"The Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" -- are the foundation of the political principles of American independence. As set forth in the writings of Locke, Sidney, and others, it means that nature has inherent laws by which each individual has a conscience, accountability for one’s actions, and a duty to not harm others or their property. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison stated that “the general principles of liberty and rights of man in nature and society” are to be found in the writings of John Locke and Algernon Sidney (Minutes of the Board of Governors of the University of Virginia, March 4, 1825). Following is a brief summary of natural law principles found in their writings and in the Declaration of Independence:
“All men are created equal” – all men and women as individuals are equal in their natural rights and equal before the law.
“…all men by Nature are equal, I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of Equality: Age or Virtue may give Men a just Precedency: Excellency of Parts and Merit may place others above the common level: Birth may subject some, and Alliance or Benefits others, to pay an Observance to those to whom Nature, Gratitude or other Respects may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the Equality which all men are in, in respect of Jurisdiction or Dominion one over another, which was the Equality I there spoke of... being that equal Right that every Man hath, to his natural Freedom, without being subjected to the Will or Authority of any other Man." – John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 6, sec. 54)
“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” – John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 2, sec. 6)
All men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – all men and women are born with a divine right to be free and to choose liberty or captivity, virtue or vice, happiness or misery. Our liberties are the gift of God and of nature.
"The principle of liberty in which God created us …includes the chief advantages of the life we enjoy, as well as the greatest helps towards felicity, that is the end of our hopes in the other." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, I:2:5)
“Liberty …is the gift of God and nature." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, I:17:44)
Virtue is necessary to establish and preserve liberty and happiness – as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson taught, there is an “indissoluble union between virtue and happiness,” and “virtue is the foundation of happiness.” Happiness is the purpose of life and the end of government.
"If vice and corruption prevail, liberty cannot subsist; but if virtue have the advantage, arbitrary power cannot be established." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, II:30:241-242) [Copied by Thomas Jefferson in his Commonplace Book]
“… virtue [is] so essentially necessary to the establishment and preservation of liberty, that it [is] impossible for a corrupted people to set up a good government, or for a tyranny to be introduced if they be virtuous; and … where the matter (that is, the body of the people) is not corrupted, tumults and disorders do not hurt; and where it is corrupted, good laws do no good..." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, II:11:104-05)
"Virtue is the dictate of reason, or the remains of divine light, by which men are made beneficent and beneficial to each other. Religion proceeds from the same spring; and tends to the same end; and the good of mankind so entirely depends upon the two, that no people ever enjoyed anything worth desiring that was not the product of them; and whatsoever any have suffered that [which] deserves to be abhorred and feared, has proceeded either from the defect of these, or the wrath of God against them. If any [leader] therefore has been an enemy to virtue and religion, he must also have been an enemy to mankind, and most especially to the people under him." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, II:27:212).
“…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” – the people are sovereign and delegate their power to government to secure their rights, and their representatives are accountable to them.
"We are free-men governed by our own laws, and ...no man has a power over us, which is not given and regulated by them." –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, III:17:329)
"Those who delegate powers, do always retain to themselves more than they give, they [the people] who send these men [representatives], do not give them an absolute power of doing whatsoever they please, but retain to themselves more than they confer upon their deputies: they must therefore be accountable to their principals …" –Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, III:38:423)
Freedom is maintained by just laws – human laws based upon natural law preserve order and enlarge individual freedom.
"Laws are made to keep things in good order without the necessity of having recourse to force." --Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, III:13:306)
“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom.” – John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 6, sec. 57)
The supreme law is the safety of the people – the primary object of government is to protect the lives, rights, liberties, and property of the people.
"If the safety of the people be the supreme law, and this safety extend to, and consist in, the preservation of their liberties, goods, lands, and lives, that law must necessarily be the root and the beginning, as well as the end and the limit, of all magistratical [governmental] power, and all laws must be subservient and subordinate to it." --Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, III:16:318).
"[Governmental] power, in the utmost bounds of it, is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power, that hath no other end but preservation..." --John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 11, sec. 135)
Private Property is a natural right and is an appendage to liberty – the possession of our rights, and the ownership and control of the fruits of our mind and labors of our body is a natural right.
"Everyone has property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his." --John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 5, sec. 27)
"Property is also an appendage to liberty; and it is impossible for a man to have a right to land or goods, if he has no liberty, and enjoys his life only at the pleasure of another, as it is to enjoy either, when he is deprived of them." --Algernon Sidney (Discourses Concerning Government, III:16:318)
“…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” – the people have a right and a duty to resist and to overthrow tyranny.
"And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject."--John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 13, sec. 149)
"... whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience ... [Power then] devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty, and, by the Establishment of a new Legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own Safety and Security, which is the end for which they are in Society." --John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 19, sec. 222)
"But if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel, what they lie under, and whither they are going, 'tis not to be wondered, that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands, which may secure to them the ends for which government was at first enacted." --John Locke (Second Treatise on Government, Chapter 19, sec. 225)