THE SECURITY OF A FREE STATE
Though some modern scholars (who purport to know Jefferson better than he knew himself) deny the importance of John Locke’s influence on America’s founders, Thomas Jefferson pronounced the English philosopher to be one of the three greatest men who ever lived. The influence of Locke’s thinking is evident in the draft Declaration of Independence Jefferson produced to articulate the principles and facts on which he his fellow patriots relied when Britain’s American colonies’ broke away from British rule.
The Declaration adopts the natural law reasoning Locke develops in his Second Treatise of Government (1690). The treatise was written as part of an effort to justify Britain’s Glorious Revolution (1688), which deposed the Roman Catholic monarch, King James II. Like the Declaration, Locke’s reasoning in the Second Treatise evokes and relies upon the authority of the Creator.
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, and liberty, or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business—they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s, pleasure….
Though many people mistakenly assume that the first right conferred by the law of nature has simply to do with self-preservation, Locke’s description extends the purview of that first right, so that every person “when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind.” Moreover, anyone who transgresses the law of nature:
declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security; and so he becomes dangerous to mankind……Which being a trespass against the whole species and the peace and safety of it provided for by the law of nature, every man upon this score, by the right he has to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where necessary, destroy things noxious to them…
It’s important here to notice that the right Locke refers to is not some kind of arbitrary freedom to act. It is, on the contrary, a direct expression of the obligation, imposed by the natural law, “to preserve the rest of mankind.” Natural obligation gives rise to natural right. And both exist in respect of the “measure God has set to the actions of men.” The natural right is therefore necessarily limited by God’s measures or rules, as set forth for the general good of mankind.
Many so-called libertarians in our day entirely disregard or reject this necessary relationship between God ordained natural obligation and God-endowed natural right. They speak of liberty as though it is an end in itself, even though it is obviously and necessarily no more than a resting place along the way to some other goal. We are at liberty only so long as we remain undecided about our course of action. That’s why the process of decision is accurately called “deliberation”, a word that, in its Latin root, refers to things hanging in the balance to be carefully weighed. It is the activity of reason where by we consider and discard alternative courses of action until we arrive at the one we are bound by reason to undertake. We start in suspense, halting between and among different possible actions. We move by way of reason to a the point where action is no longer suspended, having reached and accepted a conclusion that commits us to action (i.e., we are no longer in suspense because our will has already moved into the activity we have chosen to do.)
What, then, distinguishes the exercise of natural right from the exertions of arbitrary freedom? The deliberation involved in natural right begins and ends with the conviction that we are bound by the rule of reason, which is the will of God for the general good of mankind, and of all creation. In this respect we are God’s representatives, agents of His benevolent will, commissioned by him “to preserve the rest of mankind.” Our freedom to act is therefore derived from His power, vested in us because we have been “sent into the world by his order, and about his business…” The key to deciphering the nature of right is Locke’s accurate observation that it exists to serve God’s pleasure, not our own. Applying this key we can logically arrive at a catalog of our natural rights simply by listing all the things we are by nature reasonably obliged to do in order to serve and preserve ourselves and all those who use their natural reason (i.e., the God endowed capacity for deliberation) to weigh their actions in the balance of God’s intention, scaled by conscience, which is the consciousness of right inherent in the way He has made us to be (our nature).
If those government officials in the United States who are sworn to uphold the Constitution were in fact determined to fulfill their oath, no day would pass during which they did not think of God in the course of performing their duties. For the rights government exists to secure are God endowed. Liberty (whose blessings the people declare it to be the ultimate aim of the Constitution to secure) is therefore a function of God’s authority, derived from the injunctions and commands wherewith human being as such is informed by the bounds, limits and relationships that secure life and happiness.
If, always and in every way, people did what the benevolent will of God inclines them to do, no human being would willingly threaten or harm another. Insofar as evil refers to the harms associated with willful acts, the conformity of all human actions to God’s law of nature would eliminate evil. But (as I recently observed in another place) men are not insects, like bees or ants. The same will that establishes “the measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security” makes it possible, as an attribute of our nature, for us to choose among different courses of action, including actions that transgress the boundaries laid out for our good.
People committed to follow, by way of reason, the God-ordained law of nature, deliberately allow their actions to be constrained within its bounds. As Lincoln put it, they do right, as God gives them to see the right. For this reason their exercise of choice is recognizable as an exercise of right. As “servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business”, they carry out the commission he has laid upon them.
Because, properly so called, all human beings are agents equally commissioned by the same sovereign, every person is entitled to the respect owed to the one all are obliged to serve. But once a person contravenes the duty each owes to that sovereign, his transgression forfeits the respect to which he is otherwise entitled. If, the transgression harms any of the rest of humankind, each and all of the rest are obliged, insofar as possible, to preserve humanity from that harm.
Though this reasoning applies to the exercise of any natural right, it is especially clear when it comes to acts of violence. As we are obliged to preserve ourselves, we have the right to prepare and use our arms as necessary in order to do so. But we are also obliged to prepare ourselves for their use as necessary “to preserve the rest of mankind.” The right to arms is therefore an individual right, in the first instance, but it entails an obligation to humanity in general, and to every human being or community determined to respect the natural law. As it is right to preserve oneself from wrongdoing, so it is wrong to refuse aid, where possible, to those determined to do the same.
This conclusion is the key to devising legislation that implements the Constitutional requirements of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by enforcing the right it entails. America’s founding generation took this enforcement for granted, as did every generation of Americans before the modern era. For a time, the development of modern conveniences temporarily attenuated our perception of the natural dangers of the human condition. But that temporary and always very partial reprieve is definitively passed. That is now made clear to us, whether by terrifying acts of unreasoning madness; or carefully planned acts of deliberate terrorism. In the historic sense, America’s frontier life may be a thing of the past. But we live today on the frontiers of a pervasive spiritual, psychological wilderness. As in our frontier history, peaceful life on this frontier can be idyllic. But it can also be shattered, at any moment, by some atrocious outbreak of violence. If we put an armed guard on every street corner, in every classroom, business and mall, we would not lessen the danger. As the wilderness is within us, it will be within each of them.
This situation is not new. It is in fact the tragic irony of the human condition since Adam slept alone in Paradise. Throughout human history societies have dealt with it successfully, at least in terms of preserving a modicum of peace and order despite the prevalence of impending doom. But only once in all of mankind’s history has a nation successfully and prosperously established that modicum of peace while respecting the liberty of the people, i.e., their right to government themselves.
As others have in the past, self serving would-be tyrants now among us are bent on using this age old challenge of human government to terrorize Americans into surrendering our God-endowed rights, in conception as well as fact. Must we do so? Not if we remember that the genius of America’s founding lay precisely in the insight that people who sow within themselves a spirit that respects God-endowed right have within the wherewithal to conquer and allay the spiritual, psychological wilderness that is the fallen lot of all humanity. As we have seen in this brief essay, it is possible to rediscover the logic of right. But can we adapt and redeploy the strategy of right derived from it. That strategy allowed previous generations of Americans to quell the pervasive dangers that would otherwise have strangled America’s liberty soon after it was born. I believe it can do the same for us. And if you join me for the next part of this essay, we will explore the way.