“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”
According to Mr. Thomas Jefferson, it is a self-evident truth (or, if you prefer: a “sacred and undeniable truth”) “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”
This is one of the most memorable and yet controversial statements in English prose. Memorable it has become due to its striking simplicity. Controversial? It shouldn’t be. Jefferson is writing to the Americans of 1776; but his words also apply to Americans of 2021. A truth is a truth.
In 1776, Jefferson’s was a claim few would dispute or even take much notice of; it expressed an idea that had been “hackneyed about” in America for fifty to a hundred years. This was, simply, “an expression of the American Mind” of 1776. But today? While only 1 in 10 Americans believe there is no God at all, only about half of Americans believe God is an active participant in their lives. Only 40% of Americans believe God actually created the world as Jefferson alludes, and fewer still believe in the existence of God-given rights. Some today even claim there is danger in insisting that rights come from God. Instead, these people insist that these rights come from “human progress.” There are grave implications to this alternative view, as we will see in a moment.
But, as author Brian Vanyo points out:
“the Founding Fathers and other Natural Law philosophers did not take for granted that God existed. They did not base their strong conviction in God on religious dogma. Rather, they deduced that God must exist because an alternative conclusion was irrational…Belief in God was so common among the founding generation that further validation of God’s existence was often unnecessary and unwelcome.” 
Jefferson claimed these unalienable rights were an endowment – a gift – from our Creator: natural rights result from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Later in life, in the only book he ever wrote, Jefferson reiterated this view. The colonists had been making this claim to their King – that these were their natural rights, and they were being violated – for many years.
The standard formula up until 1776 had been: “Life + Liberty + Property = Our Fundamental Natural Rights.”  Why did Jefferson now substitute “pursuit of happiness”? Some scholars insist Jefferson borrowed the “pursuit of happiness” idea from John Locke. Locke indeed explored this idea in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (published 1689), which Jefferson no doubt studied. And it is undisputed that Jefferson modeled other phrases in the Declaration after Locke. But “pursuit of happiness” and similar phrases were commonly encountered during the Founding period. Take this excerpt from a 1773 Election Sermon by Pastor Simeon Howard:
“In a state of nature, or where men are under no civil government, God has given to every one liberty to pursue his own happiness in whatever way, and by whatever means he pleases, without asking the consent or consulting the inclination of any other man, provided he keeps within the bounds of the law of nature. Within these bounds, he may govern his actions, and dispose of his property and person, as he thinks proper, Nor has any man, or any number of men, a right to restrain him in the exercise of this liberty, or punish, or call him to account for using it. This however is not a state of licentiousness, for the law of nature which bounds this liberty, forbids all injustice and wickedness, allows no man to injure another in his person or property, or to destroy his own life.”
Much has been written dissecting Jefferson’s choice of “pursuit of happiness” over “property,” so I won’t take more time with the subject here other than to say there is no evidence that suggests Jefferson did not believe the right to property to also be a natural right.
Alexander Hamilton concurred that God was the source of the colonists’ rights. Answering an essayist calling himself “The Farmer,” Hamilton wrote:
“The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms and false reasonings is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these, you could never entertain a thought, that all men are not, by nature, entitled to a parity of privileges. You would be convinced, that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator to the whole human race, and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of justice. Civil liberty is only natural liberty, modified and secured by the sanctions of civil society. It is not a thing, in its own nature, precarious and dependent on human will and caprice; but it is conformable to the constitution of man, as well as necessary to the well-being of society…The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
So did James Wilson:
“What was the primary and principal object in the institution of government? Was it – I speak of the primary and principal object – was it to acquire new rights by a human establishment? Or was it, by human establishment, to acquire new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights, to the enjoyment or acquisition of which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift, or by the unerring law, of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator? The latter, I presume, was the case…”
And John Adams:
“I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”
And John Dickinson:
“Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness… We claim them from a higher source – from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.”
The prevailing understanding of the founding era was that God was the source of natural rights, period. But, even in the founding era that understanding was beginning to change, and the change has picked up speed in the modern era.
Today, it is not uncommon to encounter people claiming that man himself is the source of his rights. When interviewing controversial Judge Roy Moore, then Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, CNN commentator Chris Cuomo famously declared: “Our rights do not come from God, your Honor, and you know that, they come from man.”
But, there is a problem with this belief, a big problem. If our rights come from man, i.e., from the laws we human beings enact, then how can these rights ever be considered unalienable? Does this mean certain men can pass a civil law creating a certain civil right with the understanding that future men will somehow be prevented from revoking that law and thus revoking the right it created? Manmade rights can simply not be unalienable.
Could there be a middle ground where both unalienable and alienable rights are part of the human condition? What if both Cuomo and Moore are right each in their own unique way?
I think we must acknowledge that man can indeed create rights through civil law. The right to vote, for instance (some insist it is a privilege, not a right), could not be a natural right. In the hypothetical state of nature, voting would have no meaning, there being no society and no government. So, some rights, as Cuomo insists, do indeed “come from man.” These rights must be considered alienable. The law that creates a right for certain individuals to vote today can easily be revoked tomorrow.
But, what then of natural rights, rights that would be part of the human condition were there no society, no government? Some today suggest that even these need not have a Heavenly source – as most of the Founders would insist – but that these rights became part of the human condition as man “evolved.”
The idea that human beings have inherent rights, inherent to being human, goes back to antiquity, but it began to gain significant adherents during The Enlightenment. One of those new adherents was Englishman Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Regarded as the founder of modern utilitarianism, Bentham explained the “fundamental axiom” of his philosophy as the principle that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Bentham famously called the idea of natural rights sourced in God as “nonsense upon stilts.”
John Dewey thought that “[n]atural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.”
We do find some Founders using the “inherent” terminology; George Mason begins the Virginia Declaration of Rights by stating:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
George Washington spoke of inherent natural rights in a Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, August 17, 1790.
Even Jefferson himself wrote that “Nothing is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.”
However, “inherent” and “natural” rights are not irreconcilable concepts. Being inherent does not exclude God as the ultimate source. If God, as Creator, wished his human creations to understand they had these rights, he need only “embed” them into our consciousness. Both Jeremiah 31:33 and Hebrews 8:10 remind us that God’s law will be “written upon our hearts;” is it not reasonable to assume our rights are “inscribed” there as well?
We will not settle the “inherent” versus “natural” argument today, suffice it to say that if you like your rights “unalienable,” you best look to God as their source.
Which natural rights exist? How many are there?
Note that in our subject phrase Jefferson points to only “certain” unalienable rights as included in the Creator’s endowment. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are among the rights created and given by God. Jefferson thus implies that other rights, beyond these three, are part of God’s endowment. This understanding, that there are other, perhaps even uncountable natural rights, was also part of the “American Mind,” so much so that we see it codified in the Ninth Amendment.
One of the frequent objections to including a Bill of Rights in the Constitution was that “it would not only be useless, but dangerous, to enumerate a number of rights which are not intended to be given up; because it would be implying, in the strongest manner, that every right not included in the exception might be impaired by the government without usurpation; and it would be impossible to enumerate every one…”
James Madison, in proposing the Bill of Rights on the floor of Congress in 1789, acknowledged the power of this objection but showed it had been anticipated. He said: “This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that may be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the 4th resolution (which would eventually become the Ninth Amendment).”
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
But, we can see an obvious question arise here: if there are unenumerated rights which government should not “deny or disparage,” what are they? Who gets to identify or “enumerate” them? The Framers of the Constitution gave us no hint.
Thus far in our country’s history we have let the court system identify them. In 1965, the Supreme Court identified, for the first time, a right to privacy lurking in a “penumbra” of the Constitution. Eight years later the Justices expanded this right to include the “right” to terminate the life of an unborn baby. In 2008, the court pulled out of the “inkblot” of the Ninth Amendment the “right” of two homosexuals to marry.
Note, however, that the Constitution begins not with the words: “We the Congress,” “I the President,” or even “We the Judges.” The Constitution represents a contract between the American people and the government the document creates. The people are sovereign; they hold the ultimate political power over the government. It is We the People who have the rightful authority to identify the rights we wish secured by the words of the Constitution. And the rightful mechanism for bringing those rights into the security of the Constitution is amendment, not judicial decree.
Thomas Jefferson’s words are as sacred and undeniable today as they were 245 years ago. Since Congress has declared the Declaration of Independence to be part of the Organic Law of the United States, we would do well to reflect on and heed them.
Natural rights? I’ll take mine unalienable, please.
Gary Porter is Executive Director of the Constitution Leadership Initiative (CLI), a project to promote a better understanding of the U.S. Constitution by the American people. CLI provides seminars on the Constitution, including one for young people utilizing “Our Constitution Rocks” as the text. Gary presents talks on various Constitutional topics, writes periodic essays published on several different websites, and appears in period costume as James Madison, explaining to public and private school students “his” (i.e., Madison’s) role in the creation of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Gary can be reached at email@example.com, on Facebook or Twitter (@constitutionled).
Podcast by Maureen Quinn