For America's Founders, the "laws of Nature and of Nature's God" imply the existence of a universal standard of morality by which actions are measured. Accessible to man through reason, the natural law remains unchanged from age to age, and nation to nation. Even though the natural law yields "self-evident truths," it does not provide easy solutions to constitutional or policy questions. For such questions, prudence—practical wisdom—is necessary, as is a moral education that encourages virtue.
For Progressives, natural law was as illusory as natural rights—a useful fiction for a bygone era—but irrelevant for their day and the future. It could be discarded in favor of a scientific approach to legal and political arrangements that they saw as instrumental to the evolution of government.
"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, 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."—The Declaration of Independence
"In a state of nature men are equal, exactly on a par in regard to authority: each one is a law to himself, having the law of God, the sole rule of conduct, written on his heart."—Gad Hitchcock, "An Election Sermon"
"The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader: to pursue them requires not the aid of many counselors."—Thomas Jefferson, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America"
"True law is right reason, consonant with nature, spread through all people. It is constant and eternal; it summons to duty by its orders, it deters from crime by its prohibitions.... We cannot be released from this."—Cicero, On the Commonwealth
"To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions, and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature."—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
"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, liberty, or possessions."—John Locke, Second Treatise of Government
"The universal law of God and nature is always the same."—Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government
"Should an act of Parliament be against any of his natural laws, which are immutably true, their declaration would be contrary to eternal truth, equity and justice, and consequently void."—James Otis, "Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved"
"That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people, claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."—Thomas Jefferson, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America"
"Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"Their own special interpretations of liberty, individuality and intelligence were themselves historically conditioned, and were relevant only to their own time."—John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"Now, it came to me... that the Constitution of the United States had been made under the dominion of the Newtonian Theory.... The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"They put forward their ideas as immutable truths good at all times and places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves."—John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"Laws have never altered the facts; laws have always necessarily expressed the facts; adjusted interests as they have arisen and have changed toward one another."—Woodrow Wilson, "What is Progress?"
"But the Constitution of the United States is not a mere lawyers' document: it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age."—Woodrow Wilson, "The President of the United States"
"Clearly, all this calls for a reappraisal of values."—Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Commonwealth Club Address"
"The day of enlightened administration has come."—Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Commonwealth Club Address"
"You can help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit, can be realized in the life of the Nation."—Lyndon B. Johnson, "Remarks at the University of Michigan"