Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes offered the voice for the modern project in law when he expressed his hope-and his surety-that "every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether." Holmes would raise the banner of legal "positivism": the law did not find its ground in truths about the nature of right and wrong; it acquired its standing as law because it was "posited," enacted by the people with the power to have their edicts treated with the force of law. In that way, Holmes would mark the radical break from the principles of the American Founding. The doctrines of natural law could not be separated from the work of the American founders as they shaped a new regime and, later, a Constitution. When that regime suffered its severest test, in our crisis of "the house divided," it required nothing less than the art of Lincoln to restate those teachings of natural right in a manner even more compelling. The American regime then could have a re-founding, a "new birth of freedom."
That crisis was marked in the classic debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Douglas stood on the side of "positive law" and what today is called "cultural relativism": that what is right or wrong will always depend on the opinions that are dominant in the local "culture"; that there are no moral truths that hold universally, in all places; and indeed that there is no human "nature" that would remain the same in all times and places and become the ground of enduring rights. After the Civil War, the teaching represented by Lincoln faded from the public councils and from the intellectual fashions of the educated. The advent of "law schools" brought an education for lawyers closer to the philosophy of Stephen Douglas and Justice Holmes.
The result: We have now brought forth a generation of lawyers-and judges-who explain their judgments by giving us clever spirals of theories, all safely detached from anything that would give a coherent moral account of the "wrong" they are trying to reach, and the "justice" they would render.
The most glaring thing in all of this are the furnishings of mind that mark the men and women often trained now as lawyers and judges. They are as distant as visitors from another place from the furnishings of mind of Lincoln and the American Founders. But the teachings of Lincoln and the Founders are there, to be read and taught again to a new generation. The purpose of this new Center for Natural Law is to teach that curriculum once again to lawyers and judges, to students in law school and to undergraduates, and to people old and young who would live under the "rule of law." And the deeper purpose of course is to restore the understanding of those remarkable men who established and preserved this regime.