The American population has a peculiar understanding of American history due to omissions in public education – likely for political reasons. One example is the lack of knowledge about the thousands of black slave owners. Another is the belief that “In God, We Trust” was a foundational phrase when it was not added to currency until the mid-1950s. Additionally, many do not truly know about our founders or understand the meaning or origin of the term “Natural Right.”
The Declaration of Independence lists life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as “natural rights,” which, by definition, cannot be licensed, adjusted, altered, traded, or taken away. However, “natural rights” and “natural law” are not well understood. “Natural rights” are rights people supposedly have under “natural law.” Natural law is the doctrine that states that human affairs should be governed by ethical principles that are part of the very nature of things and can be understood by reason.
The keywords to focus on in this definition are “doctrine” and “reason.” Doctrine is a belief system held and taught by a group, and reason is the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments through logic. Our founders believed that our nation should be built on the premise of “natural right,” which comes from “natural law,” a belief in deep thought, enlightenment, and the process of logic. But what group during the 1700s held such ideas as their doctrine?
During the 17th and 18th centuries, an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment popularized the belief in a creator based on reason, but rejected the belief in a deity who interacted with humankind. This belief system, also known as Deism, is not commonly taught in schools today because it is seen as dangerous by those in authority. However, it is important to note that the belief in reason as a tool for exposing and rejecting nonsense was an important principle in the formation of the United States.
The word Deism is derived from the Latin word “Deus,” meaning “God.” Deism, by definition, means the study of God. Deists believe in the existence of a creator based on reason but reject the belief in a deity who interacted with humankind. This belief system follows the idea that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe. Moreover, they believe that reason and observation of the natural world are the only ways to understand the universe and the nature of God. This belief in reason and the rejection of dogma and superstition was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment movement, which was popular among many founders of the United States.
Encyclopedia Britannica states the following:
But the widespread existence in 18th-century America of a school of religious thought called Deism complicates the actual beliefs of the Founders. Drawing from the scientific and philosophical work of such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Newton, and John Locke, Deists argued that human experience and rationality—rather than religious dogma and mystery—determine the validity of human beliefs. In his widely read “The Age of Reason”, Thomas Paine, the principal American exponent of Deism, called Christianity “a fable.” Paine, the protégé of Benjamin Franklin, denied “that the Almighty ever did communicate anything to man, by…speech,…language, or…vision.”
Thomas Paine, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Locke; these names should provide at least a couple of red flags regarding American history or American influence. Further research will demonstrate that some of America’s most famous and beloved founders were, without a doubt, Deists. Ethan Allen is a great example. Ethan Allen became the hero at Fort Ticonderoga after he raised his force of Green Mountain Boys to help capture the British, a story you are probably familiar with. You are probably not familiar with his book “Reason: The Only Oracle of Man,” which attacks superstition and “revealed” religion while encouraging the replacement of superstition with God-given reason.
Many of our most influential heroes fall under this list of people who were either total Deists or heavily influenced by Deism. This list includes Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, John Adams, James Madison, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Samuel Adams, James Monroe, etc. In fact, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison are also believed to be Deists. Even the big man himself is believed to be Deist. George Washington’s refusal to receive communion in his adult life indicated a Deistic belief to many of his pastors and peers.
Aside from the many overt declarations of their Deism, further evidence can be found in the language they used. Non-Christian Deists (both then and now) tend to refuse to use Judeo-Christian terminology and describe God with such expressions as “Providence,” “the Creator,” “the Ruler of Great Events,” and “Nature’s God.” Of course, these words are written throughout our Founding documents. That was not a mistake.
It is important to note that the idea of Natural Rights, the basis of many of the rights and freedoms we enjoy today, comes from this belief in reason and the rejection of dogma and superstition. Moreover, it is rooted in the questioning of those who feel compelled to act as though they are Gods themselves. It is a belief that all human beings have certain rights that are inherent to their nature and cannot be taken away by any government or authority.
However, the point that must be made, a point often forgotten in Deist discussions is the Deist premise of questioning. A core principle of Deism is to question everything. Therefore, and in that spirit, I leave you with you a single question to ponder. Why would government neglect to educate citizens about these rather profound truths?
Be sure to check out some of the great books on Deism.