The Ten Commandments in American Law

The deliberate use by our forefathers of the Ten Commandments as the foundation of America’s legal system and constitutional republic is further evidence they never intended to create a secular nation or government. And they did not intend the First Amendment to be used as a tool to eradicate a religious foundation and religious expression and practices from American government.

Regarding the Ten Commandments, John Adams, Founding Father and second president of the United States, wrote, “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.” (Footnote #30)

His son, President John Quincy Adams, similarly declared, “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.31 Vain indeed would be the search among the writings of profane antiquity [secular history] . . . to find so broad, so complete and so solid a basis for morality as this Decalogue [Ten Commandments] lays down.”

Noah Webster wrote that all governmental laws supporting justice and morality stem from the Christian religion and the Ten Commandments: “The opinion that human reason left without the constant control of Divine laws and commands will . . . give duration to a popular government is as chimerical [unlikely] as the most extravagant ideas that enter the head of a maniac. . . . Where will you find any code of laws among civilized men in which the commands and prohibitions are not founded on Christian principles? I need not specify the prohibitions of murder, robbery, theft [and] trespass.” (Footnote #33)

Without doubt, the Ten Commandments played a significant role in the development of American law. Even now, in his commentary, The Ten Commandments in American Law and Government, Matthew D. Staver writes, “When a governmental practice has been ‘deeply embedded in the history and tradition of the country,’ such a practice will not violate the Establishment Clause because the practice has become part of the ‘fabric of our society.’ (See March vs. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 786 [1983].) Similarly, the Supreme Court has often recognized the impact of the Ten Commandments on our system of law and government. (See Griswold vs. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 529 n.2 [1965] Stewart, J. dissenting—most criminal prohibitions coincide with the prohibitions contained in the Ten Commandments.)”

Matthew Staver cites numerous federal cases that acknowledge the influence of the Ten Commandments on our nation. For instance:

•    McGowan vs. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420, 450 (1961) (Frankfurter, J., concurring) (“Innumerable civil regulations enforce conduct which harmonizes with religious canons. State prohibitions of murder, theft and adultery reinforce commands of the Decalogue.”)

•    Stone vs. Graham, 449 U.S. 39, 45 (1980) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting) (“It is equally undeniable . . . that the Ten Commandments have had a significant impact on the development of secular legal codes of the Western World.”)

•    Lynch vs. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 677–78 (1984) (describing the depiction of Moses with the Ten Commandments on the wall of the Supreme Court chamber and stating that such acknowledgments of religion demonstrate that “our history is pervaded by expression of religious beliefs”).

•    Edwards vs. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578, 593–94 (1987) (acknowledges that the Ten Commandments did not play an exclusively religious role in the history of Western civilization).

That the Ten Commandments “did not play an exclusively religious role in the history of Western civilization” means their impact was not only for religious people and churches but for all of society.

Other courts and important leaders have similarly acknowledged the invaluable contribution of the Ten Commandments to our social order. In 1950, the Florida Supreme Court declared, “A people unschooled about the sovereignty of God, the Ten Commandments, and the ethics of Jesus could never have evolved the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. There is not one solitary fundamental principle of our democratic policy that did not stem directly from the basic moral concepts as embodied in the Decalogue.” (Footnote #34)

In President Harry S. Truman’s February 15, 1950, address before the Attorney General’s Conference on Law Enforcement Problems in the Department of Justice, he declared, “The fundamental basis of this nation’s laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don’t think we emphasize that enough these days. If we don’t have a proper fundamental moral background, we will finally end up with a totalitarian government, which does not believe in rights for anybody except the State!” (Footnote #35)

Even leaders of other countries have been keenly aware of the role the Ten Commandments, God, and Christianity have played in America. Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, said of America, “The Decalogue [Ten Commandments] are addressed to each and every person. This is the origin of our common humanity and of the sanctity of the individual. Each of us has a duty to try and carry out those commandments. . . . If you accept freedom, you’ve got to have principles and the responsibility. You can’t do this without a biblical foundation. Your Founding Fathers came over with that. They came over with the doctrines of the New Testament as well as the Old. They looked after one another, not only as a matter of necessity, but as a matter of duty to their God. There is no other country in the world which started that way.” (Footnote #36)

In 1983 a United States district court in Virginia declared, “Further, biblical influences pervade many specific areas of law. The ‘good Samaritan’ laws use a phrase lifted directly out of one of Jesus’ parables. The concept of the ‘fertile octogenarian,’ applicable to the law of wills and trusts, is in a large part derived from the book of Genesis where we are told that Sarah, the wife of the patriarch Abraham, gave birth to Isaac when she was ‘past age.’ In addition, the Ten Commandments have had immeasurable effect on Anglo-American legal development.” (Footnote 37)

In 1998, a Wisconsin appeals court quoted a 1974 Indiana Supreme Court opinion that stated, “Virtually all criminal laws are in one way or another the progeny of Judeo-Christian ethics. We have no intention to overrule the Ten Commandments.” (Footnote 38)





30 John Adams, “The Right Constitution of a Commonwealth Examined,” letter 6, A Defense of the Constitution of Government of the Untied States of America, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: William Young, 1797), 217.


33 Noah Webster, “Reply to a letter of David McClure on the Subject of the Proper Course of Study in the Girard College,” Collection of Papers, (Philadelphia: New Haven, 1836), 291–92.

34 Matt Staver, The Ten Commandments in American Law and Government, citing Florida vs. City of Tampa, 48 So.2d 78, 79 (Fla. 1950); see also Commissioners of Johnston County vs. Lacy, 93 S.E. 482, 487 (N.C. 1917).

35 Federer, The Ten Commandments and Their Influence on American Law, 32.

36 Ibid., 35, quoting the speech given by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, February 5, 1996, New York.

37 Ibid.; quoting United States District Court (1983), Western District of Virginia, in the case of Crockett vs. Sorenson, 568, F. Supp. 1422, 1425–1430 (W.D., Va. 1983).

38 Ibid., quoting Wisconsin vs. Schultz, 582, N.W. 2d 112, 117 (Wis. App. 1998) (Quoting Sumpter vs. Indiana, 306, N.E. 2d 95, 101 (Ind. 1974).