. The law of nature’s God upon which our nation was founded is nothing less than the Bible itself.
For more support of this conclusion click here to read my review of Matthew Stewart's book Nature's God.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)