I sat in the back of the Ashbrook Center. It was a Friday afternoon and several students were steeling their nerves in anticipation of the imminent call to deliver their prepared speeches in answer to the question posed for this semester’s Henry Clay Speech Competition: “Why is America worth keeping?” I, being a first-time attendee of the competition, was most eager to hear what my classmates would have to say on such a momentous subject. The campus clock tolled three, and America’s advocates began their defense.
As I listened, I was somewhat intrigued to find no one making the readily apparent prestige or prosperity of the United States the focus of his or her case, turning rather to the core values of our nation’s character as the foundation for every argument. Each spokesperson displayed genuine erudition while elaborating upon the excellent principles that define the American mind and undergird our republic. Several presented trustworthy accounts of the most trying times of our history, times which proved not only the veracity and soundness of the eternal principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence but also the singular devotion of the American people to them. Others shared the personal narratives of well-respected friends or family who have experienced for themselves the faithfulness of the truths declared in our national birth certificate. Yet, in tracing our founding principles to their source, the advocates’ examinations stopped one or two pieces of information short, referencing merely “the Laws of Nature.”
In tracing the basis back to the laws of nature, the speakers presented only a partial quote of the Declaration. With the essential piece reintroduced, it reads: “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the “Laws of . . . Nature’s God” being His will as revealed in His Word. This not only incorporates revelation with reason—the human faculty by which the laws of nature are discovered—it establishes a hierarchy: God is supreme over nature. Indeed, this phrase addresses the two ways in which God makes Himself known: through His creation and through His Word. Both are His. Both are vital in order to understand the source of our founding principles and, therefore, to understand the principles themselves. To speak of the laws of nature with no reference to God is to ground principle exclusively in human reason. If the basis is to be human reason, what makes Blackstone or Jefferson any more correct than Rousseau or Nietzsche, other than personal preference or popular consensus? If, however, the bedrock and foundation is God, then there is a supreme standard by which the reasoning of mankind is to be guided and against which it is to be measured, and all attempts at reason which fail to align with that standard have their rightful place on the ash heap of history.
However, the quotation of that passage with reference to the principle of rights is misleading in and of itself, for the Declaration is not speaking of the “unalienable rights” in that section. The “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” are mentioned in the first paragraph and provide the basis by which “one people” is “entitle[d]” to a “separate and equal station” alongside the other “powers of the earth.”
The second paragraph establishes the foundation for the “causes which impel[this people]to the separation,” and it is in this paragraph that the “unalienable rights” of mankind are mentioned. The second “self-evident” truth expressed in the Declaration is that “all men …are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. ”Wait a moment. What is the source of mankind’s unalienable rights? “[T]heir Creator.” What about nature or the laws thereof? No mention is made. What does this mean? The laws of nature do not constitute the source of unalienable rights. The Creator does. God is not only the bedrock and foundation of the sanctity and sovereignty of nations but also the sole provider of each and every person’s unalienable rights. Therefore, the Creator is the original and ultimate source for the principles which define the American mind and animate the American spirit.
The principles of America and all that has been born of them do indeed make America worthy of the keeping, but it is precisely because they are not America’s principles but God’s principles that their truth and faithfulness transcend all restrictions of time and place. Whether in the face of a belligerent British king, a subversive slave-based confederacy, or the pernicious propagation of Progressivism, these principles have ever proven themselves to be the nut on which would-be despots crack their teeth. The present time is no different. Sitting in the back of the Ashbrook Center, I could not help but be inspired by the resolute advocacy of our sacred principles as the most effectual justification and most worthy aspiration for the continuance of America. To then come to know the source from whom our Founding Fathers derived the doctrine of the Declaration is to remove its fundamental tenets from the sand of human reason and establish them upon the unshakable bedrock of absolute truth. A true American cannot but be roused to the most courageous defense, the most dedicated service, the most honorable conduct by a genuine conviction in the affirmations of our Declaration. Standing upon such an eternal foundation, what can stand against us? Nothing. Let us therefore, as countrymen, just as our Founding Fathers, “for the support of [these principles], with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence… mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes[,] and our sacred Honor.”