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The Ten Commandments in American History
The Tenth Commandment

This page is taken from America OnLine's "Separation of Church and State" Bulletin Board. (Jump works only for AOL subscribers.) I was told by one of the Secular Humanist contributors that Christianity had nothing to do with the legal system created by the Founding Fathers. My response:

Subject: Re: The Decalog & U.S. law -- Tenth Commandment
From: kevin4vft@aol.com (KEVIN4VFT)
Date: 09 Jan 1999 18:18:57 EST

In article <19990102133927.05500.00005977@ng-fa2.aol.com>, xaosjester@aol.com (XaosJester) writes:

>Kevin says: "All you asserted was that [all] other cultures prohibit the same
>things prohibited in the Bible. You did not prove that the Common Law
>was based on Chinese or Arabic law or the code of Hammurabi."
>I did not try to prove what common law was based on. What I did prove was
>that it was not based on the decalog.

Let's review his original post and see if there really is any "proof."

In article <19981229154902.11217.00003483@ng37.aol.com>, xaosjester@aol.com (XaosJester) writes:

>The claim by many christian accomadationists that the decalog is the basis of
>U.S. law is patently false and easily disproved.
>Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy
>neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor
>his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.
>If it was against the law to covet your neighbors new corvette or Bill Gates'
>money most of us would be in jail.

I can't think right off hand of a single person in all of Hebrew-Christian history who has advocated a civil punishment for covetousness (when the word is defined as an inward desire, but not an outward action).

A nation's laws can be said to be based on the Ten Commandments in the absence of any civil punishment for "covetousness."

But the word in Hebrew means more than a thought. Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad writes:

If in the last commandment the translation of the verb as "covet" were correct, it would be the only case in which the decalogue deals not with an action, but with an inner impulse, hence with a sin of intention. But the corresponding Hebrew world (chamad) has two meanings, both to covet and to take. It includes outward malpractices, meaning seizing for oneself.
Deuteronomy: A Commentary, Phila: Westminster Press, 1966 p. 59

Martin Noth adds,

[The verb] describes not merely the emotion of coveting but also includes the attempt to attach something to oneself illegally. The commandment therefore deals with all possible undertakings which involve gaining power over the goods and possessions of a "neighbour," whether through theft or through all kinds of dishonest machinations.
Exodus, Phila: Westminster Press, 1962, p. 166.

When Jesus speaks of the Commandment in Mark 10:19, he uses a Greek word which the King James accurately translates as "defraud."

He breaks this command, who by any means endeavours to deprive a man of his house or farm, by some underhand and clandestine bargain with the original landlord; what is called in some countries, "taking a man's house and farm over his head."
Adam Clarke, Discourses on Various Subjects, II: 36f.

Thus, a variety of laws in Western civilization are based on this principle of the fraudulent use of the law to defraud or to harm. Many of these laws legislate against the conspiracy aspect of fraud. They legislate against the covetous seizure of our neighbor's possessions by evil although sometimes legal means. The law against dishonest gain is thus a very important one, and the tenth commandment, instead of being a vague appendage to the law, is basic to it.
Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law I:635

Frederic Bastiat has shown how covetousness destroys the Rule of Law:



Envy is a related offense, and will also destroy a society, as Helmut Schoeck has demonstrated (Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, NY:Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

Any government which does not encourage obedience to the Tenth Commandment is encouraging its own demise. The Founding Fathers recognized this. Our system is based on the Ten Commandments, including "Thou shalt not covet":

The law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal as well as a moral and religious code. . . laws essential to the existence of men in society and most of which have been enacted by every nation which ever professed any code of laws. Vain indeed would be the search among the writings of profane antiquity . . . to find so broad, so complete, and so solid a basis for morality as this decalogue lays down.
John Quincy Adams, Letters of John Quincy Adams to His Son on the Bible and its Teachings (Auburn: James M. Alden, 1850) 34.

John Adams said that anyone who works against the establishment of the Ten Commandments in society is working against freedom and civilization:

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.
John Adams: A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America (Phila: Wm Young, 1797) III:217, from "The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth Examined," Letter VI.

Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt 1943
Item 4 - State of the Union Address
Jan 7, 1943

Today the United Nations are the mightiest military coalition in all history. They represent an overwhelming majority of the population of the world. Bound together in solemn agreement that they themselves will not commit acts of aggression or conquest against any of their neighbors, the United Nations can and must remain united for the maintenance of peace by preventing any attempt to rearm in Germany, in Japan, in Italy, or in any other Nation which seeks to violate the Tenth Commandment -"Thou shalt not covet."

Cf. Robert F. Durant and Michelle Deany Holmes, "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Water: The Rio Grande Basin Regulatory Experience, 45 Public Administration Review, Nov-Dec 1985 pp. 821-831.

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