Natural Law and Moral Virtues Bring Independence From Tyranny

In the very opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson appeals to the authority of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence,” 1819
John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence,” 1819 (photo: Public Domain)

As we recently celebrated the Fourth of July, I have been engaging in the rich and fruitful exercise of re-reading the Declaration of Independence. This reading has brought some important things to the forefront of my mind, specifically that America’s first founding document teems with exhortations to follow the natural law and exhibit moral virtues. Indeed, when we read the Declaration of Independence through the lens of our Catholic faith, we can discern the right and necessary path to become better disciples of Jesus, to become virtuous citizens and to reclaim our culture from its modern trajectory.

Sure, Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned the Declaration, and many of his compatriots were deists. That is, they believed in a powerful Creator who established the cosmos and then withdrew from its presence because he neither wanted nor needed an ongoing relationship with creatures. While this is far from the Christian vision of God and the cosmos, the two systems share a belief in, and a deep appreciation for, the natural moral law. It is this appreciation, this truth, that provides the foundation for building the culture that we need and desire in America today.

In the very opening sentence of the Declaration, Jefferson specifically cites “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as part of the reason for writing the document. Recall that “Laws of Nature” refers not to the laws of physical science, but to the natural moral law. Our Catholic faith instructs us that the natural law is “the Creator’s very good work,” that the natural law is “written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason ordaining him to do good” and that it provides “the solid foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices” — as well as “the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community” (CCC 1954, 1959). Quite simply, the natural moral law, which Jefferson referenced over and over again in the Declaration, is the only sure foundation for human fulfillment and a flourishing civil society.

Just as pillars rise from the foundation of a physical structure, pillars arise from the foundation of the natural law to give it form and function. Within the Declaration, Jefferson specifically mentions a few of these essential pillars for the right functioning of societies. These are the moral virtues. The first is prudence, which dictates that governments “should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Our faith tells us that prudence helps us “apply moral principles to particular cases without error and overcome doubts about the good to achieve and the evil to avoid” (CCC 1806). As Jefferson alluded, prudence helps us navigate through difficult situations, choosing the action that is right according to the natural law. Prudence, then, guides the other virtues.

At the end of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote that colonists had appealed to the “native justice” of the King and Parliament of England; and that those entities had been “deaf to the voice of justice.” Regarding this cardinal virtue, the Catholic faith reminds us, “Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and the common good” (CCC 1807). To live the virtue of justice means to give to another person what is due to him or her. Justice is what will help to build the common good, the individual and social flourishing, of any given society.

Jefferson also mentioned the virtue of magnanimity. Magnanimity, according to Aristotle, means “greatness of soul” and, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, it elicits actions that are “deserving of honor” (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 129, Art. 2). Jefferson identified that the prudent decision of declaring independence (even while knowing that a war would ensue) was based on many actions that had been neither just nor magnanimous — and the fathers of our nation constantly called citizens to these virtues. In our own lives, each of us must seek the greatness of soul (not necessarily social accolades) that causes us to desire justice and good for each and every person under our charge. And then we must act accordingly.

Finally, without specifically using the word “religion,” Jefferson appealed to that virtue as well. Now, the virtue of religion is the very first part of justice, because it is justice toward God, giving to God what is his due. In the very last paragraph of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote that Americans were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” This was to give God what was due to him — supreme sovereignty. In 1776, there was only one power higher than the King of England, and the colonists appealed to him, the Author of the natural law. Further, the rectitude of intentions mentioned by Jefferson aligns with purity of heart, the beatitude presented by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:8). Upright intentions and calling out to God first are the very first (but not the only) ingredients of a magnanimous soul.

America’s pastor, Ven. Fulton Sheen, exhorted faithful Christians to reflect anew on these ideals and return them to common cultural use. In his book entitled A Declaration of Dependence, published just as America became involved in World War II, Sheen wrote that faithful Christians are those who “hold that we are independent because we believe in God as the root of law and believe in [natural] law as the ground of freedom.” Thence, he called for “a social and national affirmation of our dependence on God.” From there, individuals and society as a whole affirm the natural law and their dependence on the Creator by cultivating moral virtues.

At the close of his book, Sheen wrote, “Be not deceived by slogans about democracy, as if it were like an heirloom which once possessed needs only to be preserved. Democracy is an endowment like life, and needs to be repurchased in each new generation.”

Yes, friends, we are called to repurchase and preserve our cherished liberties in this generation, too. It has become clear that our cultural ethos has reached the point of tyranny, analogous to the tyranny of Great Britain in the 1770s. In order to turn back the tide, to be free of such tyranny, it would be good for all of us to acknowledge the moral law, to learn and exhibit these virtues in our lives, and to pass them on to our children and grandchildren. We simply must work to raise a generation of saints who first know that they are dependent on God Almighty. That will be the only way to free ourselves from the tyranny of the modern world.