Revolution or Just Cause?

The Declaration and Constitution:Their Christian Roots


TheDeclaration of Independence

Many are unaware ofthe writings and documents that preceded these great works and the influence ofbiblical ideas in their formation. In the first two sections of this article, Iwould like to examine the Declaration of Independence. Following this, we'lllook at the Constitution.

On June 7, 1776,Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution to the Continental Congress callingfor a formal declaration of independence. However, even at that late date,there was significant opposition to the resolution. So, Congress recessed forthree weeks to allow delegates to return home and discuss the proposition withtheir constituents while a committee was appointed to express the Congressionalsentiments. The task of composing the Declaration fell to Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson's initialdraft left God out of the manuscript entirely except for a vague reference to"the laws of nature and of nature's God." Yet, even this phrase makesan implicit reference to the laws of God.

The phrase "lawsof nature" had a fixed meaning in 18th century England and America. It wasa direct reference to the laws of God in a created order as described in JohnLocke's Second Treatise on Civil Government and William Blackstone's Commentarieson the Laws of England.

What Jefferson wascontent to leave implicit, however, was made more explicit by the other membersof the committee. They changed the language to read that all men are"endowed by their Creator" with these rights. Later, the ContinentalCongress added phrases which further reflected a theistic perspective. Forexample, they added that they were "appealing to the Supreme Judge of theWorld for the rectitude of our intentions" and that they were placing"firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."

The Declaration wasnot drafted in an intellectual vacuum, nor did the ideas contained in it suddenlyspring from the minds of a few men. Instead, the founders built their frameworkupon a Reformation foundation laid by such men as Samuel Rutherford and laterincorporated by John Locke.

Rutherford wrote hisbook Lex Rex in 1644 to refute the idea of the divine right of kings. LexRex established two crucial principles. First, there should be a covenantor constitution between the ruler and the people. Second, since all men aresinners, no man is superior to another. These twin principles of liberty andequality are also found in John Locke's writings.

John Locke and the Origin of the Declaration

Although the phrasingof the Declaration certainly follows the pattern of John Locke, Jefferson alsogave credit to the writer Algernon Sidney, who in turn cites most prominentlyAristotle, Plato, Roman republican writers, and the Old Testament.

Legal scholar GaryAmos argues that Locke's Two Treatises on Government is simply SamuelRutherford's Lex Rex in a popularized form. Amos says in his book Defendingthe Declaration,

Locke explained thatthe "law of nature" is God's general revelation of law in creation,which God also supernaturally writes on the hearts of men. Locke drew the ideafrom the New Testament in Romans 1 and 2. In contrast, he spoke of the"law of God" or the "positive law of God" as God's eternalmoral law specially revealed and published in Scripture.{1}

This foundation helpsexplain the tempered nature of the American Revolution. The Declaration ofIndependence was a bold document, but not a radical one. The colonists did notbreak with England for "light and transient causes." They were mindfulthat they should be "in subjection to the governing authorities"which "are established by God" (Romans 13:1). Yet when they sufferedfrom a "long train of abuses and usurpations," they argued that"it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institutea new government."

The Declaration alsoborrowed from state constitutions that already existed at the time. In fact,the phraseology of the Declaration greatly resembles the preamble to theVirginia Constitution, adopted in June 1776. The body of the Declarationconsists of twenty-eight charges against the king justifying the break withBritain. All but four are from state constitutions.{2}

Jefferson no doubtdrew from George Mason's Declaration of Rights (published on June 6, 1776). Thefirst paragraph states that "all men are born equally free and independentand have certain inherent natural Rights; among which are the Enjoyment of Lifeand Liberty, with the Means of Acquiring and possessing property, and pursuingand obtaining Happiness and Safety." Mason also argued that when anygovernment is found unworthy of the trust placed in it, a majority of thecommunity "hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefensible Right toReform, alter, or abolish it."

Constitution and Human Nature

The influence of theBible on the Constitution was profound but often not appreciated by secularhistorians and political theorists. Two decades ago, Constitutional scholarsand political historians (including one of my professors at GeorgetownUniversity) assembled 15,000 writings from the Founding Era (1760-1805). Theycounted 3154 citations in these writings, and found that the book mostfrequently cited in that literature was the Bible. The writers from theFoundering Era quoted from the Bible 34 percent of the time. Even moreinteresting was that about three-fourths of all references to the Bible camefrom reprinted sermons from that era.{3}

Professor M.E.Bradford shows in his book, A Worthy Company, that fifty of the fifty-fivemen who signed the Constitution were church members who endorsed the Christianfaith.{4}

The Bible and biblicalprinciples were important in the framing of the Constitution. In particular,the framers started with a biblical view of human nature. James Madison arguedin Federalist #51 that government must be based upon a realistic view ofhuman nature.

But what isgovernment itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If menwere angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men,neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. Inframing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the greatdifficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control thegoverned; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.{5}

Framing a republicrequires a balance of power that liberates human dignity and rationality andcontrols human sin and depravity.

As there is a degreeof depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection anddistrust, so there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certainportion of esteem and confidence. Republican government presupposes theexistence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.{6}

A Christian view ofgovernment is based upon a balanced view of human nature. It recognizes bothhuman dignity (we are created in God's image) and human depravity (we aresinful individuals). Because both grace and sin operate in government, weshould neither be too optimistic nor too pessimistic. Instead, the framersconstructed a government with a deep sense of biblical realism.

Constitution and Majority Tyranny

James Madison indefending the Constitution divided the problem of tyranny into two broadcategories: majority tyranny (addressed in Federalist #10) andgovernmental tyranny (addressed in Federalist #47-51).

Madison concludedfrom his study of governments that they were destroyed by factions. He believedthis factionalism was due to "the propensity of mankind, to fall intomutual animosities" (Federalist #10) which he believed were "sownin the nature of man." Government, he concluded, must be based upon a morerealistic view which also accounts for this sinful side of human nature.

A year before theConstitutional Convention, George Washington wrote to John Jay that, "Wehave, probably, had too good an opinion of human nature in forming ourfederation." From now on, he added, "We must take human nature as wefind it."

Madison's solution tomajority tyranny was the term extended republic. His term for thesolution to governmental tyranny was compound republic. He believed thatan extended republic with a greater number of citizens would prevent factionsfrom easily taking control of government. He also believed that elections wouldserve to filter upward men of greater virtue.

Madison's solution togovernmental tyranny can be found in Federalist #47-51. These includeseparation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism.

Madison realized thefutility of trying to remove passions (human sinfulness) from the population.Therefore, he proposed that human nature be set against human nature. This wasdone by separating various institutional power structures. First, the churchwas separated from the state so that ecclesiastical functions and governmentalfunctions would not interfere with religious and political liberty. Second, thefederal government was divided into three equal branches: executive,legislative, and judicial. Third, the federal government was delegated certainpowers while the rest of the powers resided in the state governments.

Each branch was givenseparate but rival powers, thus preventing the possibility of concentratingpower into the hands of a few. Each branch had certain checks over the otherbranches so that there was a distribution and balance of power. The effect ofthis system was to allow ambition and power to control itself. As each branchis given power, it provides a check on the other branch. This is what has oftenbeen referred to as the concept of "countervailing ambitions."

Constitution and Governmental Tyranny

James Madison'ssolution to governmental tyranny includes both federalism as well as theseparation of powers. Federalism can be found at the very heart of the UnitedStates Constitution. In fact, without federalism, there was no practical reasonfor the framers to abandon the Articles of Confederation and draft theConstitution.

Federalism comes fromfoedus, Latin for covenant. "The tribes of Israel shared a covenantthat made them a nation. American federalism originated at least in part in thedissenting Protestants' familiarity with the Bible."{7}

The separation ofpowers allows each branch of government to provide a check on the other.According to Madison, the Constitution provides a framework of supplying"opposite and rival interests" (Federalist #51) through aseries of checks and balances. This theory of "countervailingambition" both prevented tyranny and provided liberty. It was a system inwhich bad people could do least harm and good people had the freedom to do goodworks.

For example, theexecutive branch cannot take over the government and rule at its whim becausethe legislative branch has been given the power of the purse. Congress mustapprove or disapprove budgets for governmental programs. A President cannotwage war if the Congress does not appropriate money for its execution.

Likewise, thelegislative branch is also controlled by this structure of government. It canpass legislation, but it always faces the threat of presidential veto andjudicial oversight. Since the executive branch is responsible for the executionof legislation, the legislature cannot exercise complete control over thegovernment. Undergirding all of this is the authority of the ballot box.

Each of these checkswas motivated by a healthy fear of human nature. The founders believed in humanresponsibility and human dignity, but they did not trust human nature too much.Their solution was to separate powers and invest each branch with rival powers.

Biblical ideas werecrucial in both the Declaration and the Constitution. Nearly 80 percent of thepolitical pamphlets published during the 1770s were reprinted sermons. As onepolitical science professor put it: "When reading comprehensively in thepolitical literature of the war years, one cannot but be struck by the extentto which biblical sources used by ministers and traditional Whigs undergirdedthe justification for the break with Britain, the rationale for continuing thewar, and the basic principles of Americans' writing their ownconstitutions."{8}

Notes

1.Gary Amos, Defending the Declaration (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth andHyatt, 1989), 57.
2. Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of AmericanConstitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988,114.
3. Ibid., 140.
4. M.E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of theFramers of the United States Constitution (Marlborough, NH: Plymouth RockFoundation, 1982).
5. James Madison, Federalist, #51 (New York: NewAmerican Library, 1961), 322.
6. Ibid., Federalist #55, 346.
7. Lutz, Origins, 43,
8. Ibid., 142.

Kerby Anderson