The Declaration of Independence and the Laws of Nature

“...and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them...”

With this passage of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson made the case that the newly christened United States of America deserved a spot as an equal among the nations of the earth. Unlike the story of King Arthur and Excalibur, there was no sword in the stone that Thomas Jefferson or any of the Founding Fathers had removed that could be shown as proof that their succession from British rule was ordained by God. Jefferson had to rely upon rhetoric to convince the world, the members of the British Parliament, and King George III that the United States of America were doing only that which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God necessitated that they do.

According to John Locke, the law of nature is based upon “reason and common equity” (Locke II,8). All humans are under the responsibility to do what is good for all and that is revealed through reason. Locke's arguments also calls for justice to be undertaken by any people if the law of nature is being usurped or neglected (Locke II,7). Thomas Jefferson made the argument that King George III was not living up to his responsibility as a proper king because he continued to violate the Law of Nature that “governments are instituted among men” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.

In hearkening to this belief in the the Laws of Nature, the individual's responsibility to not neglect it, and the violation of those laws by the king, Jefferson made his case that the United States of America must take its place among the other nations of this world. According to the list of grievances that followed the first two paragraphs, the people in the colonies were being held under oppression and were victims of a king who violated the reasonable laws that everyone – even the king – are under.

Jefferson did not frame the Declaration of Independence against the British nation; instead, he argued that the colonies were living up to their responsibility as rational humans under the principles of the Laws of Nature. For instance, if I was a soldier stationed at a remote base in the mountains in Afghanistan and had received a direct order from President Bush that I should never leave my position guarding that base until he personally told me otherwise, I would not leave that base even if a commanding officer came along and told me to leave. This fictitious case is similar to the argument Jefferson is making. All humans are under a law given to them by God and revealed in Nature that should never be violated. If an earthly king, who is supposed to be their authority placed there by God, violates the Laws of Nature, then it is the responsibility of all people to adhere to the Laws of Nature and not their earthly king. A commanding officer never overrides the President, and an earthly king never overrides Nature's God.

Jefferson was trying to walk a tightrope in declaring the independence of the United States while not alienating the support of people in England that had stood up for the colonies' rights up to this point. It was the colonies' responsibility to assume their spot as an equal nation on the world stage due to the failure of the King of England to recognize his position under the Laws of Nature. By framing their independence with the Laws of Nature and Nature's God, Jefferson made the case that all who would oppose their independence would also be fighting against those natural and divine laws.

To paraphrase this section of the Declaration, it would be like Jefferson writing, “Because of our responsibility given to us by God to adhere to reason and look out for the well-being of all men combined with the failure of those responsibilities being taken care of in our current circumstances, we must assume our position as an equal nation among the many nations of earth.”

Locke, John. “The Two Treatises of Government.” 1690.