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The Ten Commandments in American History
The Eighth 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 -- Eighth Commandment
From: kevin4vft@aol.com (KEVIN4VFT)
Date: 09 Jan 1999 18:19:04 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 steal.
>For almost as long as there have been prohibitions against murder there have
>been laws to punish the thief.

But the men who founded this nation derived their laws from the Bible, not from other religions.

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.

If I had access to Lexis I could search all court cases for the phrase "thou shalt not steal." I would undoubtedly find many, each of which would prove that America's legal system was based on the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament of the Bible, not any other religious system. The case of Grand Upright Music v. Warner Bros., 780 F.Supp.182 (1991) is but one example:

Its first four words -- "Thou shalt not steal" -- contain the opinion's first and only reference to any authority or precedent.
Carl A. Falstrom, "Thou Shalt Not Steal: The Future of Digital Sound Sampling in Popular Music." 45 Hastings Law Journ 359, 364 (1994)

The court went on to say,

Unfortunately, in the modern world of business this admonition is not always followed. Indeed, the defendants in this action for copyright infringement would have this court believe that stealing is rampant in the music business and, for that reason, their conduct here should be excused. The conduct of the defendants herein, however, violates not only the [Eighth] Commandment, but also the copyright laws of this country.
Grand Upright Music at 183.

It may be the case that digital sampling does not violate the Eighth Commandment, but it is undoubtedly the case that that Eighth Commandment is the theological basis for America's laws against stealing, and even laws on copyright.

The correct response to theft is restitution of stolen goods. But many governments have prescribed other punishments. The Bible places a limit on the power of judges to punish those who commit crimes. Deuteronomy 25:3 gives an example of this limitation of punishments:

Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.

This law was strictly followed by the Congress which adopted the First Amendment.

See . . . An Act for the Punishment of certain Crimes against the United States, 16, 1 Stat. 116 (1790) (enacted by the First Congress and requiring that persons convicted of certain theft offenses "be publicly whipped, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes") . . . .
J. Brennan, dissenting in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 814, 103 S.Ct. 3330, 3347, note 30 (1983).

To the surprise of no one, Brennan doesn't like this law, but it does show that the men who drafted the Constitution saw themselves as obligated to follow Biblical Law.

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