Welcome to The Witherspoon Institute’s online center for Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. This resource is conceived as an archive for and a commentary and study guide to the seminal documents of the natural law and natural rights tradition, especially as that tradition relates to American constitutionalism and political thought.

As is evident by the variety of thinkers and source documents presented here, the natural law and natural right tradition is a complex and many-sided body of moral and political thought.  It is unified, however, by an agreement as to the natural (as distinguished from conventional or man-made) character of principles of right and wrong, and of justice and injustice.  Philosophers and statesmen who think and act within this shared understanding agree that the standards that ought to guide the ordering of political and social life are accessible to human reason.  One can find this appeal to natural standards of justice in students of politics as diverse as Plato’s Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, early modern thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and the leading lights of American constitutionalism, from the revolutionary and constitutional founders to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.  As such, the natural law and natural right tradition merits the thoughtful consideration of any citizen seeking to deepen his or her knowledge of the foundations of the American political order.

Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities as part of its We the People initiative.  The goal of the We the People initiative has been to encourage and strengthen the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture through the support of projects that explore significant events and themes in our nation's history and culture and that advance knowledge of the principles that define America.  We are grateful to the NEH for its willingness to include our project in its worthy efforts to support intellectually substantive civic education.  We also wish to express our gratitude to the many scholars associated with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University for their invaluable contributions to the design and content of this educational resource.

The Witherspoon Institute is an independent research center that works to enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies. Located in Princeton, New Jersey, the Institute promotes the application of fundamental principles of republican government and ordered liberty to contemporary problems through a variety of centers, research programs, seminars, consultations, and publications. To learn more about the programs and publications of the Witherspoon Institute, please visit the Institute's homepage.