If You Demand Rights That Aren’t Unalienable, You Don’t Get America
Others before the American Founders had dreamed of a political order of liberty and justice, but every previous attempt ended in failure. That men again and again, admittedly fitfully and never successfully until the Founders, struggled to hold that ideal above the dreadful historical reality is perhaps Western civilization’s most honorable claim to greatness. The Founders’ solution is the crowning glory of that noble tradition.
The Founders’ solution has two main parts. To find them we need look no farther than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
All Rights Are Not Unalienable
First is the world-changing use the Declaration made of the idea of unalienable rights. The idea is not original to the Founders. They got it from a philosopher named Francis Hutcheson. His book, “A System of Moral Philosophy,” was published in 1755. (In those days, political philosophy was understood to be a branch of moral philosophy.) Here is Hutcheson on our rights in that book: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable.”
Hutcheson’s book arrived just in time to provide the Founders with the ideas and the manner of thinking they needed. His discussion of our rights convinced the Founders, and the use of the phrase “unalienable rights” identifies his followers in philosophy and in American political thought. Here is John Adams in the constitution of the state of Massachusetts: “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.” Thomas Reid, perhaps the most brilliant thinker in the philosophical tradition Hutcheson founded, wrote of “the natural, the unalienable right of judging for ourselves.”
Fortunately for us, the Founders knew Hutcheson’s discussion of our rights inside and out. They made the idea of unalienable rights their own—and the first part of their two-part solution to the problem that had vexed the West for millennia. The Founders went far beyond Hutcheson’s philosophical argument that we have unalienable rights to declare that the purpose of government is the preservation of those rights.
The Declaration makes that perfectly clear: “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”
The Declaration does not simply declare America’s independence; it declares that every government not designed and dedicated to securing the unalienable rights of its people is illegitimate. The Declaration does not limit itself to rejecting rule by the British monarch, but goes on to reject the legitimacy of every regime then in existence. Now, that’s a revolution!