The Rhetoric of Rights:
Divine Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

Although some seventeenth and eighteenth century continued to believe in the older idea of "the divine right of kings," supporters of natural law believed that according to "Divine Law" power rested in the hands of the people rather than their monarchs. Since Enlightenment thinkers believed in a God who was the embodiment of reason and goodness, they assumed that as the "author of nature" he created an order designed to promote the welfare of his creatures. Locke writes in chapter five of his Second Treatise:

Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being
once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence: or
revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, it is very clear, that God, as king David says, Psal. cxv. 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.

God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given
them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and
convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the
support and comfort of their being.

In other words, both reason and Biblical revelation makes it clear that God has given people the gift of life, the reason to make use of it, and the right to enjoy their possession of the earth. When a ruling power usurps these rights, human beings have not only the right but perhaps even the responsibility to refuse to submit to his/her/its authority. The committee appointed to design America's first Great Seal -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams -- seem to have shared that way of thinking. They proposed that the seal should bear the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

 

For example, there are several cases in which we see

that the patriots sometimes included arguments that were primarily designed to appeal to the ideals of their audience rather than necessarily conveying their personal views. In several cases, for example, American radicals seem to have used appeals to traditional religious attitudes for the very practical purpose of winning the support of the large body of people who

For example, Jefferson recalls in his autobiography responded strongly to religious . audience who into their argumFRANKLIN Franklin and Jefferson were among the most theologically liberal of the Founders, yet they used biblical imagery for this important task.

We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen as to passing events; and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting & prayer would be most likely to call up & alarm their attention. No example of such a solemnity had existed since the days of our distresses in the war of 55. since which a new generation had grown up. With the help therefore of Rushworth, whom we rummaged over for the revolutionary precedents & forms of the Puritans of that day, preserved by him, we cooked up a resolution, somewhat modernizing their phrases, for appointing the 1st day of June, on which the Port bill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation & prayer, to implore heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to turn the hearts of the King & parliament to moderation & justice. To give greater emphasis to our proposition, we agreed to wait the next morning on Mr. Nicholas, whose grave & religious character was more in unison with the tone of our resolution and to solicit him to move it. http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/P/tj3/writings/bio/jefbio02.htm

For further discussion of the role played in the revolution by religion and religious leaders , see "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: III. Religion and the American Revolution," which is part of an excellent exhibition at the Library of Congress web site.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: God, divine, divine rights, revelation, Bible, author of nature, God of nature, nature's God.

 

 
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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.