- Published: 12 November 2011
A Principle of The Traditional American Philosophy
3. Unalienable Rights - From God
". . . endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . ." (Declaration of Independence)
1. The traditional American philosophy teaches that Man, The Individual, is endowed at birth with rights which are unalienable because given by his Creator.
The Only Moral Basis
2. This governmental philosophy is uniquely American. The concept of Man's rights being unalienable is based solely upon the belief in their Divine origin. Lacking this belief, there is no moral basis for any claim that they are unalienable or for any claim to the great benefits flowing from this concept. God-given rights are sometimes called Natural Rights--those possessed by Man under the Laws of Nature, meaning under the laws of God's creation and therefore by gift of God. Man has no power to alienate--to dispose of, by surrender, barter or gift--his God-given rights, according to the American philosophy. This is the meaning of "unalienable."
One underlying consideration is that for every such right there is a correlative, inseparable duty--for every aspect of freedom there is a corresponding responsibility; so that it is always Right-Duty and Freedom-Responsibility, or Liberty-Responsibility. There is a duty, or responsibility, to God as the giver of these unalienable rights: a moral duty--to keep secure and use soundly these gifts, with due respect for the equal rights of others and for the right of Posterity to their just heritage of liberty. Since this moral duty cannot be surrendered, bartered, given away, abandoned, delegated or otherwise alienated, so is the inseparable right likewise unalienable. This concept of rights being unalienable is thus dependent upon belief in God as the giver. This indicates the basis and the soundness of Jefferson's statement (1796 letter to John Adams): "If ever the morals of a people could be made the basis of their own government it is our case . . ."
Right, Reason, and Capacity to Be Self-governing
3. For the security and enjoyment by Man of his Divinely created rights, it follows implicitly that Man is endowed by his Creator not only with the right to be self-governing but also with the capacity to reason and, therefore, with the capacity to be self-governing. This is implicit in the philosophy proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. Otherwise, Man's unalienable rights would be of little or no use or benefit to him. Faith in Man--in his capacity to be self-governing--is thus related to faith in God as his Creator, as the giver of these unalienable rights and this capacity.
4. Certain specific rights of The Individual are protected in the original Constitution but this is by way of statements "in reverse"--by way of express prohibitions against government. The word "right" does not appear in the original instrument. This is because it was designed to express the grant by the people of specific, limited powers to the central government--created by them through this basic law--as well as certain specific limitations on its powers, and on the preexisting powers of the State governments, expressed as prohibitions of things forbidden. Every provision in it pertains to power.
The Constitution's first eight (Bill of Rights) amendments list certain rights of The Individual and prohibit the doing of certain things by the central, or Federal, government which, if done, would violate these rights. These amendments were intended by their Framers and Adopters merely to make express a few of the already-existing, implied prohibitions against the Federal government only--supplementing the prohibitions previously specified expressly in the original Constitution and supplementing and confirming its general, over-all, implied, prohibition as to all things concerning which it withheld power from this government. Merely confirming expressly some of the already-existing, implied prohibitions, these amendments did not create any new ones. They are, therefore, more properly referred to as a partial list of limitations--or a partial Bill of Prohibitions--as was indicated by Hamilton in The Federalist number 84. This hinges upon the uniquely American concepts stated in the Declaration of Independence: that Men, created of God, in turn create their governments and grant to them only "just" (limited) powers--primarily to make and keep secure their God-given, unalienable rights including, in part, the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. As Hamilton stated, under the American philosophy and system of constitutionally limited government, "the people surrender nothing;" instead, they merely delegate to government--to public servants as public trustees--limited powers and therefore, he added, "they have no need of particular reservations" (in a Bill of Rights). This is the basic reason why the Framing Convention omitted from the Constitution anything in the nature of a separate Bill of Rights, as being unnecessary.
5. To attempt to name all of these rights--starting with "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence--would be to start an endless list which would add up to the whole of Man's Freedom (Freedom from Government-over-Man). They would add up to the entirety of Individual Liberty (Liberty against Government-over-Man). Innumerable rights of The Individual are embraced in the Ninth Amendment, which states: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." (Here "Constitution" includes the amendments.) Some idea of how vast the list would be is indicated by just one general freedom which leads into almost all of Free Man's activities of daily living throughout life: freedom of choice. This term stands for the right to do--and equally not to do--this or that, as conscience, whim or judgement, taste or desire, of The Individual may prompt from moment to moment, day by day, for as long as life lasts; but always, of course, with due regard for the equal rights of others and for the just laws expressive of the above-mentioned "just powers" of government designed to help safeguard the equal rights of all Individuals. Spelled out in detail, this single freedom--freedom of choice--is almost all-embracing.
Right To Be Let Alone
6. In one sense, such freedom to choose involves Man's right to be let alone, which is possessed by The Individual in keeping with the Declaration and Constitution as against government: in enjoyment of his unalienable rights, while respecting the equal rights of others and just laws (as defined in Paragraph 5 above). This right to be let alone is the most comprehensive of rights and the right of most prized by civilized men. This right is, of course, also possessed as against all other Individuals, all obligated to act strictly within the limits of their own equal rights. Consequently any infringement of any Individual's rights is precluded.
Rights Inviolable by Government or by Others
7. Neither government nor any Individuals--acting singly, or in groups, or in organizations--could possibly possess any "just power" (to use again the significant term of the Declaration) to violate any Individual's God-given, unalienable rights or the supporting rights. No government can abolish or destroy--nor can it rightfully, or constitutionally, violate--Man's God-given rights. Government cannot justly interfere with Man's deserved enjoyment of any of these rights. No public official, nor all such officials combined, could possibly have any such power morally. Government can, to be sure, unjustly and unconstitutionally interfere by force with the deserved enjoyment of Man's unalienable rights. It is, however, completely powerless to abolish or destroy them. It is in defense of these rights of all Individuals, in last analysis, that the self-governing people--acting in accordance with, and in support of, the Constitution--oppose any and all violators, whether public officials or usurpers, or others (par. 9 below).
Each Individual Consents to Some Limitations
8. In creating governments as their tools, or instruments, and equally in continuing to maintain them--for the purpose primarily of making and keeping their unalienable rights--all Individuals composing the self-governing people impliedly and in effect consent to some degree of limitation of their freedom to exercise some of their rights. This does not involve the surrender, or the alienation, of any of these rights but only the partial, conditional and limited relinquishment of freedom to exercise a few of them and solely for the purpose of insuring the greater security and enjoyment of all of them; and, moreover, such relinquishment is always upon condition that public officials, as public servants and trustees, faithfully use the limited powers delegated to government strictly in keeping with their prescribed limits and with this limited purpose at all times. It was in this sense that George Washington, as President of the Framing Convention in September, 1787, wrote to the Congress of the Confederation--in transmitting to it, for consideration, the draft of the proposed Constitution: ". . . Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest." Here he meant merely conditional relinquishment of liberty of action in the exercise of certain aspects of unalienable rights--not the surrender of any unalienable rights, which would be impossible because a nullity, a void act.
9. Whenever Man violates either the equal rights of others or the above-mentioned just laws, he thereby forfeits his immunity in this regard; by his misconduct, he destroys the moral and legal basis for his immunity and opens the door to just reprisal against himself, by government. This means that any person, as such offender, may justly be punished by the people's proper instrumentality--the government, including the courts--under a sound system of equal justice under equal laws; that is, under Rule-by-Law (basically the people's fundamental law, the Constitution). Such punishment is justified morally because of the duty of all Individuals--in keeping with Individual Liberty-Responsibility--to cooperate, through their instrumentality, government, for the mutual protection of the unalienable rights of all Individuals. The offender is also justly answerable to the aggrieved Individual, acting properly through duly-established machinery of government, including courts, designed for the protection of the equal rights of all Individuals.
It is the offender's breach of the duty aspect of Individual Liberty-Responsibility which makes just, proper and necessary government's punitive action and deprives him of any moral basis for protest. By such breach he forfeits his moral claim to the inviolability of his rights and makes himself vulnerable to reprisal by the people, through government, in defense of their own unalienable rights. By this lack of self-discipline required by that duty, he invites and makes necessary his being disciplined by government.
10. Man's unalienable rights are sacred for the same reason that they are unalienable--because of their Divine origin, according to the traditional American philosophy.