Government is not the source of our rights
This is the first in a series discussing the principles of the American founding, their embodiment in the United States Constitution, and the ways in which the Supreme Court has all too often negated these principles to the detriment of individual liberty:
Many Americans have lost sight of our founding principles in the fog and confusion of modern politics. We argue about gun policy, but we don’t consider the source of individual rights. We contend with each other over the proper levels of government spending, but we don’t stop to consider the nature of individual rights. We fight for our own communities and group identities, to the detriment of individual rights. We allow the will of the people to be subjugated to the will of unelected bureaucrats. Instead of questioning the basis for the modern administrative state, we argue over who will receive the benefits within its power to dispense. In times such as these, we might ask ourselves where we can turn for guidance.
Fortunately for us, the Founders left a detailed map.
The adoption of the Declaration of Independence, authored primarily by Thomas Jefferson and intended as a simple statement of the former British colonies basis for separation from the British empire, is one of the most astounding events in the history of the western world. For the first time, a people declared their own independent right to found a political community, based not upon heritage, or wealth, or the “Divine Right of Kings,” but upon an idea. An idea about natural rights, the sovereignty of the people, and the basis of just government. Far from being outdated historical relics, these truths are just as applicable now as they were over two hundred years ago.
Jefferson begins the Declaration by discussing natural rights. Jefferson places the origin of natural rights in the “Laws of Nature of Nature’s God,” as well as being self-evident. Natural rights spring from very nature of man. These right are “unalienable,” meaning that they can be neither taken nor given away. Any government action attempting to infringe such rights would be by its very nature illegitimate. These rights exist, not according to which group you categorize yourself, but belong instead to each individual. Jefferson makes clear that natural rights are not a gift of government, to be arbitrarily modified or expunged by the stroke of a pen or will of a tyrant, but instead belong solely to each sovereign individual.
In describing natural rights, Jefferson first writes that “all men are created equal.” This equality is not one of result, in which material benefits might be confiscated and redistributed, but one in which no individual enjoys any rights-based advantage over their neighbors due to heredity, and all are held equal before the law. Specifically, Jefferson describes the broad categories of natural rights as including “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Not the right to total happiness, but to pursue happiness. Not the right to liberty to be free from want, but the liberty to be free from government coercion. Not the right to a life to which one feels entitled, but the right to live your life as you see fit according to the dictates of your own conscience and within the bounds of the rights of your neighbors to the same. These are negative rights. They do not describe what one is owed by the government or society; they describe our right to be left alone.
The source and operation of our natural rights thus have vast implications for what constitutes good and legitimate government. As Jefferson writes, the entire purpose of government is to protect the preexisting natural rights of individuals. Governments are not founded in order to create new rights and arbitrarily dispense benefits upon preferred groups, but to secure rights that existed before governments were ever created. It is the people, therefore, who give the government its power, without which it would be powerless, and without which it cannot legitimately act. Jefferson writes that when and if an established government fails to protect our natural rights, its only legitimate function, it is the right of the people to abolish it, and establish new government to achieve these ends.
These ideas were, and continue to be, nothing short of revolutionary.
But that is not how the Progressives of the early 20th century, who continue to exert influence upon American politics from beyond the grave, saw things. For the Progressives, the natural rights theories of the Founders were incompatible impediments to the government driven “progress” they wished to achieve. According to the Progressive historian Carl Becker, “To ask whether the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is true or false, is essentially a meaningless question.” In 1920, Charles Merriam wrote that “The idea that men possess inherent and inalienable rights of a political or quasi-political character which are independent of the state, has generally been given up.” Finally, John Dewey, the Progressive father of modern education theory, once wrote that “Liberalism is committed to the idea of historic relativity. It knows that the content of the individual and freedom change with time…” Thus the natural rights based political science of the Founders, in which government exists to secure the natural rights of the people, was traded for rights as the gift of arbitrary and unlimited government.
According to Jefferson’s model, there is no such thing as “women’s rights,” or “gay rights,” or “minority rights,” which can be granted, modified, or restricted based on nothing more than the political winds or desires of fluctuating majorities. There is only inherent human equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness possessed by all regardless of particular circumstances. These rights exist beyond the reach of any government’s power. To be sure, the sin of slavery and long subjugation of women in American society are scars that will not easily heal, the former requiring a Civil War, constitutional amendments, and a Civil Rights Movement, and the latter decades of concerted efforts by activists that continues to this day. But the Founders were not unaware of these seeming contradictions, and the Declaration is not a perfect reflection of 18th, 19th, or perhaps even 20th century American society. But it is an ideal to which Americans have strived and should continue to strive as the foundational statement of our highest principles.
Nearly one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence was enacted, President Lincoln wrote “All honor to Jefferson, to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
May the Declaration continue to serve this vital purpose, and its unchanging and fixed principles continue to guide Americans for generations to come.