First Lessons in Civil Government

By Andrew W. Young, 1846


In years past, most Americans knew our Constitution and governmental principles of liberty. Such ideas were commonly taught in schools throughout the nation. Many books were written on the subject for youth and adult. Young’s First Lessons in Civil Government is one of many books that taught these ideas. Typical of the early texts, this book presents a Biblical view of law and government, as evidenced in the first chapter.

Early teachers had a Biblical view of government and a Biblical philosophy of education, knowing all Americans needed to be educated in principles of self- and civil government. In his Preface,Young communicates the importance of teaching these ideas. He writes that it is essential for the youth to have an understanding of proper ideas of government if liberty is to continue and advance. Schools must teach this to students at an early age. Young said this book could be “profitably studied by children of ordinary intelligence, at the age of ten years.” (We need to advance academic training in today’s schools before most ten-year-olds are prepared to study at this level.)

Young makes clear the view most Americans held in our early history concerning “the laws of nature” and “the laws of nature’s God”:

The will of the Creator is the law of nature which men are bound to obey. But mankind in their present imperfect state are not capable of discovering in all cases what the law of nature requires; it has therefore pleased Divine Providence to reveal his will to mankind, to instruct them in their duties to himself and to each other. This will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and is called the law of revelation, or the Divine law.

His views on the laws of nature and nature’s God were not new. They merely reflected the predominate view of law of the preceding centuries and expressed by the greatest jurists, such as Sir Edward Coke, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, John Locke, Emer de Vattel, and William Blackstone. The first Americans to write law commentaries, James Kent and Joseph Story, also reflected this Biblical view of law.

In his Commentaries on American Law (1826-30), which served as the standard general treatise on law in the United States for many decades, James Kent wrote:

Vattel . . . and all the other great masters of ethical and national jurisprudence, place the foundation of the law of nature in the will of God, discoverable by right reason, and aided by Divine revelation. . . .

The law of nature, by the obligations of which individuals and states are bound, is identical with the will of God, and that will is ascertained . . . either by consulting Divine revelation, where that is declamatory, or by the application of human reason where revelation is silent.

[James Kent, Commentaries on American Law, seventh edition (New York: William Kent, 1851), p. 2, 4.]

Kent agreed with the “masters of jurisprudence” that law is rooted in Divine revelation.

In addition to excerpts from Young’s First Lessons, this Perspective also contains some excerpts from prominent jurists, including Coke, Blackstone, and Locke. Early lawyers and judges in America would have been familiar with these writings, and embraced their Biblical view of law. Sadly, most lawyers and judges today do not embrace this view, and have never read or studied the writings of these men, nor do they understand the origins of American law. Consequently, modern evolutionary law is not rooted in the absolutes of the will of God, but in the ever-changing ideas of fallen man. The state has taken the place of Jehovah, to borrow the words of past Harvard Law School President, and humanist, Roscoe Pound. The fruit of this is loss of liberty and justice.

For the preservation of our rights and liberties, a Biblical view of law must be taught to all Americans. Texts such as Young’s First Lessons in Civil Government must once again become common.

The following excerpts are from the Preface and Chapter 1 of: First Lessons in Civil Government including a Comprehensive View of the Government of the State of New York, and an Abstract of the Laws, Showing the Rights, Duties, and Responsibilities of Citizens in the Civil and Domestic Relations; with an Outline of the Government of the United States: Adapted to the Capacities of Children and Youth, and Designed for the Use of Schools, by Andrew W. Young, Tenth Edition, Auburn, N.Y.: H. And J.C. Ivison, 1846.


. . . To secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity, was the leading object of the people of the United States in ordaining and establishing the constitution. That this constitution is fully adequate to the objects of its formation, has been satisfactorily proved by the experience of more than half a century.

Whether the blessings of civil and religious freedom which our system of government is so happily adapted to secure, shall be enjoyed by our posterity, time alone can determine. Of the probability or improbability of the fact, we may, however, conjecture from what is done to qualify the rising generation of American youth for the duties and responsibilities which, as freemen, they are soon to assume.

In a few years, the destinies of this great and growing republic will be committed to those who are now receiving instruction in our public schools. How important that the course of education pursued in these institutions, should include the study of the principles of republican government, and especially of that government in which they will so shortly be called to take a part.

A thorough knowledge of our constitutional and civil jurisprudence cannot well be too highly appreciated. Without it, we may hope in vain to perpetuate our free institutions. The very idea of free government presupposes a knowledge of such government. And how is it to be obtained without study? As well might we suppose that our youth could, without study, acquire a knowledge of any other science now taught in our schools.

The study of political science should be commenced early. Children should grow up in the knowledge of our political institutions. The provisions of our constitution should be to them as familiar as the spelling-book; and yet thousands of our young men reach their majority, and presume to exercise their political franchise, who have never so much as given the constitution a single reading!

We boast of republican equality. The high and the low, the rich and the poor, enjoy an equal amount of political power. How important, then, that all should be capable of exercising this power with equal wisdom and effect!

Let it be remembered, that this is a nation of freemen. The people are, or ought to be, the rulers; and those to whom the more immediate administration of the government is intrusted, are but the servants of the people. In a government of the people, therefore, all should be statesmen. They should know how the public business ought to be done, that they may know when to call unfaithful servants to account.

It is by the exercise of their political power, that the people are enabled to correct the evils of bad administration; but if they do not exercise it intelligently, they may, in attempting to correct these evils, only increase and aggravate them.

If ever the great body of the people are to be qualified for the business of self-government, our common schools must he relied on as the principal means. In these institutions, probably nine tenths of our citizens receive all their education. A science, therefore, the knowledge of which is so essential to our political prosperity, should be  taught in every common school.





Of Civil Government and Laws; what they are, and why they are necessary.

§ 1. Government, in a general sense, signifies direction, or regulation; or it is the control which ones thing has over another, in causing it to move or operate in a certain manner. When applied to persons, it means the exercise of authority by one or more persons over others.

§ 2. A parent gives directions to his children for the regulation of their behavior. He commands what they are to do, and forbids what they are not to do. In giving these rules and causing them to be obeyed, he is said to govern his family. So the government of a teacher consists in keeping order in his school, by causing his scholars to observe the rules he has prescribed for their conduct.

§ 3. But that kind of government which I shall endeavor to explain in this book, is the government of a state or nation, generally called civil government. It is so called, because it is the government which regulates the actions of persons as members of civil society. But in order fully to understand the meaning of civil government, it is necessary first to know what is meant by civil society.

§ 4. The Creator intended that mankind should live together. He has given them a desire to associate with each other, and made their happiness depend, in a great measure, on such association. Hence we find that persons derive enjoyment from each other’s company which they could not have by living alone.

§ 5. Any number of persons associated together in any manner, or for any purpose, may be called a society. The friends of temperance associate for the purpose of promoting temperance, and are called a temperance society. Other persons act together as a Bible society, or an education society. But neither of these associations, nor any others commonly called societies, are what is understood by civil society.

§ 6. The term civil society is applied to the people of a country united for the purpose of government, under written rules and regulations. But it does not apply to the people of every nation. The Indians of this country observe certain rules and customs; but as these people are savage and unlearned, they are called uncivilized, and are not properly civil communities.

§ 7. Civil society can be said to exist only where the people are in a civilized state, or state of social improvement. By a state of civilization and social improvement is meant refinement of  manners, or growth in knowledge. In any country where the people enjoy the benefits of learning, and the means of improving their social condition, or of making themselves more comfortable and happy, they are called civilized; and the authority exercised in regulating the conduct or actions of mankind in civil society, is called civil government.

§ 8. The rules by which the conduct of men in civil society is to be regulated, are called laws; as the commands of the parent or householder are the laws of the family, or as the rules of the teacher are the laws of the school. A law is therefore a rule prescribing what men are to do, and what they are not to do. A law implies two things; first, the right and authority of those who govern to make the law; secondly, the duty of the governed to obey the law.

§ 9. To give force to a law, it must have a penalty. Penalty is the pain or suffering to be inflicted upon a person for breaking a law. The law requires, that for stealing, a man must pay a fine, or be put into prison, and that for murder, he must be hanged: therefore fine or imprisonment is the penalty for stealing, and hanging is the penalty for murder. If there were no penalties annexed to laws, men could not be compelled to obey them; bad men would commit the worst of crimes without fear, and there would be no safety or order in society.

§ 10. Civil government and laws, therefore, are necessary to preserve the peace and order of a community, and to secure to its members the free enjoyment of their rights. A right is the just claim or lawful title which we have to any thing. Thus we say, a person has a right to what he has earned by his labor, or bought with his money. A man is entitled to what is lawfully or justly his own; that is, he has a right to it.

§ 11. We have a right also to do things. We have a right to go where we please, and to act as we please, if by so doing we do not trespass upon the rights of others. This being free to act thus is called liberty. But it must be remembered that all men in civil society have the same natural rights, and no one has a right to disturb others in the enjoyment of their rights.

§ 12. All laws ought to be so made as to secure to men the liberty to enjoy and exercise their natural rights. Natural rights are those which we are entitled to by nature, rights with which we are born. They are called natural rights, because they are ours by birth. And because all persons in society have naturally the same rights, we have no right to what belongs to another, nor to say or do what will injure another.

§ 13. The law of nature is that rule of conduct which we are bound to observe towards our Creator and our fellow men, by reason of our natural relations to them. It is a perfect rule for all moral and social beings, right in itself, right in the nature of things; and it would be right, and ought to be obeyed, if no other law or positive command had ever been given.

§ 14. Mankind being dependent on their Creator, they owe to him duties which they ought to perform, though he had never positively enjoined them. It is right in itself that we should love and serve our Maker, and thank him for his mercies; and it would be just as much our duty to do so, if he had never so commanded. And it is right in the nature of things that we should love our neighbor as ourselves; and our obligation to do so would be just as certain, had the duty never been enjoined by a positive precept.

§ 15. Living in society with our fellow men, on whom we are in a measure dependent, and who have the same natural rights as ourselves, we are bound by the principles of natural justice to promote their happiness, by doing to them as we would that they should do to us; that is to say, the law of nature requires us to do so. And here let it be remarked, that the all-wise and kind Creator has so constituted man, that in thus promoting the happiness of his fellow men, he increases his own.

§ 16. But it may be asked, if the law of nature is the rule by which mankind ought to regulate their conduct, of what use are written laws? The will of the Creator is the law of nature which men are bound to obey. But mankind in their present imperfect state are not capable of discovering in all cases what the law of nature requires; it has therefore pleased Divine Providence to reveal his will to mankind, to instruct them in their duties to himself and to each other. This will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and is called the law of revelation, or the Divine law.

§ 17. But though men have the Divine law for their guide, human laws are also necessary. God has commanded men to do that which is right, and to deal justly with each other; but men do not always agree as to what is right: human laws therefore become necessary to say what shall be considered just between man and man. And these laws must be written, that it may always be known what they are.

§ 18. Again it may be asked, what must be done when a human law does not agree with the Divine law? Must such law be obeyed? Men have no right to make a law that is contrary to the law of God; and we are not bound to obey it. The apostles were forbidden to preach the gospel; but they said, “we ought to obey God rather than men;” and they continued to preach. (Acts, Chapter 5.) But we may not disobey a human law simply because it fails to require strict justice.  A law may be very imperfect, as many human laws are, and yet we may obey it without breaking the Divine law.   PP