The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Law in Colonial America

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Law in Colonial America[1]

With the exception of Rhode Island, every early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its own civil code of laws. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut declared that the Governor and his council of six elected officials would “have power to administer justice according to the laws here established; and for want thereof according to the rule of the word of God.” Also in 1638, the Rhode Island government adopted “all those perfect and most absolute laws of His, given us in His holy word of truth, to be guided and judged thereby. Exod. 24. 3, 4; 2 Chron. II. 3; 2 Kings. II. 17.”

Commander-in-Chief George Washington issued numerous military orders during the American Revolution that first prohibited swearing and then ordered an attendance on Divine worship, thus relating the prohibition against profanity to a religious duty. Typical of these orders, on July 4, 1775, Washington declared:

The General most earnestly requires and expects a due observance of those articles of war established for the government of the army which forbid profane cursing, swearing, and drunkenness; and in like manner requires and expects of all officers and soldiers not engaged on actual duty, a punctual attendance on Divine Service to implore the blessings of Heaven upon the means used for our safety and defense.[2]

In 1824, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (in a decision subsequently invoked authoritatively and endorsed by the U. S. Supreme Court 48) reaffirmed that the civil laws against blasphemy were derived from divine law:

The true principles of natural religion are part of the common law; the essential principles of revealed religion are part of the common law; so that a person vilifying, subverting or ridiculing them may be prosecuted at common law.[3]

The civil laws enacted to uphold the Fourth Commandment are so common that to list them all would fill many volumes. We don’t have to go any further than the United States Constitution in Article I, Sec. 7, par. 2: “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless Congress by their Adjournment prevent its return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.” The President is given ten days to make his decision about a congressionally approved Bill, but not calculated in those ten days is Sunday. The “Sundays excepted” clause had previously appeared in State constitutions of that day, and still operates with the closing of the post office. The historical understanding of this clause was summarized in 1912 by the Supreme Court of Missouri which, expounding on the meaning of this provision in its own State constitution and in the U. S. Constitution, declared:

It is provided that if the Governor does not return a bill within 10 days (Sundays excepted), it shall become a law without his signature. Although it may be said that this provision leaves it optional with the Governor whether he will consider bills or not on Sunday, yet, regard being had to the circumstances under which it was inserted, can any impartial mind deny that it contains a recognition of the Lord’s Day as a day exempted by law from all worldly pursuits? The framers of the Constitution, then, recognized Sunday as a day to be observed, acting themselves under a law which exacted a compulsive observance of it. If a compulsive observance of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest had been deemed inconsistent with the principles contained in the Constitution, can anything be clearer than, as the matter was so plainly and palpably before the Convention, a specific condemnation of the Sunday law would have been engrafted upon it? So far from it, Sunday was recognized as a day of rest.[4]

Commandments five through ten have variously been incorporated into our legal codes. A1934 Louisiana appeals court cited the fifth commandment as the basis of civil policy between parents and children:

“‘Honor thy father and thy mother,’ is as much a command of the municipal law as it is a part of the Decalogue, regarded as holy by every Christian people. ‘A child,’ says the code, ‘whatever be his age, owes honor and respect to his father and mother.’”[5]

For example, the implications of the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” finds various applications. Here’s one from the state of Georgia that is applicable to property cases and surveys used to delineate boundary markers:

“Iron pins are a common and useful means of identifying property corners and they and other similar monuments serve a useful purpose. The installation and maintenance of permanent monuments identifying land corners even preserves the good order of society itself. From earliest times the law not only authorized but protected landmarks. Interference with landmarks of another was a violation of the Mosaic law. See Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17; Job 24:2; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10. (256 Ga. 54, International Paper Realty Company v. Bethune. No. 43092. Supreme Court of Georgia, June 10, 1986).”

The ninth commandment prohibits “bearing false witness.” Laws against perjury in America go back to the colonial era and are still enforced today. For example, in 1924 the Oregon Supreme Court declared: “No official is above the law. ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’ is a command of the Decalogue, and that forbidden act is denounced by statute as a felony.”[6] In 1988, the Supreme Court of Mississippi referenced the Ninth Commandment by reprimanding a prosecutor for introducing accusations during cross-examination of a defendant for which he had no verifiable evidence. The court stated:

When the State or any party states or suggests the existence of certain damaging facts and offers no proof whatever to substantiate the allegations, a golden opportunity is afforded the opposing counsel in closing argument to appeal to the Ninth Commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness . . . ” Exodus 20:16.

While there are no civil sanctions attached to the Tenth Commandment, you can see how it influences the other nine. John Adams, our nation’s second President, said it well:

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet” and “Thou shalt not steal” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.[7]

People covet, and when they can’t attain what they covet by legal means, they steal and sometimes kill. Governments covet power, so they covet the property of others, confiscate it or tax it so they can gain favor with others by paying them off in confiscated tax dollars.


[1] Much of the material for this chapter is taken from David Barton, “The Ten Commandments: A Part of America’s Legal System for Almost 400 years!,” Prepared and presented in response to multiple ACLU lawsuits against public displays of the Ten Commandments, United States District Court, Eastern District Court, Eastern District of Kentucky, London Division (March 2001).
[2] George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1931), 3:309, General Orders, Head-Quarters, Cambridge, July 4, 1775.
Updegraph v. Commonwealth, 11 Serg. & Rawle 393, 401 (Penn. 1824).
[4] State v. Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co., 143 S.W. 785, 803 (Mo. 1912).
[5] Ruiz v. Clancy, 157 So. 737, 738 (La. Ct. App. 1934), citing Caldwell v. Henmen, 5 Rob. 20.
[6] Watts v. Gerking, 228 P. 135, 141 (Or. 1924).
John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, Charles Francis Adams, editor (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), Vol. VI, p. 9, “A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.”

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