Theory of America’s Founding, (Part I): Equality and Natural Rights

The principles of America’s founding amount to a remarkable and radical departure from government, as practiced for centuries prior to the American Revolution. To be sure, a tradition is tied to the theory and to the men responsible. We are, however, quite remarkable as a nation today, because the Founders were indeed radical in their definition of liberty and their uncompromising demand for freedom. The theory of America’s founding may be said to be embodied in the Declaration of Independence. If anyone reads it, he or she finds that it is stated rather clearly, not hard to understand unless you’re a modern day bureaucrat or store bought politician. What comes as shock and discouragement to many, is the realization that it is no longer the dominant theory in our government or in American politics. A new political theory arose during the Progressive Era, which came to dominate outright during the 1960s. Popular and powerful today, it has already changed our government and society and now threatens remaining liberty. But let action proceed first from understanding, and to understand what’s happened, we should review the theory of America’s founding. The material that follows will borrow heavily from work by Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey, two eminent historians associated with the Claremont Institute (www.claremont.org) in California.

The ideas or principles that comprise the American theory of government are posited as self-evident truths in the Declaration. They are universal in their application and may be true for men everywhere and for all time, because they are based on the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” They are the proper building blocks for human reason in matters of politics. They are themselves inherent in human nature. To be governed accordingly, is to be governed as well as man can be. These conceptual building blocks for righteous government are: Equality, Natural Rights, Consent, Revolution, God and Honor. The Declaration’s statement of principles begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” Of course, humans are entirely different from each other in terms of their gifts and attributes. The Founders, however, meant to observe that regardless of differences like looks, talents or strength, etc., human beings are all equal in the life and liberty they are born with and deserve to keep. This kind of equality confers on everyone responsibility as well. James Madison explains in The Federalist 54 that every human being, but no cow, is held morally accountable for violence committed against others, because every man is free to choose his behavior. Moreover, because of the innate temptation to abuse power (part of human nature), equality as the Founders understood it meant that no one should have inordinate power over others.

Men are therefore equal in their potential towards depravity and cruelty, if entrusted with too much power. Madison observed that men are not angels; if they were, there would be no need for government in the first place. As it is, government should not concentrate too much power in the hands of anyone or any group of people. Note that if you deny personal responsibility or pass it along to someone else or worse, to some drug or psychosis or whatever, you practically lose your basis for equality as understood by the Founders. People recategorize themselves with cows all the time, and that’s just not good horse sense. The Founders expected us to walk on two legs and to get up off all fours–to behave like responsible moral agents, because we are equal in that respect. Only in this way are the great mass of men, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, unfit to be saddled, booted and spurred by the favored few.

The Declaration continues that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” A right, according to the Founders, is a claim that a person may rightfully make against someone who would deprive him of what is his own. You own your clothes for instance, and you have a right to them. If someone takes them from you, you have a legitimate claim against that person. He or she owes them back–or rather, he or she has a duty not to take them in the first place. A natural right is a claim to what one rightfully owns by birth, or by way of one’s nature as a human being. Natural rights are unalienable, because they cannot be alienated or given away to someone else. A right from this point of view is a duty from another. If you have a right to liberty, I have a duty to respect that right. The Declaration specifically mentions three unalienable rights. No one may rightfully deny us these things. Note the third one mentioned above is the pursuit of happiness and not happiness itself. But the Declaration also says these three are “among” our natural rights, so there must be others. Additional natural rights may be gleaned from official documents and writings of the Founding era, and they include the rights of conscience and property, free speech and free press, freedom of religion, and others protected in what became our Constitution’s “Bill of Rights.”

The Founders would never have said that you have a right to decent housing, health care, recreation, or anything else before you have worked to get them. It is only after you have acquired your property in some legitimate way that your right to own property comes into play. That said, property rights can be seen as part of the right to liberty and the right to pursue happiness. There is also a natural right to work, and property comes into play here too. We own ourselves and our labor by human nature; ergo, we are free to work and to keep the fruits of our labor. The right to earn property, and to keep the property one earns is fundamental to the conception of Natural Rights shared by the Founders. Moreover, the right of religious liberty was not a right to exclude religion from public life. Indeed, the right to religious liberty flows from the duty that all human beings have towards their Creator. The most basic reason for freedom of religion understood by the Founders, was not to free man from obligation to God or religion, but to free him to perform his duties to God, without obnoxious coercion into modes of worship by fallible human beings in government.