Sir William Blackstone is often praised for laying the groundwork for American jurisprudence with his Commentaries on the Laws of England. Blackstone's Commentaries were one of the most widely read books in the colonies, and his views of the laws of England were often incorporated into the laws of America. One portion of Blackstone's Commentaries that has largely been forgotten by modern legal scholars but which played a significant role in forming the thought of founding fathers like James Wilson was Blackstone's answer to the question of where laws come from. What follows is a condensed version of Blackstone's somewhat loquacious answer to that question.
Law, in its most general and comprehensive sense, signifies a rule of action. And it is that rule of action, which is prescribed by some superior, and which the inferior is bound to obey. Thus when the Supreme Being formed the universe, and created matter out of nothing, he impressed certain principles upon that matter from which it can never depart, and without which it would cease to be. When he put that matter into motion, he established certain laws of motion, to which all movable bodies must conform. If we further advance, from the mere inactive matter to vegetable and animal life, we shall find them still governed by laws; more numerous indeed, but equally fixed and invariable.
This then is the general signification of law, a rule of action dictated by some superior being; and, in those creatures that have neither the power to think, nor to will, such laws must be invariably obeyed. But laws, in their more confined sense, denote the rules, not of action in general, but of human action or conduct.
Man, considered as a creature, must necessarily be subject to the laws of his creator, for he is entirely a dependent being. A being, independent of any other, has no rule to pursue, but such as he prescribes to himself; but a state of dependence will inevitably oblige the inferior to take the will of him, on whom he depends, as the rule of his conduct. As man depends absolutely upon his maker for every thing, it is necessary that he should in all points conform to his maker’s will.
This will of his maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the perpetual direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that free will is in some degree regulated and restrained.
Since the creator is a being of infinite power, he was able to have prescribed whatever laws he pleased to his creature, man, however unjust or severe. But as he is also a being of infinite wisdom, he has laid down only such laws as were founded in those relations of justice. These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the creator himself conforms. Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to every one his due.
As the creator is a being, not only of infinite power, and wisdom, but also of infinite goodness, he has been pleased so to contrive the constitution of humanity, that we should want no other prompter to pursue the rule of right, but our own self-love. For he has so intimately connected the laws of eternal justice with the happiness of each individual, that the latter cannot be attained but by observing the former. This is the foundation of what we call ethics, or natural law.
This law of nature is of course superior in obligation to any other. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this: and such of them as are valid derive all their authority from this original. But in order to apply this to each individual, it is still necessary to have recourse to reason by considering what method will tend the most to our own happiness. And if our reason were always clear and perfect the task would be pleasant and easy. But every man now finds the contrary in his own experience; that his reason is corrupt, and his understanding full of ignorance and error.
This has given manifold occasion for the interposition of divine providence; which has been pleased, at sundry times and in diverse manners, to discover its laws by direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found to be really a part of the original law of nature. But we are not to conclude that the knowledge of these truths was attainable by reason, in its present corrupted state. The revealed law is of infinitely more authenticity than that moral system, which is framed by ethical writers. Because one is the law of nature, expressly declared so to be by God himself; the other is only what, by the assistance of human reason, we imagine to be that law. Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human law should be suffered to contradict these.
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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)