Alexander Hamilton on the Law of Nature

While delving into the historical reasons for the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, I came across a letter written by Alexander Hamilton in 1775. In this letter, he argued that unjust laws were not binding on man when they contradict the natural laws given by God.

“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power. … 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 [petty objections] 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. ”

— Alexander Hamilton in The Farmer Refuted

Hamilton’s reasoning may sound familiar to Christian readers. In at least two biblical instances, people stood against unjust laws. The first case involves the Egyptian midwives who refused to throw newborn baby boys into the Nile River. The second case is that of the Apostle Peter when he was brought before the Sanhedrin for healing a lame man and speaking in the name of Jesus.

So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:18-20 NKJV

Does this mean that any person should immediately disobey the American government when they disagree with a current law? Before going overboard with civil disobedience, we need to remember that government is also ordained by God (Rom. 13:1-7). While we would rightly disobey any law that mandated the killing of babies or the silencing of those who proclaim the gospel of Jesus, we are not granted carte blanche to disobey God-ordained government for any and all reasons.

In the case of the American Revolution, the founders went to great lengths to debate what the proper response was to British tyranny. They eventually agreed that their government had overstepped their bounds and were no longer acting lawfully toward the rights of the colonies. Because of that, they chose to rebel against the government for appropriate reasons. Honestly, this will take more study to completely understand, but Hamilton’s words highlight what the founders were thinking at the time.

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P.S. If you click on the link to Hamilton’s 3 page letter, you may also want to have a dictionary ready to understand all that he says. I had to look up words such as eclaircissement, coeval, mediately, consanguinity, sagaciously, and cavils. Apparently, Hamilton’s 19-year-old vocabulary was well beyond mine.