This thesis challenges the view of many historians that the natural law and natural rights tradition, while flourishing in the Enlightenment period, disappeared in nineteenth-century Britain with the expansion of the role of positive law, only to reappear post-World War II in human rights discourse. The focus of historians of political thought on canonical figures, Jeremy Bentham, John Austin, and John Stuart Mill, all of whom were antagonistic to the natural law and rights tradition has led them to fail to appreciate not only the continued role of natural law and rights but its development of a post-Enlightenment accommodation with positive law, resulting in a more pragmatic understanding of natural law. The examination of non-canonical figures who were nevertheless important in their time reveals the continued role of natural law as positive law expanded.
The thesis is developed through the analysis of figures in areas where natural law was significant: Jurisprudence; the Law of Nations or International Law; and Spiritual Life. Jurisprudence was the area in which theorists of natural law mounted direct opposition to the theories of Jeremy Bentham, John Austin, and John Stuart Mill. The writers investigated include Charles Foster, an early nineteenth century proponent of natural law through his writings and lectures; the Scotsman, James Lorimer, writer and lecturer on jurisprudence and law of nations; and the Irish Catholic lawyer Denis Caufeild Heron. In International Law the advocates of natural law theory were Robert Phillimore, judge of the High Court of Admiralty; Travers Twiss and George Bowyer as civil lawyers; and James Lorimer. Writers on Natural Law in Spiritual Life, included Henry Drummond, lecturer and ecclesiast; George Combe, phrenologist; and John Seeley, historian; who were in conflict with churchmen over the church’s exclusive right to interpret religious teaching and the appropriate relationship between natural law and religion.