The Comee. met, agreed to found our Rights upon the Laws of Nature, the Principles of the english Constitution & Charters & Compacts; ordered a Sub. Comee. to draw up a State of Rights.
–Samuel Ward, September 9, 1774 diary entry.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 1 AUGUST 1774 – AUGUST 1775.]
There exists a law, not written down anywhere, but inborn in our hearts; a law which comes to us not by training or custom or reading but by derivation and absorption and adoption from nature itself; a law which has come to us not from theory but from practice, not by instruction but by natural intuition. I refer to the law which lays it down that, if our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right. When weapons reduce them to silence, the laws no longer expect one to wait their pronouncements. For people who decide to wait for these will have to wait for justice, too–and meanwhile they must suffer injustice first. Indeed, even the wisdom of a law itself, by sort of tacit implication, permits self-defense, because it is not actually forbidden to kill; what it does, instead, is to forbid the bearing of a weapon with the intention to kill. When, therefore, inquiry passes on the mere question of the weapon and starts to consider the motive, a man who is used arms in self-defense is not regard is having carried with a homicidal aim.
[Marcus Tulius Cicero, (106-53 BC). In a prepared speech for the trial of T. Annius Milo in 52 B.C.]
The First Law of Nature is that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.
[Thomas Hobbs, “Leviathan”, (Outlines the Laws of Nature), 1651.]
At the time of the founding of America as a British colony the laws of the American Colonial governments and rights of the people were, in part, founded upon the English Constitution, Common Law, and various charters and compacts.
The first recording of the Liberties of the American people, in the Massachusetts colony, was in 1641. In this document lawful self defense is defined. In addition, you will discover clear indication of the origins of our present day Constitution. As well as proof that our early colonial laws were indeed founded on the laws of God and that America has always been a Christian nation:
4. If any person committ any wilfull murther, which is manslaughter, committed upon premeditated malice, hatred, or Crueltie, not in a mans necessarie and just defence, nor by meere casualtie against his will, he shall be put to death.– The Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641.
The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have by human laws known penalties annexed to them, to inforce their observation. Thus the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others. The rules that they make for other men’s actions, must, as well as their own and other men’s actions, be conformable to the law of nature, i.e. to the will of God, of which that is a declaration, and the fundamental law of nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good, or valid against it.
[John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Government Chapter 11 – Of the Extent of the Legislative Power. (1690).]
As early as the mid-1700′s the colonists were becoming dissatisfied with the arbitrary rule, of both the crown and many of the various colonial governments. The rights of the people were left up to the interpretations of the crown, as well as to the various state and municipal governments. Which of course was just cause for increasing discontent on the part of the colonists.
Thank God we are in full enjoyment of these privileges. But can we be taught to prize them too much? Or how can we prize them equal to their value, if we do not know their intrinsic worth, and that they are not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature?–John Webbe, an essay in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette on April 1, 1736.
The first apparent major breakthrough, as far as the American Right to Keep and Bear Arms is concerned. Was by Mr. Samuel Adams, in a collaborative work with Benjamin Franklin, titled ‘The Rights of the Colonists’, (actual title; ‘The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting’). In the report, dated Nov. 20, 1772, Adams and Franklin assert that Self-Preservation is the First Law of Nature and that it was not only a right but a duty:
Natural Rights of the Colonists as Men.
Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.
All men have a right to remain in a state of nature as long as they please; and in case of intolerable oppression, civil or religious, to leave the society they belong to, and enter into another.
When men enter into society, it is by voluntary consent; and they have a right to demand and insist upon the performance of such conditions and previous limitations as form an equitable original compact.
Every natural right not expressly given up, or, from the nature of a social compact, necessarily ceded, remains….
…In the state of nature every man is, under God, judge and sole judge of his own rights and of the injuries done him. By entering into society he agrees to an arbiter or indifferent judge between him and his neighbors; but he no more renounces his original right than by taking a cause out of the ordinary course of law, and leaving the decision to referees or indifferent arbitrators…
…The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but only to have the law of nature for his rule.
In the state of nature men may, as the patriarchs did, employ hired servants for the defence of their lives, liberties, and property; and they should pay them reasonable wages. Government was instituted for the purposes of common defence, and those who hold the reins of government have an equitable, natural right to an honorable support from the same principle that “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” But then the same community which they serve ought to be the assessors of their pay. Governors have no right to seek and take what they please; by this, instead of being content with the station assigned them, that of honorable servants of the society, they would soon become absolute masters, despots, and tyrants…
In short, it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defence of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property. If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation. The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave…
The Rights of the Colonists parallels very closely, with the words of a cousin of Samuel; Mr. John Adams, which were written almost ten years previously:
Resistance to sudden violence, for the preservation not only of my person, my limbs, and life, but of my property, is an indisputable right of nature which I have never surrendered to the public by the compact of society, and which perhaps, I could not surrender if I would.
[Boston Gazette, Sept. 5, 1763.]
And Samuel Adams had previously written on the topic as well in 1769:
…This was the fate of a race of Kings, bigotted to the greatest degree to the doctrines of slavery and regardless of the natural, inherent, divinely hereditary and indefeasible rights of their subjects.–At the revolution, the British constitution was again restor’d to its original principles, declared in the bill of rights; which was afterwards pass’d into a law, and stands as a bulwark to the natural rights of subjects. “To vindicate these rights, says Mr. Blackstone, when actually violated or attack’d, the subjects of England are entitled first to the regular administration and free course of justice in the courts of law–next to the right of petitioning the King and parliament for redress of grievances–and lastly, to the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defence.” These he calls “auxiliary subordinate rights, which serve principally as barriers to protect and maintain inviolate the three great and primary rights of personal security, personal liberty and private property”: And that of having arms for their defence he tells us is “a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”–How little do those persons attend to the rights of the constitution, if they know anything about them, who find fault with a late vote of this town, calling upon the inhabitants to provide themselves with arms for their defence at any time; but more especially, when they had reason to fear, there would be a necessity of the means of self preservation against the violence of oppression….
[Boston Gazette, 27 Feb. 1769.]
The well respected Judge Blackstone, referred to earlier by Samuel Adams, seemed to think that it was a Natural Right:
This law of nature, being coeval [existing at the same time – ed.] with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe in all countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.
Upon these two foundations, the law of nature and the law of revelation, depend all human laws; that is to say, no human laws should be suffered [permitted] to contradict these.
…The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defense, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.
[William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1765–1769.]
As did Mr. Jefferson early in his legal career:
Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.
[Thomas Jefferson, Legal Argument, 1770. FE 1:376.]
As well as Mr. George Mason:
The laws of nature are the laws of God, whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.
–George Mason, 1772.
[Robin v. Hardaway, General Court of Virginia]
The first President of our country seemed to concur about the Law of Nature as well:
…That our Ancestors, when they left their native Land, and setled in America, brought with them (even if the same had not been confirmed by Charters) the Civil- Constitution and Form of Government of the Country they came from; and were by the Laws of Nature and Nations, entitled to all it’s Privileges, Immunities and Advantages; which have descended to us their Posterity, and ought of Right to be as fully enjoyed, as if we had still continued within the Realm of England….
[Fairfax County Resolves, July 18, 1774.]
Shall we, after this, whine and cry for relief, when we have already tried it in vain? Or shall we supinely sit and see one province after another fall a prey to despotism? If I was in any doubt, as to the right which the Parliament of Great Britain had to tax us without our consent, I should most heartily coincide with you in opinion, that to petition, and petition only, is the proper method to apply for relief; because we should then be asking a favor, and not claiming a right, which, by the law of nature and our constitution, we are, in my opinion, indubitably entitled to.
–George Washington, July 20, 1774 letter to Bryan Fairfax.
[The Modern English Collection at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center.]
And, here is yet another from Thomas Jefferson:
…That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate. Let those flatter, who fear: it is not an American art. To give praise where it is not due, might be well from the venal, but would ill beseem those who are asserting the rights of human nature. . . . . The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them….
–Thomas Jefferson, July 1774,
[A Summary View of the Rights of British America. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Edited by Julian P. Boyd et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950.]
The convictions of John Adams on the subject, were just as strong some eleven years later:
Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 1, John Adams’ Notes of Debates
Coll. Lee – “The Rights are built on a fourfold foundation–on Nature, on the british Constitution, on Charters, and on immemorial Usage….”
(Lee. Cant see why We should not lay our Rights upon the broadest Bottom, the Ground of Nature).”
(John) Jay – “It is necessary to recur to the Law of Nature, and the british Constitution to ascertain our Rights.”
[1 Adams recalled in his autobiography that the committee debates revolved around two points. “1. Whether We should recur to the Law of Nature, as well as to the British Constitution and our American Charters and Grants. Mr. Galloway and Mr. Duane were for excluding the Law of Nature. I was very strenuous for retaining and insisting on it, as a Resource to which We might be driven, by Parliament much sooner than We were aware…]. – Adams, Diary (Butterfield), 2:128-31.
[Note 1: 1 The Committee to “state the rights &c” met on the 8th, entered into the subject, and adjourned. John Adams says the Committee sat all day, “and a most ingenious, entertaining debate we had.” This debate is summarized in his Works, II, 370. Another meeting was held on the 9th. “Agreed to found our rights upon the laws of Nature, the principles of the English Constitution, and charters and compacts; ordered a Sub-Committee to draw up a Statement of Rights.” (Ward.) Galloway and Duane were for excluding the law of nature; John Adams insisted on retaining it. A second question was the authority to be conceded to Parliament; “whether we should deny the authority of Parliament in all cases; whether we should allow any authority to it in our internal affairs; or whether we should allow it to regulate the trade of the Empire with or without any restrictions” Adams. The sub-committee, of which John Adams and John Rutledge were members, held sessions from the 10th to the 14th, and then reported to the great Committee, where the affair hung so long that other members of Congress were “jealous.” On the 22d. a report was made to Congress.
On the 14th the great Committee appointed a sub-committee to “state the infringements of our rights.” The report was laid before Congress on the 24th.]
– Journals of the Continental Congress, WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 1774.
This was further evidenced by Samuel Ward in the September 9, 1774 entry in his diary:
…The Comee. met, agreed to found our Rights upon the Laws of Nature, the Principles of the english Constitution & Charters & Compacts; ordered a Sub. Comee. to draw up a State of Rights.”(1)
1 John Adams’ diary for this day consists of the terse entry: “Attended my Duty upon Committees. Dined at home.” Adams, Diary (Butterfield), 2:131.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 1 AUGUST 1774 – AUGUST 1775.]
The same sentiment was echoed some 8 days later:
2. That it is an indispensable duty which we owe to God, our country, ourselves and posterity, by all lawful ways and means in our power to maintain, defend and preserve those civil and religious rights and liberties, for which many of our fathers fought, bled and died, and to hand them down entire to future generations.
3. That the late acts of the British parliament for blocking up the harbour of Boston, for altering the established form of government in this colony, and for screening the most flagitious violators of the laws of the province from a legal trial, are gross infractions of those rights to which we are justly entitled by the laws of nature, the British constitution, and the charter of the province.
[Journals of the Continental Congress, SEPTEMBER 17, 1774, A. M.]
Mr. Henry gave what can be very well considered as one of the best descriptions here:
Mr. Henry for it. Says that a preparation for Warr is Necessary to obtain peace–That America is not Now in a State of peace–That all the Bulwarks, of Our Safety, of Our Constitn. are thrown down, That We are Now in a State of Nature–That We ought to ask Ourselves the Question should the planns of Nonim [portatio] n & Nonexp [oratio] n fail of success–in that Case Arms are Necessary, & if then, it is Necessary Now. Arms are a Resource to which We shall be forced, a Resource afforded Us by God & Nature, & why in the Name of both are We to hesitate providing them Now whilst in Our power.
–Silas Deane’s Diary, [Oct. 3, 1774].
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 1 AUGUST 1774 – AUGUST 1775]
This was followed very closely by an address dated October 11-18? 1774 to the People of Great Britain and Ireland by Mr. John Jay:
…It has been already observed that the ostensible reasons which have been assigned for this Attempt to destroy natural, constitutional, chartered, and antient rights, is for the purpose of raising a revenue to protect and defend the Colonies, to support Government and the Administration of Justice here and to reimburse Great Britain the Expence of defending the Colonies in the last war. The two former reasons are sufficiently answered by stating the notorious facts, that from the first Settlement of the Colonies until the late War they sustained these Expences themselves….
(It should be noted that Mr. Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Nominated by President George Washington.)
This was declared by the newly formed Continental Congress:
…The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina, justly alarmed at these arbitrary proceedings of parliament and administration, have severally elected, constituted, and appointed deputies to meet, and sit in general Congress, in the city of Philadelphia, in order to obtain such establishment, as that their religion, laws, and liberties, may not be subverted: Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,
That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following rights:
Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent….
[Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress, Oct. 14, 1774.]
And it was, once again, resolved two months later:
In Provincial Congress,
Cambridge, December 5, 1774.
THAT the Proceedings of the American Continental Congress, held at Philadelphia on the Fifth of September last, and reported by the honourable Delegates from this Colony, have with the Deliberation due to their high Importance been considered by us, and the American Bill of Rights therein contained, appears to be formed with the greatest Ability and Judgment, to be founded on the immutable Laws of Nature and Reason, the Principles of the English Constitution, and respective Charters and Constitutions of the Colonies; and to be worthy of their most vigorous Support, as essentially necessary to Liberty–Likewise the ruinous and iniquitous Measures, which in Violation of these RIGHTS at present convulse and threaten Destruction to America, appear to be clearly pointed out, and judicious Plans, adopted for defeating them.
Mr. Hamilton asserts the Right quite nicely here:
Self-preservation is the first principle of our nature. When our lives and properties are at stake, it would be foolish and unnatural to refrain from such measures as might preserve them because they would be detrimental to others. . . . . . that the united strength of the several members might give stability and security to the whole body, and each respective member; so that one part cannot encroach upon another without becoming a common enemy, and eventually endangering the safety and happiness of all the other parts.
[Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton – “A FULL VINDICATION.”, Dec. 15, 1774, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 1.]
And here we find what may very well be the origin of “well-regulated militia”:
…Threatened with the Destruction of our antient Laws & Liberty, and the Loss of all that is dear to British Subjects & Freemen,–justly alarmed with the Prospect of impending Ruin,–firmly determined, at the hazard of our Lives, to transmit to our Children & Posterity those sacred Rights to which Ourselves were born; & thoroughly convinced that a well regulated Militia, composed of the Gentlemen Freeholders & other Freemen, is the natural Strength, and only safe & stable Security of a free Government…
–George Mason, Feb. 6, 1775 letter to General George Washington.
[Letters to Washington and Accompanying Papers. Published by the Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Edited by Stanislaus Murray Hamilton.]
It turns out that John & Samuel Adams, and Mr. Franklin were not alone in the idea that the Rights of Man were derived from the Laws of Nature. As shown by Mr. Alexander Hamilton here:
You, Sir, triumph in the supposed illegality of this body; but, granting your supposition were true, it would be a matter of no real importance. When the first principles of civil society are violated, and the rights of a whole people are invaded, the common forms of municipal law are not to be regarded. Men may then betake themselves to the law of nature; and, if they but conform their actions, to that standard, all cavils against them, betray either ignorance or dishonesty. There are some events in society, to which human laws cannot extend; but when applied to them lose all their force and efficacy. In short, when human laws contradict or discountenance the means, which are necessary to preserve the essential rights of any society, they defeat the proper end of all laws, and so become null and void.
[The Farmer Refuted, 23 Feb. 1775, Papers 1:86–89, 121–22, 135–36.]
Mr. Robert Treat Paine wrote in a Feb. 25, 1775 letter to Stephen Collins:
“…With regard to the particular matter of moving the Guns &c, any person who attends to the Current of affairs must know the reason of it was the forbidding Arms & Ammunition being imported, & the Conduct of Administration wearing so hostile an Appearance as to loudly call upon the natural inherent principle of Self preservation. Those who hold the Doctrines of passive Obedience & non resistance will fault their Conduct, whilst others who view these transactions as Connected with the rights of mankind & Englishmen, will have more liberal apprehensions from them. But our Enemys omitt no opportunitys to asperse the Whiggs; & even the Whiggs who are at a distance from the scene of action, dont Sufficiently Consider the difficult Scituation of their Freinds, who in the Centre of action are Continually impressed, & in danger of being shackled & rendered unable to Struggle by patience & remissness, or of giving Offence & causing Divisions by any Enterprize which might save them. They who wish well to our Common Cause will Consider all Circumstances before they form a judgment, & they who are unfreindly will stick at nothing to reproach us….”
As well as by Mr. Patrick Henry in his famous speech ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death’, on March 23, 1775:
There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free – if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending – if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained – we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength but irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations, and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable – and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
And yet again by Mr. George Mason:
We came equals into this world, and equals shall we go out of it. All men are by nature born equally free and independent. To protect the weaker from the injuries and insults of the stronger were societies first formed; when men entered into compacts to give up some of their natural rights, that by union and mutual assistance they might secure the rest; but they gave up no more that the nature of the thing required.
[George Mason, “Remarks on Annual Elections for the Fairfax Independent Company”, April 17-26, 1775.]
As well as this from the House of Magistrates in Rhode Island in instructions to one their Delegates on Aug.26,1775:
Whereas notwithstanding the humble and dutiful petition of the last Congress to the King, and other wise and pacific measures taken for obtaining a happy reconciliation between Great Britain and the Colonies, the ministry lost to every sentiment of justice, liberty and humanity continue to send troops and ships of war into America, which destroy our trade, plunder and burn our towns and murder the good people of these colonies. Resolved, That this Colony most ardently wishes to see the former friendship, harmony and intercourse between Britain and these Colonies restored, and a happy and lasting connection established between both countries upon terms of just and equal liberty and will concur with the other colonies in all proper measures for obtaining those desirable blessings; and as every principle divine and human requires us to obey that great and fundamental law of nature, self preservation, until peace shall be restored upon constitutional principles; this colony will most heartily exert the whole power of government in conjunction with the other colonies for carrying on this just and necessary war, and bringing the same to a happy issue, and amongst other measures for obtaining this most desirable purpose, this Assembly is persunded, that the building and equipping an American fleet, as soon as possible, would greatly and essentially conduce to the preservation of the lives, liberty and property of the good people of these Colonies and therefore instruct their delegates to use their whole influence at the ensuing congress for building at the Continental expence a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such manner and places as will most effectually annoy our enemies, and contribute to the common defence of these colonies, and they are also instructed to use all their influence for carrying on the war in the most vigorous manner, until peace, liberty and safety are restored and secured to these Colonies upon an equitable and permanent basis.
[Journals of the Continental Congress, TUESDAY, OCTOBER 3, 1775.]
Here is what a very influential character in early American history had written on the subject:
You may assure them that we shall hold their Rights as dear as our own, and on their Union with us, exert our utmost Endeavours to obtain for them and their Posterity the Blessings of a free Government, and that Security to their Persons* and Property which is derived from the British Constitution. And you may further declare that we hold sacred the Rights of Conscience, and shall never molest them in the free Enjoyment of their Religion.
* – “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law”. – English Bill of Rights 1689.
–John Hancock, Oct. 11, 1775 letter to Philip Schuyler.
(John Hancock graduated from Harvard, and was the first President of the Continental Congress. In addition he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. )
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 2. Library of Congress – American Memory.]
And here is yet another from Mr. John Adams:
Who expected to live to see the Principles of Liberty Spread and prevail so rapidly, human Nature exerting her whole Rights, unshackled by Priests or Kings or Nobles, pulling down Tyrannies like Sampson, and building up, what Governments the People think best framed for human Felicity. God grant the Spirit, success.
–John Adams, Nov. 5, 1775 letter to James Warren.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 2.]
And here we have a letter to General George Washington concerning “the common natural rights of Mankind”:
You may be assured that I will do Colo. Read [Reed] all the service that I can in the way you desire We have a Ship here in 6 weeks from London, that brought the original letter of which the inclosed is a copy. Tis from a well informed, sensible friend, and may be relyed on. All the other letters from London join in confirming it to be the fixt determination of K and Court to leave undone nothing that they can do, to compel implicit obedience in America. One very sensible letter that I have seen, mentions that Gen. Amherst had recommended (& ’twas said it would be executed) to remove the Army this winter from Boston to Long Island, in order to get amply supplied by ravaging N. Jersey, N. York, and Rhode Island. Should this be attempted, I suppose you will be furnished with an opportunity of giving them a genteel parting salute. And besides, I should suppose that a winter favorable for us, would expose them to ruin from a timely, strong attack, of superior numbers on that naked Island. It seems that immense stores of Indian goods are sent to Canada in order to bribe the Indians to an early and vigorous attack on all our frontiers next Spring. God grant that Colo. Arnolds success and Montgomeries may frustrate this diabolical part of their infernal plan against the common natural rights of Mankind!
–Richard Henry Lee, Nov. 13, 1775 letter to George Washington.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 2]
Here is a letter from three of the Delegates from Congress declaring the Law of Nature:
The Congress having done us the honour to Appoint us as a Committee to Confer with the General and yourself on the measures Necessary to be taken for the reinlistment of the Army, as also to Conciliate the affections of the Canadians and to remove as far as in us lay every Objection that the good people of that Province might have to a Union with the thirteen Colonies, who are Strugling in the Glorious Cause of freedom, We arrived here a few days Since in prosecution of that design; but are extreamly happy to find that General Schuyler and yourself have in a Great measure by your prudence and foresight anticipated our business, and renderd a Journey into Canada in some measure unnecessary at present which indeed we rather decline on Account of the Advanced season of the year and the improbability of your being able to lend us any assistance, while the enemies of the Natural Rights of man continue their hostilities against our fellow Subjects in that Province, and Confine your Attention to those Military opperations which are Necessary to procure their Relief.
We cannot help however expressing the ardent wishes of the Congress that you would Cherish the first dawnings of liberty among a people, who have early testified their sense of its Value if we may be Admitted to Judge from the Assistance they afforded you in repelling its enemies. That you would assure them that the Honble. the Congress have thro us declared that they hold their Rights as dear as their own, and that on their Uniting with them they will exert their utmost endeavours to procure, for them and their posterity the blessing of a free government and that Security to their property and persons which is derived from the British Constitution-that they hold Sacred the rights of Conscience, and will never disturb them in the free enjoyment of their Religion.
–Jno Langdon, Rob. R. Livingston & Rob. T. Paine, Nov. 30, 1775 letter to Richard Montgomery.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 2.]
As well as in a letter to a man whom was later appointed as one of the original justices of the Supreme Court:
That day, I hope, is not at a great distance, when retired from the bustle of publick life, I shall enjoy all the sweets of domestick retirement & private friendship. I am weary of politicks, it is a study that corrupts the human heart, degrades the Idea of human nature, and drives men to expedients that morality must condemn. Deep stratagems, dark disguise, Fiction, falsehood, are but the fair side of the picture of a perfect, politician-a Machiavel-a Hobbs-a Richlieu-a North. No, my Friend, the Science of politicks is not to be learned in the principles of the laws of nature and Nations, it is wrote only in the recesses of the mind of princes, and Vice assumes another name, when it ministers to the strength and importance of the state. The black part of the Character is ascribed to this and Virtues if any there are, are the personal property of the prince. Hide the picture ! ’tis a horrid one.
–William Hooper, Jan. 6th 1776 letter to James Iredell.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume: 3. Library of Congress.]
John Dickinson touched upon the subject here:
…These Efforts were soon attended with such Effect, that the British Army still confined within the Town of Boston & its Environs, and the Fleet sent to cooperate with it, finding the Fruits of their plundering our seacoasts too precarious and dangerous, Ships of war began to seize our vessels, carry them to Boston & take out their Cargos of provisions. It therefore became expedient to make some Regulations to prevent their receiving such supplies, which have been effectual.
The war being thus prosecuted against these Colonies by Sea as well as by Land, Several armed vessels have been fitted out by us, and many considerable Captures have been made of Transports loaded with warlike Stores and Provisions for the army in Boston.
Upon this same Principle of self preservation, founded on the Laws of Nature, and justified by the Laws of Nations, We approved of an Expedition into Canada, against the British Forces in that Province. With such a dangerous Caution did We proceed in this important Measure, that when the proposal was first made in Congress, it was rejected: But sometime after, receiving undoubted Intelligence that Governor Carleton was by every Artifice exciting our fellow subjects in Canada & the Indians to commence Hostilities, and that Administration entertained Designs and Expectations of putting these Colonies between two Fires, and even of carrying on the War by the worst of Assassinations, even those of Women & Children, in letting loose & enflaming the Tribes of Barbarians, with whom Mercy is a Reproach, We judged, that We should be impardonably criminal with Regard to You, who had put your Lives into our Hands, if We hesitated any longer to frustrate as much as We could the cruel Machinations of your Enemies….
–John Dickinson, “To the Inhabitants of America”, Jan. 24? 1776.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume: 3.]
Mr. James Wilson laid out the principle in his work “address to the inhabitants of these Colonies” on Feb. 13, 1776:
…The Sentence of universal Slavery gone forth against you is; that the British Parliament have Power to make Laws, without your Consent, binding you in All Cases whatever. Your Fortunes, your Liberties, your Reputations, your Lives, every Thing that can render you and your Posterity happy, all are the Objects of the Laws: All must be enjoyed, impaired or destroyed as the Laws direct. And are you the Wretches, who have Nothing that you can or ought to call your own? Were all the rich Blessings of Nature, all the Bounties of indulgent Providence poured upon you, not for your own Use; but for the Use of those, upon whom neither Nature nor Providence hath bestowed Qualities or Advantages superior to yours? …
As well as by the Continental Congress on March 23, 1776:
…And whereas the parliament of Great Britain hath lately passed an Act, affirming these colonies to be in open rebellion, forbidding all trade and commerce with the inhabitants thereof, until they shall accept pardons, and submit to despotic rule, declaring their property, wherever found upon the water, liable to seizure and confiscation; and enacting, that what had been done there by virtue of the royal authority, were just and lawful acts, and shall be so deemed; from all which it is manifest, that the iniquitous scheme, concerted to deprive them of the liberty they have a right to by the laws of nature and the English constitution, will be pertinaciously pursued. It being therefore necessary to provide for their defence and security, and justifiable to make reprisals upon their enemies, and otherwise to annoy them, according to the laws and usages of Nations, the Congress, trusting that such of their friends in Great Britain (of whom it is confessed there are many entitled to applause and gratitude for their patriotism and benevolence, and in whose favour a discrimination of property cannot be made) as shall suffer by captures, will impute it. to the authors of our common calamities, Do Declare and Resolve, as followeth, to wit:….
…Resolved, That all ships and other vessels, their tackle, apparel, and furniture, and all goods, wares, and merchandizes, belonging to any inhabitant or inhabitants of Great Britain, taken on the high seas, or between high and low water mark, by any armed vessel, fitted out by any private person or persons, and to whom commissions shall be granted, and being libelled and prosecuted in any court erected for the trial of maritime affairs, in any of these colonies, shall be deemed and adjudged to be lawful prize; and after deducting and paying the wages of the seamen and mariners on board of such captures, as are merchant ships and vessels, shall be entitled to, according to the terms of their contracts, until the time of the adjudication, shall be condemned to and for the use of the owner or owners, and the officers, marines, and mariners of such armed vessel, according to such rules and proportions as they shall agree on: Provided always, that this resolution shall not extend to any vessel bringing settlers arms, ammunition or warlike stores to and for the use of these colonies, or any of the inhabitants thereof, who are friends to the American cause, or to such war-like stores, or to the effects of such settlers….
And again, by Governor Jonathan Trumbull on the 18th of June, 1776:
BY THE HONORABLE
Governor and Commander in Chief of the English Colony of Connecticut in New-England.
The Race of Mankind was made in a State of Innocence and Freedom, subjected only to the Laws of God the Creator, and through his rich Goodness, designed for virtuous Liberty and Happiness here and forever; and when moral Evil was introduced into the World, and Man had corrupted his Ways before God, Vice and Iniquity came in like a Flood, and Mankind became exposed, and a prey to the Violence, Injustice and Oppression of one another. God, in great Mercy, inclined his People to form themselves into Society, and to set up and establish civil government for the Protection and Security of their Lives and Properties from the Invasion of wicked Men: But through Pride and Ambition, the King’s and Princes of the World, appointed by the People the Guardians of their Lives and Liberties, early and almost universally, degenerated into Tyrants, and by Fraud or Force betrayed and wrested out of their Hands the very Rights and Properties they were appointed to protect and defend….In this distressing Dilemma, having no Alternative but absolute Slavery, or successful Resistance; this, and the United American Colonies, have been constrained by the over-ruling Laws of Self preservation, to take up Arms for the Defence of all that is sacred sacred and dear to Freemen, and make their solemn Appeal to Heaven for the Justice of their Cause, and resist Force by Force….
Further evidence of the Laws of Nature being the basis of our government, can be found in the Declaration of Independence, of which there are known to be at least three different drafts. As it turns out, the Declaration included input from both John and Samuel Adams, Mr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson:
First, and Reported Drafts;
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a one people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the equal and independent Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes, which impell them to the Change.
We hold these Truths to be self evident; that all Men are created equal and independent; that from that equal Creation they derive Rights inherent and unalienable; among which are the Preservation of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these Ends, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the governed…
hitherto remained, & to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with other another and to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independent separate and equal station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change the separation.
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable self-evident; that all men are created equal,& independent; that from that equal creation they derive in they are endowed by their creator with equal rights some of which are certain [inherent &] inalienable rights; that among which these are the preservation of life,& liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, & to institute new government…
General George Washington seemed to concur that our Rights are derived from God and Nature:
. . . I perceive that Congress have been employed in deliberating on measures of the most interesting Nature. It is certain that it is not with us to determine in many instances what consequences will flow from our Counsels, but yet it behoves us to adopt such, as under the smiles of a Gracious and all kind Providence will be most likely to promote our happiness; I trust the late decisive part they have taken, is calculated for that end, and will secure us that freedom and those priviledges, which have been, and are refused us, contrary to the voice of Nature and the British Constitution. Agreeable to the request of Congress I caused the Declaration to be proclaimed before all the Army under my immediate Command, and have the pleasure to inform them, that the measure seemed to have their most hearty assent; the Expressions and behaviour both of Officers and Men testifying their warmest approbation of it. I have transmitted a Copy to General Ward at Boston, requesting him to have it proclaimed to the Continental Troops in that Department….
–General George Washington, July 10, 1776 letter to Continental Congress.
[The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.]
That the Rights of man, based upon the Laws of Nature, were accepted as the basis for which our government(s) were erected, can readily be shown as well:
Congress proceeding to take into farther consideration the expediency of inviting, from the service of his Britannic majesty, such foreigners as are engaged therein, and expecting that, among the officers having command in the said foreign corps, there may be many of liberal minds, possessing just sentiments of the rights of human nature, and of the inestimable value of freedom, who may be prompted to renounce so dishonourable a service, by the feelings of humanity, and a just indignation at the office to which they are devoted by an infamous contract between two arbitrary sovereigns, and at the insult offered them, by compelling them to wage war against an innocent people, who never offended them, nor the nation to which they belong, but are only contending for their just rights; and willing to tender to them also, as they had before done to the soldiers of their corps, a participation of the blessings of peace, liberty, property and mild government…
[Journals of the Continental Congress, August 27, 1776.]
…In humanity they figure still worse than They do in arms. Their ravages in the Jersies, until They were checked and driven back, beggars all description. Rapes, Murders, and devastation marked their steps in such a manner as would have disgraced the Savages of the Wilderness. The old English esteem for valor seems quite done away, and in several instances where young Americans displaid heroic spirit, and happened to fall in to their power, they have butchered them in cold blood in a most cruel and barbarous manner. They have been so frequently shameless in this way, after remonstrance has been in vain made to Gen. Howe, that the patience of our Soldiery is exhausted, and it appears as if no more prisoners will be taken, until Mr. Howe & his people learn the practice of humanity. I have received two letters from [ ….] (1) But he thinks strongly in favor of Great Britain. Was it not the most unrelenting and cruel persecution of us that forced us from her, and are we not compelled upon the clearest principles of self preservation to seek from Strangers what our kindred denied us? Must a great Continent be buried in ruin because the people of England cannot rouse from a lethargy which suffers the most abandoned of Men to trample upon the rights of human nature? It is decreed above, and we are parted Forever. Every Friendly American Nerve will now be strained to procure the active interference of France, by which, under God, the liberty of North America must be secured….
–Richard Henry Lee, Feb. 17, 1777 letter to Arthur Lee.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 6.]
…At the same time he trusts that the Spanish nation will receive no inconsiderable retribution from the freedom of that commerce the monopoly of which contributed so much to strengthen and aggrandize her rival and her foe; nor can anything give more lasting satisfaction to the royal mind than the reflection of having employed those means which God has put into his hands in assisting an oppressed people to vindicate those rights and liberties which have been violated by twice six years of incessant injuries and insulted supplications; those rights which God and nature, together with the convention of their ancestors and the constitution of their country, gave to the people of the States. Instead of that protection in those rights which was the due return for sovereignty exercised over them, they have seen their defenseless towns wantonly laid in ashes, their unfortified country cruelly desolated, their property wasted, their people slain; the ruthless savage, whose inhuman war spares neither age nor sex, instigated against them; the hand of the servant armed against his master by public proclamation, and the very food which the sea that washes their coast furnishes forbidden them by a law of unparalleled folly and injustice. Proinde quasi injuriam facere id demure esset imperio uti. Nor was it enough that for these purposes the British force was exhausted against them, but foreign mercenaries were also bribed to complete the butchery of their people and the devastation of their country. And that nothing might be wanting to make the practices equivalent to the principles of this war, the minds of these mercenaries were poisoned with every prejudice that might harden their hearts and sharpen their swords against a people who not only never injured or offended them, but who have received with open arms and provided habitations for their wandering countrymen. These are injuries which the Americans can never forget. These are oppressors whom they can never again endure. The force of intolerable and accumulated outrages has compelled them to appeal to God and to the sword. The King of Spain, in assisting them to maintain that appeal, assists in vindicating the violated rights of human nature. No cause can be more illustrious, no motive more magnanimous.
–Arthur Lee, March 17, 1777, Letter to Florida Blanca.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2]
This one is perhaps my personal favorite:
I am sorry that our Assembly had not repealed or so farr altered the Law respecting Inoculation, or that People from the Principles of Self Preservation were not laid under a necessity of Violating it. The Law of Self Preservation certainly will justify Violating a Law not founded on Moral Principles but of supposed Conveniency only, but no Laws ought to Exist which are merely political when it is clearly known that they will not be observed as Laws of that Nature are supposed to be the Symtoms of the Want either of Power or Wisdom or perhaps both. I was fully Satisfied in my own mind that the same would be the Effect of limiting the Prices of the Articles of Living. In my Judgment the most despotic Government that ever existed since the Days of Nimrod could never carry such a Law into Execution, but I have done nothing to Prejudice the Scheme this Way as it was adopted by our State. Tho’ I tho’t it was founded upon every Principle of Impolicy. But why am I eternally dabbling in Politicks. Would to God that the Knaves and Oppressors of this World would cease their Villany, so that each one might Return to domestick Injoyment, and possess unenvied that Peace, which cannot be had in any Other Circumstances of Life.
–Oliver Wolcott, March 22, 1777 letter to Laura Wolcott.
[Delegates to Congress: Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Volume 6.]
…This city is still threatened with an invasion but whether the threats will be executed or not, is a matter of doubt with me. A plan of correspondence between this City and the enemy has lately been discovered. 7 or 8 of the Traitors are under close confinement. Some of them will no doubt be hanged. This is disagreeable business, but if we dont hang them they’ll hang us, and self preservation, you know, is the first law of nature. A considerable quantity of the goods will be saved from the ship blown up near the Capes, as mentioned in my last. She had a valuable cargo on board 400 lbs. of powder, 2500 stand of arms and a considerable quantity dry goods amounting in the whole to 250,000 livres for account of the public besides private property to a large amount-but the greatest loss is the life of the Captain whose bravery on this occasion is without example….
–William Whipple, April 19, 1777 Letter to John Langdon.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 6.]
Inclosed with this you have an Evening post, (1) containing some of the tender Mercies of the Barbarians to their Prisoners.
If there is a Man, Woman or Child in America, who can read these Depositions, without Resentment, and Horror, that Person has no soul or a very wicked one.
Their Treatment of Prisoners, last Year added to an Act of Parliament, which they have made to enable them to send Prisoners to England, to be there murthered, with still more relentless Cruelty, in Prisons, will bring our
Officers and Soldiers to the universal Resolution to conquer or die.
This Maxim, conquer or die, never failed to raise a People who adopted it, to the Head of Man kind.
An Express from Portsmouth last night brought Us News of the Arrival of Arms and ordnance enough to enable Us to take Vengeance of these Foes of Human Nature.”(2)
RC (MHi). Adams, Family Correspondence (Butterfield), 2:231.
1 Probably a copy of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, May 3, 1777, which contained the last installment of the congressional report on British and German barbarity in New Jersey during the preceding campaign. See Adams to Abigail Adams, April 27, 1777, and JCC, 7:276-79.
2 See Committee for Foreign Affairs to the Commissioners at Paris, May 2, 1777, note 3.
– John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 4. 1777.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 7. Library of Congress, American Memory.]
When obliged to take this first Step the People proceeded with the utmost Caution. No tumult or disorder appeared, every man was impressed with an awful Sense of the Necessity he was under of Exercising that Right which Nature gave to every Man, and which the British Constitution expressly Assented, that of Consulting and resolving Concerning his Safety and Happiness, and each was determined to Exercise it no farther than the Necessity pressingly required.
[Delegates in Congress, May 29, 1777 address to Inhabitants of the United States.]
Pursued by the injustice and the vengeance of the King and Parliament Great Britain, these United States have been compelled to engage in a bloody and expensive war. Amidst much great every distress that they have yet experienced may befal them, it will be their consolation to appeal to Heaven for the rectitude of their measures; since they have her influence they have had recourse to arms, not from ambition or the lust of power, but to resist actual invasion and boundless rapine, and to secure to themselves and to their Posterity the common rights and privileges of human nature: the blessings of freedom and safety that they have had recourse to arms.
[Journals of the Continental Congress, Nov. 22, 1777.]
Being sufficiently settled as to the principle on which I shall found my opinion, it is unnecessary for me to give an account of the law of nature and nations, or to heap up citations from the numerous writers on that subject. But that what I shall say may have the greater force, I beg it may be observed, that the law of nature and nations is nothing else but the law of general reason, or those obligations of duty from reason and conscience, on one individual to another, antecedent to any particular law derived from the social compact, or even actual consent. On this account, it is called the law of nature; and because there are very rarely to be found any parties in such a free state with regard to each other, except independent nations, therefore it is also called the law of nations. One nation to another is just as man to man in a state of nature. Keeping this in view, a person of integrity will pass as sound a judgment on subjects of this kind, by consulting his own heart, as by turning over books and systems. The chief use of books and systems is, to apply the principle to particular cases and suppositions differently classed, and to point out the practice of nations in several minute and special particulars, which unless ascertained by practice, would be very uncertain and ambiguous….
–John Witherspoon, Jan. 8, 1778 Speech to Congress.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 8.]
…The Commander in Chief again takes occasion to return his warmest thanks to the virtuous officers and soldiery of this Army for that persevering fidelity and Zeal which they have uniformly manifested in all their conduct. Their fortitude not only under the common hardships incident to a military life, but also under the additional sufferings to which the peculiar situation of these States have exposed them, clearly proves them worthy the enviable privelege of contending for the rights of human nature, the Freedom and Independence of their Country. The recent Instance of uncomplaining Patience during the scarcity of provisions in Camp is a fresh proof that they possess in an eminent degree the spirit of soldiers and the magninimity of Patriots. The few refractory individuals who disgrace them. selves by murmurs it is to be hoped have repented such unmanly behaviour, and resolved to emulate the noble example of their associates upon every trial which the customary casualties of war may hereafter throw in their way. Occasional distress for want of provisions and other necessaries is a spectacle that frequently occurs in every army and perhaps there never was one which has been in general so plentifully supplied in respect to the former as ours. Surely we who are free Citizens in arms engaged in a struggle for every thing valuable in society and partaking in the glorious task of laying the foundation of an Empire, should scorn effeminately to shrink under those accidents and rigours of War which mercenary hirelings fighting in the cause of lawless ambition, rapine and devastation, encounter with cheerfulness and alacrity, we should not be merely equal, we should be superior to them in every qualification that dignifies the man or the soldier in proportion as the motive from which we act and the final hopes of our Toils, are superior to theirs. Thank Heaven! …
–George Washington, General Orders, Head-Quarters, V. Forge, Sunday, March 1, 1778.
[The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor.]
The citizens of the United States of America are engaged in a just and necessary war–a war in which they are not the only persons interested. They contend for the rights of human nature, and therefore merit the patronage and assistance of all mankind. Their success will secure a refuge from persecution and tyranny to those who wish to pursue the dictates of their own consciences, and to reap the fruits of their own industry.
That kind Providence, who from seeming evil often produces real good, in permitting us to be involved in this cruel war, and you to be compelled to aid our enemies in their vain attempts to enslave us, doubtless hath in view to establish perfect freedom in this new world, for those who are borne down by the oppression and tyranny of the old.
[Journals of the Continental Congress,April 29, 1778.]
Friends and Countrymen: Three years have now passed away, since the commencement of the present war: a war without parallel in the annals of mankind. It hath displayed a spectacle, the most solemn that can possibly be exhibited. On one side, we behold fraud and violence laboring in the service of despotism; on the other, virtue and fortitude supporting and establishing the rights of human nature….
…Trust not to appearances of peace or safety. Be assured that, unless you persevere, you will be exposed to every species of barbarity. But, if you exert the means of defence which God and nature have given you, the time will soon arrive when every man shall sit under his own vine and under his own fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid….
[AN ADDRESS OF THE CONGRESS TO THE INHABITANTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. MAY 8, 1778.]
…I am no way discouraged, but I am grieved to find our councils and our public deliberations conducted in the manner they are at present. The very name of Congress was a great while sacred almost as that of the Divinity in these States. You as well as I know how much weakness, to say nothing more, lay concealed from the first behind the sacred vail from the view of the public. I tremble for the consequences when Americans, who have served their country with the highest reputation at home and abroad, shall be forced by the injuries and abuse which they receive, in vindication of themselves, to draw this vail and hold up to the open view of their countrymen certain individuals who have by one circumstance or another greatly influenced the deliberations of Congress. Self-Defense is the first law of nature. I hope and am sure I shall not be driven to this extremity whilst so many appear resolved to see justice done me….
–Silas Deane, Sept. 14, 1778 letter to John Hancock.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Vol. 2. Library of Congress – American Memory.]
It is not only vain, but wicked, in a legislator to frame laws in opposition to the laws of nature, and to arm them with the terrors of death. This is truly creating crimes in order to punish them.
[The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 1900 – 4538. LAWS OF NATURE, Opposition to. — JCE4538. Note on Crimes Bill. Washington ed. i, 159. Ford ed., ii, 218. (1779).]
While] certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shown that, even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.
–Thomas Jefferson, Diffusion of Knowledge Bill.
[The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 1900 – 3537. GOVERNMENT, Perversion. — JCE3537 Ford ed., ii, 220. (1779).]
…I thank God that I am of no party and have no brothers or relations to serve, but I am convinced that Mr. Lee has acted in this matter merely because I would not become the enemy of the venerable, the wise, and good Franklin, whose heart as well as head does and will always do honor to human nature….
…I pledge myself to you and to America that my zeal [derives] new ardor from the oppositions it meets with, and I live but to overcome them and to prove myself no mock patriot, but a true friend to the rights of human nature upon principles of disinterested philanthropy. Of this I have already given some proofs, and I will give more. Let not, therefore, the virtuous Senate of America be misled by the insinuations of fallen ambition. Should anything be said to my disadvantage, all I ask is a suspension of judgment until I can appear before Congress to answer for myself.
–John Paul Jones, June 27, 1780 letter to Morris.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Vol. 3]
…Who was it but the armed yeomanry of the Country that opposed his march and so often forced him to measure back his steps with such speed? And yet at this time the people were in a great degree in a state of nature, being free from all restraints of government. In South Carolina a civil government was wholly suspended, North Carolina was in such confusion and tumult by the sudden invasion, that government had no time to exert itself and the people were left to act from the immediate impulses of their own minds. The case was the same in Virginia when the Assembly retired from Richmond to Charlotteville and from thence across the mountain to Augusta. And yet as fast as the people could arm themselves they repaired to the continental standard and joining the few continental troops in the field voluntarily and bravely exposed their lives in defence of their rights and liberties and could a sufficient number of arms have been procured and put into the hands of the volunteer militia, his lordship would have sooner been convinced to his Cost of the rediculous absurdity of such assertions….
–Charles Thomson, July 11, 1781 letter to John Jay.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 17.]
Be assured that when contemptible discord, with its odious attendants, artifice and imposture, could effectuate nothing, absolutely nothing, at the moment when the present war broke out, to prejudice in the least the fidelity of the citizens of the Amstel, or to shake them in the observation of their duties, the inconveniences and the evils that a war naturally and necessarilly draws after it, will not produce the effect neither; yes, we will submit more willingly to them, accordingly as we shall perceive that the means that God and nature have put into our hands are more and more employed to reduce and humble a haughty enemy.
–John Adams, letter to Livingston*, March 19, 1782.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Vol. 5. (* – MSS. Dep. of State; 3 Sparks’ Dip. Rev. Corr., 562.)]
…If ever any circumstances were capable of recalling to the minds of the people of these provinces the most lively remembrance of the cruel situation to which their forefathers found themselves once reduced, under the oppressive yoke of Spanish tyranny, it was, no doubt, that terrible and critical moment when the Colonies of North America, groaning under the intolerable weight of the chains with which the boundless ambition of Great Britain had loaded them, were forced into a just and lawful war to recover the use and enjoyment of that liberty to which they were entitled by the sacred and unalienable laws of nature….
–The deputies from Schiedam, The Hague, July 5, 1782. Requested John Adams to transmit from them to Congress the enclosed compliment.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 5. J. Adams to Livingston.]
The error seems not sufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God.
–Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia. Washington ed. viii, 400. Ford ed., iii, 263. (1782).
[The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, 1900.]
Sir: The result of the proceedings of the grand convention of the officers, which I have the honor of enclosing to your Excellency for the inspection of Congress, will, I flatter myself, be considered as the last glorious proof of patriotism which could have been given by men who aspired to the distinction of a patriot army; and will not only confirm their claim to the justice, but will encrease their title to the gratitude of their country.
Having seen the proceedings on the part of the army terminate with perfect unanimity, and in a manner entirely consonant to my wishes; being impressed with the liveliest sentiments of affection for those who have so long, so patiently, and so cheerfully suffered and fought under my immediate direction; having from motives of justice, duty and gratitude, spontaneously offered myself as an advocate for their rights; and having been requested to write to your Excellency, earnestly entreating the most speedy decision of Congress upon the subjects of the late address from the army to that honorable body; it now only remains for me to perform the task I have assumed, and to intercede in their behalf, as I now do, that the sovereign power will be pleased to verify the predictions I have pronounced of, and the confidence the army have reposed in the justice of their country.
And here I humbly conceive it is altogether unnecessary (while I am pleading the cause of an army which have done and suffered more than any other army ever did in the defence of the rights and liberties of human nature) to expatiate on their claims to the most ample compensation for their meritorious services, because they are perfectly known to the whole world, and because, (although the topics are inexhaustible) enough has already been said on the subject….
–General George Washington, Head-Quarters, Newburgh, 18th March, 1783.
…While the General recollects the almost infinite variety of Scenes thro which we have passed, with a mixture of pleasure, astonishment, and gratitude; While he contemplates the prospects before us with rapture; he can not help wishing that all the brave men (of whatever condition they may be) who have shared in the toils and dangers of effecting this glorious revolution, of rescuing Millions from the hand of oppression, and of laying the foundation of a great Empire, might be impressed with a proper idea of the dignifyed part they have been called to act (under the Smiles of providence) on the stage of human affairs: for, happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter, who have contributed any thing, who have performed the meanest office in erecting this steubendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire on the broad basis of Indipendency; who have assisted in protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions. The glorius task for which we first fleu to Arms being thus accomplished, the liberties of our Country being fully acknowledged, and firmly secured by the smiles of heaven, on the purity of our cause, and the honest exertions of a feeble people (determined to be free) against a powerful Nation (disposed to oppress them) and the Character of those who have persevered, through every extremity of hardship; suffering and danger being immortalized by the illustrious appellation of the patriot Army: Nothing now remains but for the actors of this mighty Scene to preserve a perfect, unvarying, consistency of character through the very last act; to close the Drama with applause; and to retire from the Military Theatre with the same approbation of Angells and men which have crowned all their former vertuous Actions.
–George Washington, General Orders April 18, 1783.
Let it be remembered finally, that it has ever been the pride and boast of America, that the rights for which she contended, were the rights of human nature. By the blessing of the author of these rights, on the means exerted for their defence, they have prevailed against all opposition, and form at this time the basis of thirteen independent states. No instance has heretofore occurred, nor can any instance be expected hereafter to occur, in which the unadulterated forms of Republican government can pretend to so fair an opportunity of justifying themselves by their fruits. In this view the citizens of the United States are responsible for the greatest trust ever confided to a political society. If justice, good faith, honor, gratitude and all the other virtues qualities which ennoble the character of a nation, and fulfil the ends of government, be the fruits of our establishments, the cause of liberty will acquire a dignity and lustre which it has never yet enjoyed; and an example will be set which cannot fail to but have the most favourable influence on the rights of mankind. If on the other side, our governments should be unfortunately blotted with the reverse of these cardinal and essential qualities virtues, the great cause which we have engaged to vindicate will be dishonored and betrayed; the last and fairest experiment in favour of the rights of human nature will be turned against them, and their patrons and friends exposed to be insulted and silenced by the sycophants votaries of tyranny and usurpation.
[James Madison, Journals of the Continental Congress, Address to the States, by the United States Congress Assembled. April 26, 1783.]
…While I give you these assurances, (General Washington), and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your favour, let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained. Let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress; that, previous to your dissolution as an army, they will cause all your accounts to be fairly liquidated, as directed in their resolutions which were published to you two days ago; and that they will adopt the most effectual measures in their power to render ample justice to you for your faithful and meritorious services. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country, as you value your own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man, who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country; and who wickedly attempts to open the flood-gates of civil discord, and deluge our rising empire in blood….
…Resolved unanimously, That, at the commencement of the present war, the officers of the American army engaged in the service of their country from the purest love and attachment to the rights and liberties of human nature, which motives still exist in the highest degree; and that no circumstances of distress or danger shall induce a conduct that may tend to sully the reputation and glory which they have acquired, at the price of their blood and eight years’ faithful services….
[Journals of the Continental Congress, April 29, 1783.]
…All property, indeed, except the savage’s temporary cabin, his bow, his match coat, and other little acquisitions absolutely necessary for his subsistence, seems to me the creature of public convention. Hence the public has the right of regulating descents and all other conveyances of property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man for the conservation of the individual and the propagation of the species is his natural right, which none can justly deprive him of; but all property superfluous to such purposes is the property of the public, who by their laws have created it, and who may, therefore, by other laws, dispose of it whenever the welfare of the public shall demand such disposition. He that does not like civil society on these terms, let him retire and live among savages. He can have no right to the benefits of society who will not pay his club towards the support of it….
–Benjamin Franklin, Dec. 25, 1783 letter to Robert(?) Morris.
[The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 6.]
The following, (circa 1783), was “DEDICATED TO HIS EXCELLENCY GENERAL WASHINGTON”:
…Thus I think I have fully shewn from the law of God, the law of nature, the custom of nations, the lawfulness of the use of defensive arms, in order to defend our rights, liberties civil and religious, when attacked by tyrants; at least I think it will convince all but such as are determined not to be convinced. Especially, I think it appears clear from scripture practices, reproofs, promises, precepts, and prayers, this truth has been proven; although I allow that other precious truths are more natively deduced, yet this great truth by unstrained and unconstrained consequence, may, and is also, clearly inferred.
[DEFENSIVE ARMS VINDICATED AND THE LAWFULNESS OF THE AMERICAN WAR MADE MANIFEST.]
The Rights of the people in America are therefore irrefutably based upon the Laws of Nature. This precedent continued from the Confederated government, into the present Constitutional government. Witness:
Col. MASON. Under the existing Confederacy, Congress represent the states, and not the people of the states; their acts operate on the states, not on the individuals. The case will be changed in the new plan of government. The people will be represented: they ought therefore to choose the representatives. The requisites in actual representation are, that the representatives should sympathize with their constituents; should think as they think, and feel as they feel; and that for these purposes they should be residents among them. Much, he said, had been alleged against democratic elections. He admitted that much might be said; but it was to be considered that no government was free from imperfections and evils; and that improper elections, in many instances, were inseparable froth republican governments. But compare these with the advantage of this form, in favor of the rights of the people—in favor of human nature. He was persuaded there was a better chance for proper elections by the people, if divided into large districts, than by the state legislatures. Paper money had been issued by the latter, when the former were against it. Was it to be supposed that the state legislatures, then, would not send to the national legislature patrons of such projects, if the choice depended on them?
–Col. [George] Mason, June 6, 1787, Debates In The Federal Convention Of 1787, Held At Philadelphia.
[Eliiot’s Debates, Vol. V, Pg. 161]
Mason–The Executive negatives both Brs of the Legislatr and each Br. has a negative on the other–and the Genl. Gov. have a neg. on the State Legislature–these regulations are necessary on the principles of Self Defence–it is an instinctive principle in nature, and in a proper degree every being professes this power. If the State Legislatures are deprived of the Election of the 2d. or 1st Br. of the natil. Legislature the States are destitute of this principle of self protection–I wish them to continue & I shall not agree to deprive them of the power of a constitutional self Protection…
–The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787,
[Farrand’s Records, Volume 1] YATES. June 25th, 1787.
The question is, not what rights naturally belong to man, but how they may be most equally and effectually guarded in society. And if some give up more than others, in order to obtain this end, there can be no room for complaint. To do otherwise, to require an equal concession from all, if it would create danger to the rights of some, would be sacrificing the end to the means. The rich man who enters into society along with the poor man gives up more than the poor man, yet, with an equal vote, he is equally safe. Were he to have more votes than the poor man, in proportion to his superior stake, the rights of the poor man would immediately cease to be secure. This consideration prevailed when the Articles of Confederation were formed…
–Roger Sherman, June 28th, 1787, Delegate from Connecticut.
[The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution [Elliot’s Debates, Volume 5]
…The power of self-defence was essential to the small states. Nature had given it to the smallest insect of the creation. He could never admit that there was no danger of combinations among the large states. They will, like individuals, find out and avail themselves of the advantage to be gained by it….
– -Oliver Ellsworth, June 29, 1787.
[The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Elliot’s Debates, Volume 5.]
Taking the opinions to be the same on this point, and he was sure if there was any room for change, it could not be on the side of the majority, the question will be shall less than 1/4 of the U. States withdraw themselves from the Union; or shall more than 3/4 . renounce the inherent, indisputable, and unalienable rights of men, in favor of the artificial systems of States….Can we forget for whom we are forming a Government? Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States? Will our honest Constituents be satisfied with metaphysical distinctions?
[The Debates in the Federal Convention, Sat. June 30, 1787.]
“Mr. MADISON thought the regulation of the militia naturally appertaining to the authority charged with the public defence….
–August 18. (1787).
[The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. Elliot’s Debates, Vol. 5]
…Your prediction of what would happen in Congress was exactly verified. It was with us, as with you, this or nothing; & this urged with a most extreme intemperance. The greatness of the powers given, & the multitude of Places to be created, produces a coalition of Monarchy men, Military Men, Aristocrats, and Drones whose noise, imprudence & zeal exceeds all belief—;Whilst the Commercial plunder of the South stimulates the rapacious Trader. In this state of things, the Patriot voice is raised in vain for such changes and securities as Reason and Experience prove to be necessary against the encroachments of power upon the indispensable rights of human nature….
–Richard Henry Lee, Oct. 1, 1787 letter to George Mason.
[Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 24.]
…I suppose my dear Sir, that the good people of the U. States in their late generous contest, contended for free government in the fullest, clearest, and strongest sense. That they had no idea of being brought under despotic rule under the notion of “Strong government,” or in form of elective despotism: Chains being still Chains, whether made of gold or iron.
The corrupting nature of power, and its insatiable appetite for increase, hath proved the necessity, and procured the adoption of the strongest and most express declarations of that Residuum of natural rights, which is not intended to be given up to Society; and which indeed is not necessary to be given for any good social purpose. In a government therefore, when the power of judging what shall be for the general welfare, which goes to every object of human legislation; and where the laws of such Judges shall be the supreme Law of the Land: it seems to be of the last consequence to declare in most explicit terms the reservations above alluded to. So much for the propriety of a Bill of Rights as a necessary bottom to this new system–It is in vain to say that the defects in this new Constitution may be remedied by the Legislature created by it. The remedy, as it may, so it may not be applied–And if it should a subsequent Assembly may repeal the Acts of its predecessor for the parliamentary doctrine is “quod leges posteriores priores contrarias abrogant” 4 Inst. 43. Surely this is not a ground upon which a wise and good man would choose to rest the dearest rights of human nature.
–Richard Henry Lee to Samuel Adams, Letter of 5 Oct. 1787.
[The Letters of Richard Henry Lee. Edited by James Curtis Ballagh. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan Co., 1911–14.]
It was absolutely necessary to carry arms for fear of pirates, &c. and … their arms were all stamped with peace, that they were never to be used but in case of hostile attack, that it was in the law of nature for every man to defend himself, and unlawful for any man to deprive him of those weapons of self defence.
[Boston Independent Chronicle, Oct. 25, 1787.]
Unless the people are considered in these two views, we shall never be able to understand the principle on which this system was constructed. I view the states as made for the people, as well as by them, and not the people as made for the states; the people, therefore, have a right, whilst enjoying the undeniable powers of society, to form either a general government, or state governments, in what manner they please, or to accommodate them to one another, and by this means preserve them all. This, I say, is the inherent and unalienable right of the people; and as an illustration of it, I beg to read a few words from the Declaration of Independence, made by the representatives of the United States, and recognized by the whole Union.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
This is the broad basis on which our independence was placed: on the same certain and solid foundation this system is erected….
…The power and business of the state legislatures relate to the great objects of life, liberty and property; the same are also objects of the general government.
Certainly, the citizens of America will be as tenacious in the one instance as in the other. They will be interested, and I hope will exert themselves, to secure their rights not only from being injured by the state governments, but also from being injured by the general government….
…It is laid before the citizens of the United States, unfettered by restraint; it is laid before them to be judged by the natural, civil, and political rights of men. By their fiat, it will become of value and authority; without it, it will never receive the character of authenticity and power….
—James Wilson, Dec. 4, 1787. The debates in the Several State Conventions. [Elliot’s Debates, Volume 2]
(Mr. Wilson signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and later one of the first Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice).
This article speaks for itself. The express authority of the people alone could give due validity to the Constitution. To have required the unanimous ratification of the thirteen States, would have subjected the essential interests of the whole to the caprice or corruption of a single member. It would have marked a want of foresight in the convention, which our own experience would have rendered inexcusable.
Two questions of a very delicate nature present themselves on this occasion: 1. On what principle the Confederation, which stands in the solemn form of a compact among the States, can be superseded without the unanimous consent of the parties to it? 2. What relation is to subsist between the nine or more States ratifying the Constitution, and the remaining few who do not become parties to it?
The first question is answered at once by recurring to the absolute necessity of the case; to the great principle of self-preservation; to the transcendent law of nature and of nature’s God, which declares that the safety and happiness of society are the objects at which all political institutions aim, and to which all such institutions must be sacrificed. Perhaps, also, an answer may be found without searching beyond the principles of the compact itself.
–James Madison, The Federalist No. 43, Independent Journal, Wednesday, January 23, 1788.