Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Actress Janine Turner
Thomas Jefferson said it most succinctly: “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” We could end this discussion right there – the “appropriate role and purpose of government” is the “security, the protection of unalienable rights,” but we all know there is more to the story.
Americans today are losing touch with the concept of God-given, unalienable rights, some in fact firmly reject the idea, even the existence of such rights, believing instead that government is not only the protector of our rights, but also their source. America’s Founders rejected this concept out of hand. As Jefferson clearly stated, we “are endowed by [our] creator with certain unalienable rights.” He made a similar observation two years prior in his Summary View of the Rights of British America[i] and later in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia.[ii]
The Source of Rights
Today, however, when someone speaks of “natural law” or “natural rights” they should be asked to clarify whether they are referring to God-given natural rights or rights which accrue to humans “naturally” through a social contract or “the nature of things.” The use of the adjective “inherent” in describing rights, as George Mason did in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights,[iii] lends itself to two different interpretations, the rights are either uniquely inherent to humans as creations of God or are uniquely inherent to humans as the apex species of evolution. Given this, I prefer “unalienable” to “inherent.”
Though a Christian (he authored “The Truth of the Christian Religion”), the Dutch political philosopher Hugo Grotius[iv] promoted the idea (borrowed from Cicero and others) that natural law was created by the natural order and was not, or at least not necessarily a creation of God. Natural law did not require God’s revelation but could be discovered simply and solely through human reason. While America’s Founders knew of and respected Grotius, particularly his famous 1625 On the Law of War and Peace (De Jure Belli ac Pacis), as we see will in the following quotations, they held to a theistic source for both natural law and natural rights.
But even America’s leaders had to remind their fellow citizens of this from time to time. Writing in reply to an essay from “The Farmer,”[v] Alexander Hamilton explained:
“The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms[vi] 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…”To grant that there is a supreme intelligence who rules the world and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and still to assert that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appears to a common understanding altogether irreconcilable. Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature . . . . Upon this law depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety . . . . 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.”[vii]
Human beings have natural, unalienable rights which are incapable of being “be erased or obscured” by any act of man or government.
In his 1765 Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, John Adams insisted that our rights were “derived from the great Legislator of the universe.”
Virginian lawyer George Mason, arguing in the 1772 case of Robin v. Hardaway, (1 Jefferson 109) affirmed that:
“The laws of nature are the laws of God: A legislature must not obstruct our obedience to him from whose punishments they cannot protect us. All human constitutions which contradict His laws, we are in conscience bound to disobey. Such have been the adjudications of our courts of justice.” [viii]
Other American Founders, such as John Dickinson, expressed similar views:
“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.”[ix]
Dickinson was an intriguing man, largely overlooked today. Born into a family with long-standing ties to the Quaker religion, Dickinson received an education in the law at the Middle Temple, London, before setting up his practice near Philadelphia. He inherited land holdings in both Pennsylvania and Delaware and became one of the richest men in both states.[x] In 1776, Dickinson represented Pennsylvania at the Continental Congress as it considered independence. His Quaker roots kept him from openly voting for independence (and inevitable war), so on the fateful day of July 2, 1776, Dickinson (along with Robert Morris) “absented himself” to give the Pennsylvania delegation a majority in favor of Virginia’s resolution for independence. Once the resolution for independence passed, Dickinson similarly refused to vote in favor of Jefferson’s Declaration, a decision which then forced his resignation from the Pennsylvania delegation. Once out of the Congress, Dickinson surprisingly joined the Pennsylvania militia as a Brigadier General, becoming one of only two members of the First Continental Congress who actively took up arms during the war. Dickinson capped his long public service career by representing Delaware at the Constitutional Convention.
In this statement on natural rights, Dickinson repeats familiar themes: rights originating with a Creator God, resulting from God’s natural law, and which “cannot be taken from us by any human power.”
James Wilson, one of six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, after calling God “the promulgator as well as the author of natural law,” observed in his famous 1790 Lectures on Law:
“I here close my examination into those natural rights, which, in my humble opinion, it is the business of civil government to protect, and not to subvert, and the exercise of which it is the duty of civil government to enlarge, and not to restrain. I go farther; and now proceed to show, that in peculiar instances, in which those rights can receive neither protection nor reparation from civil government, they are, notwithstanding its institution, entitled still to that defence, and to those methods of recovery, which are justified and demanded in a state of nature.”[xi]
To protect and enlarge our natural rights, this becomes the “business” of civil government, or at least one of the responsibilities or duties of government.
The History of Rights (much abridged)
Rights, and the security thereof, had gradually become a central focus of Englishmen as they wrestled with two oftentimes opposing concepts: the divine (i.e., God-endorsed) right of kings on the one hand, and the unalienable, God-given rights of individuals on the other hand. Magna Carta became a waypoint in this investigation; forcing King John to subordinate his divine right and accept responsibility for protecting certain individual rights, including due process of law and trial by jury.
Magna Carta was soon ignored, but was eventually replaced by newer versions. In the 17th century, Magna Carta’s rights were supplemented by Parliament’s Petition of Right (1628) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). This growing focus on natural rights accompanied America’s settlers as they sailed for the colonies, being encapsulated in the first colonial charters as “liberties, franchises and immunities”[xii] of Englishmen. From there, rights were expanded and reinforced, expounded in a host of colonial documents, beginning with the Mayflower Compact and ending one hundred and seventy-one years later with the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Over this period, the colonists seldom passed up an opportunity to reiterate their essential rights. A partial list:
1620 – Mayflower Compact (Plymouth)
1636 – Code of Law (Plymouth)
1639 – Fundamental Orders (Connecticut)
1639 – Act for the Liberties of the People (Maryland)
1641 – Body of Liberties (Massachusetts)
1677 – Declaration of the People (Virginia)
1701 – Charter of Privileges (Pennsylvania)
1763 – The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (James Otis)
1764 – The Rights of Colonies Examined (Stephen Hopkins)
1765 – Declaration of Rights and Grievances (Stamp Act Congress)
1766 – An Inquiry into the Rights of The British Colonies (Richard Bland)
1772 – The Rights of the Colonists (Samuel Adams)
1774 – A Summary View of the Rights of British America (Thomas Jefferson)
1774 – Declaration and Resolves (1st Continental Congress)
1775 – Declaration on the Causes of Taking Up Arms (2nd Congress)
1776 – (January) Bill of Rights (New Hampshire Convention)
1776 – (June) Declaration of Rights (Virginia)
1776 – (July) Declaration of Independence (2nd Continental Congress)
1776 – (July) Declaration of Rights (Pennsylvania)
1776 – (September) Declaration of Rights (Delaware)
1780 – Declaration of Rights (Massachusetts)
1788 – Declaration of Rights (North Carolina)
1790 – Of the Natural Rights of Individuals -Lectures on Law (James Wilson)
1791 – The U.S. Bill of Rights
Natural law and the natural rights which spring from them are enjoying a resurgence in popularity of late, thanks to the scholarly work of men like John Finnis in Natural Law and Natural Rights (Clarendon Law Series, 2nd Edition; J. Budziszewski in Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law; Hadley Arkes in Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution; and others. As John Horvat explains, “the growing acceptance of natural law theory among frustrated Americans is shaking the legal field.”[xiii] This resurgence within the legal and scholarly communities appears to terrify some, however, natural law and natural rights are still ignored or misunderstood by the vast majority of Americans.
The Extent of Natural Rights
There is no known “inventory” of natural rights, at least none that all political philosophers or natural rights expositors over the millennia have agreed upon. The Founders knew of course of the Ten Commandments, which form the core of “the laws of Nature’s God.” If God commands “thou shalt not steal” it seems reasonable to derive from that “a right to acquire and retain property.” “Thou shalt not murder” denotes a “right to the preservation of one’s life.” But no Founding Father appears to have attempted an enumeration of all natural rights. Indeed, as James Iredell explained at the 1788 North Carolina Ratifying Convention, such an enumeration, if used as the basis for a Bill of Rights:
“…would not only be useless, but dangerous, … it would be implying, in the strongest manner, that every right not included in the [enumeration] might be impaired by the government without usurpation; and it would be impossible to enumerate every one. Let any one make what collection or enumeration of rights he pleases, I will immediately mention twenty or thirty more rights not contained in it.”[xiv]
But a useful list of those essential rights the Founders collectively supported can nevertheless be gleaned from their writings. As Chester James Antieau explains:[xv] “the natural rights on which there was the largest agreement and the greatest significance were … freedom of conscience and religion, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, property, the right to govern and tax themselves, and freedom of communication.”
Some Founders also supported rights derived from the common law, such as the right to trial by jury, and freedom from warrantless searches, but such rights cannot be denominated as “natural” rights since they would have no rational basis in a hypothetical state of nature.
How Should Rights Be Secured?
The next question we must consider is: how should the government fulfill its responsibility of protecting our unalienable rights? Is a Bill of Rights necessary, or even appropriate?
James Madison and other Founders considered the Constitution itself to be a “bill of rights.” A constitution of limited and enumerated powers, carefully drawn, will protect individual rights by not providing the new government with the power or authority necessary to infringe on those rights. “For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 84.[xvi] While the Framers certainly felt they had created a limited power document, replete with checks and balances, history has shown the ambiguity of language to be the Framers’ downfall. The Anti-federalists saw “loopholes”; for instance, the power given the Supreme Court would allow the court to “mould the government, into almost any shape they please.”[xvii] The Anti-federalists fumed over the absence of a Bill of Rights, “would it have consumed too much paper?” scowled Patrick Henry. When sent a copy of the Constitution to review, Jefferson replied by gently chiding his friend: “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inferences.” [xviii]And so a reluctant James Madison agreed to single-handedly champion the project.
The initial draft he submitted to Congress, borrowing heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights, contained several protections which did not survive the House and Senate “wordsmithing.” Madison’s treasured “rights of conscience” didn’t even make it through the House Committee on which Madison himself sat!. Despite these setbacks, Madison persisted and the document was finally sent to the states for ratification, achieving that on December 15, 1791, with Virginia’s acceptance. But would a Bill of Rights be enough?
In an October 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson, Madison had warned that even a Bill of Rights might not be sufficient: “Repeated violations of these parchment barriers have been committed by overbearing majorities in every State. In Virginia I have seen the bill of rights violated in every instance where it has been opposed to a popular current.”[xix] “Tyranny of the majority,” the primary reason the Founders’ abhorred democracy. But infringements of rights do not require a majority, with the help of government even a minority can prevail.
When Governments Become Corrupted
Americans have recently witnessed how a government can be enticed to infringe upon our unalienable rights by a “popular current” arising from even a small minority faction. The revelation that officials in the Executive branch of the federal government colluded with media companies to silence the public expression of viewpoints they did not agree with shocks us, it is reminiscent of the Communist regimes under Stalin and Mao, not to mention the authoritarian governments in present-day Russia and China.
Jefferson believed that: “The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.”[xx]
The Americans are the ultimate sovereigns in their republican form of government; government is their servant, not the reverse. Unfortunately, the American people, by and large, have abandoned the Founders’ view of both law and government.
If there is any good news here it is that at least some Americans, those who understand the societal sea-change being forced upon them, are willing to fight for protection of their unalienable rights. Welcome assistance comes from the present Supreme Court, which is currently staffed with a majority of justices who share an originalist and therefore Founders’ view of rights. But our trust in a temporary majority of originalist justices should be cautioned by the realization that future courts may not be so favorably apportioned. As Jefferson reminds us: “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”[xxi]
So, it is to the Bill of Rights itself we must turn; is its language sufficient or too open to interpretation? Should we consider the words of the original Bill of Rights as unamendable, or should we be willing to clarify ambiguous 18th century language? Are we to accept our society’s present worldview confusion as inevitable or should we work to correct it?
These are the sort of questions we should be asking, and debating.
In his 1967 Inaugural Address, the great Ronald Reagan cautioned:
“Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”[xxii]
If we want to continue to enjoy our natural, unalienable, God-given rights, and we wish our posterity to be likewise blessed, we must be prepared to fight for and defend them.
I will conclude with the words of Founder John Jay, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court under the new Constitution, who in 1777, while instructing (charging) a New York grand jury, reminded us:
“Every member of the State ought diligently to read and to study the constitution of his country and teach the rising generation to be free. By knowing their rights, they will sooner perceive when they are violated, and be the better prepared to defend and assert them.”[xxiii]
Note that, for (at that time) Judge Jay, reading the Constitution is not sufficient, it should also be studied, and diligently so. The goal, of course, lies not simply in the reading and studying; the goal is to pass along what you have learned to the next generation of Americans. Even then, the project is not complete; the rising generation requires this knowledge to be better equipped to defend and assert their rights, thus, hopefully, perpetuating a society of freedom and liberty.
John Jay would be proud of the commendable work Constituting America accomplishes in pursuing his charge.
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
[iii] “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.”
[iv] A latinizing of his given name: “Huig van Groot.”
[v] Hamilton was replying to a series of essays, appearing from November 1774 to January 1775, written by “A W. Farmer, (loyalist Bishop Samuel Seabury, the first American Episcopal bishop), who had set out “to detect and expose the false, arbitrary, and tyrannical PRINCIPLES upon which the [Continental] Congress acted, and to point out their fatal tendency to the interests and liberties of the colonies.” To see the arguments Hamilton is “refuting,” the “Farmer’s” letters can be accessed at: http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/seabury/farmer/.
[vi] Sophisms: specious arguments for displaying ingenuity in reasoning or for deceiving someone. Dictionary.com.
[vii] Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775, New York.
[ix] John Dickinson, An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados, 1766.
[x] Interestingly, for a short period of time (November 1782-January 1783) Dickinson served as the President of both states.
[xii] 1606 First Virginia Charter, at: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/first-charter-of-virginia-1606/.
[xiv] https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/conv1788/conv1788.html, p. 192.
[xv] Chester James Antieau, Natural Rights And The Founding Fathers-The Virginians, 17 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 43 (1960), http://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/wlulr/vol17/iss1/4.
[xvii] Brutus XI, in The Complete Anti-Federalist, Herbert J. Storing, ed., (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981) Volume Two, Part 2, 417-422.
[xviii] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, December 20, 1787.
[xx] Letter to William Hunter, 11 March 1790., at https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-16-02-0130.
[xxi] Thomas Jefferson, in a draft of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
[xxii] This is the version Reagan uttered during his Inaugural Address as President on January 5, 1967, not the more familiar and edited version published afterwards. See: https://www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/january-5-1967-inaugural-address-public-ceremony.
[xxiii] The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay, ed. Henry P. Johnston, A.M. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890-93). Vol. 1 (1763-1781), p. 164., accessed at https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/johnston-the-correspondence-and-public-papers-of-john-jay-vol-1-1763-1781?html=true.