Exploring Higher Law and Natural Rights in Colonial America


The American colonies, in their pursuit of independence and self-governance, were deeply influenced by the notion of a “higher law” and certain inalienable “natural rights.” This belief was not only a driving force behind the American Revolution but also a cornerstone in the crafting of the United States Constitution. Understanding these concepts is essential to comprehending the mindset of the colonists and the philosophical underpinnings of American democracy.

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The Concept of Higher Law

The idea of a “higher law” stems from a philosophical and legal perspective that certain universal, moral principles transcend human-made laws. This concept has its roots in ancient philosophical thoughts, particularly those of Aristotle and Cicero, and was further developed during the Enlightenment by thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

For the American colonists, the “higher law” represented a form of ultimate justice and truth, which stood above the laws enacted by any government, including the British Crown. This belief was fueled by the Enlightenment ideals that emphasized reason, individual rights, and the notion that all humans are inherently entitled to certain freedoms and liberties.

Natural Rights: The Core of Higher Law

Central to the idea of a higher law are the natural rights. These rights are believed to be inherent and inalienable, not granted by governments but rather existing as a fundamental part of human nature. The colonists’ list of natural rights drew heavily from the work of John Locke, who argued that these rights included:

  1. Life: Every individual has the right to life and the necessity to protect it.
  2. Liberty: This encompasses the freedom to pursue one’s own path and make personal choices without undue restraint or coercion.
  3. Property: Locke emphasized the right to own and use property, which he saw as an extension of individual labor and effort.
  4. Pursuit of Happiness: Although not explicitly stated by Locke, this right was later interpreted as essential by American thinkers, leading to its inclusion in the Declaration of Independence.

These natural rights formed the backbone of the colonists’ arguments against British rule. They believed that the British government, through various acts and policies, was infringing upon these inalienable rights, thereby violating the higher law.

The Impact of Higher Law and Natural Rights on the Constitution

The influence of the concept of higher law and natural rights is evident in several key aspects of the United States Constitution:

  1. Preamble: The Constitution’s preamble sets the tone for a government based on the principles of justice, liberty, and the general welfare – all of which reflect the ideals of higher law and natural rights.
  2. Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution explicitly protect certain natural rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press (First Amendment), the right to bear arms (Second Amendment), and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment).
  3. Separation of Powers: The division of government into three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) is a practical application of Enlightenment thinking, designed to prevent the abuse of power and protect individual rights.
  4. Checks and Balances: This system ensures that no single branch of government becomes too powerful, safeguarding the rights of the people against tyranny.

The Philosophical Underpinnings of Higher Law and Natural Rights

The philosophical underpinnings of higher law and natural rights are deeply embedded in the Enlightenment era, which emphasized reason, individualism, and skepticism of traditional authority. Philosophers like John Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau played a pivotal role in shaping these concepts. Locke’s theories on social contract and government by consent were particularly influential. He argued that individuals have natural rights to life, liberty, and property, and that governments should be established with the consent of the governed to protect these rights.

Montesquieu’s ideas on the separation of powers influenced the structural design of the U.S. Constitution, ensuring that no single branch of government could infringe upon the natural rights of individuals. Rousseau’s emphasis on popular sovereignty also resonated with the colonists, reinforcing the idea that legitimate political authority lies not with monarchs, but with the people.

Colonial Application of Higher Law and Natural Rights

In colonial America, these philosophical principles were not mere abstractions. They became rallying cries against perceived injustices imposed by British rule. The Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and the Intolerable Acts were seen as blatant violations of these natural rights. Colonial leaders like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Samuel Adams cited higher law and natural rights in their arguments for independence and self-governance.

The Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson, is a seminal document that embodies these ideals. It proclaims that “all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable Rights,” grounding the colonists’ quest for independence in the universal principles of higher law and natural rights.

Challenges and Criticisms

While the notion of higher law and natural rights was revolutionary, it was not without its challenges and criticisms. One major contradiction was the institution of slavery, which existed in stark contrast to the professed ideals of liberty and equality. This glaring inconsistency would eventually lead to profound divisions within the nation.

Additionally, the concept of natural rights primarily benefited land-owning white men, often excluding women, Native Americans, and other groups. This limited application of natural rights highlights the complexities and contradictions in early American history.

Legacy and Modern Implications

The legacy of higher law and natural rights continues to influence American political and legal thought. These concepts have been invoked in various landmark Supreme Court cases and have played a significant role in civil rights movements. The application and interpretation of these rights have evolved, reflecting changes in societal values and norms.

In modern times, discussions around issues such as privacy, freedom of expression, and equal protection under the law often hark back to these foundational principles. The ongoing debates about the balance between individual rights and societal needs, as well as the scope of government authority, are deeply rooted in the notion of higher law and natural rights established during the colonial era.


The concepts of higher law and natural rights are more than historical footnotes; they are the bedrock upon which the American political system is built. Their influence on the Constitution and American society underscores their enduring relevance. As students of political science, understanding these principles is crucial for a comprehensive grasp of American political and legal foundations and for appreciating the dynamic nature of constitutional interpretation and application in modern governance.

In conclusion, the notion of higher law and the pursuit of natural rights provided the philosophical foundation for the American Revolution and the creation of the United States Constitution. These ideas continue to shape the nation’s political discourse and legal interpretations, underscoring their timeless significance in American democracy.