Where Do Our Rights Come From?

by Pitt Griffin on October 22, 2013 · 0 comments

in Law, Politics, Religion

It takes logical legerdemain to be a revisionist Christian conservative. Blinded by their faith in a specific Supreme Being there is a sect of rose-spectacled, wish-it-were-this-way, historians – who believe that America was created by Jesus Christ and God Himself came down from the heavens and bestowed natural rights on the citizens of the new nation.

The rights written into the Constitution were decided upon by man and given weight by law.

The rights written into the Constitution were decided upon by man and given weight by law.

The Founders thought differently. How do we know? We need look no further than the preamble to our Constitution, where it is written,

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The people were going to establish the Constitution – not God, not Jesus Christ, not even our “Creator”.

The Declaration of Independence made more metaphysical references. In it, the founders alluded to, “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. And in the next paragraph they wrote that men are, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If religious folk are getting hot and bothered at where we may be headed next, they should take a cold shower. That is as far into religious waters as the founders waded. In fact, they removed any idea of a deity from enforcement of natural laws by writing, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

It cannot be stated too firmly – the Christian God was not part of the founding conversation.

But what of these “natural rights” and “natural laws”? It is perfectly reasonable – in fact, it is quite civilized – to believe that there are some fundamental rights that are ours as individuals, beyond the purview of any committee to bestow or take away.

However, who or what will guarantee us these rights? It is useless to have rights if you cannot exercise them. And that is where government comes in. It is only a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” that frees us from the tyranny that would strip us of our natural rights.

So having decided that there are natural rights – and that they can only be guaranteed by a responsive government – it is only left to ascertain what these natural rights are. And that is where things get sticky.

The founders may have talked in lofty language of natural rights, but what did their actions produce? How did the early inhabitants of the Republic make out? Well – if you were a rich white man. Not so well – if you were a woman, a slave, or an Indian. And in some states, not well – if you were a white man without property.

Which points out the problem with natural rights – they tend to be in the eye of the beholder. Luckily for those people, who would have had their rights abridged in the early Republic, the rights once enjoyed by the few are now enjoyed by the many. Not because God willed it, but because we as a people – through our elected representatives and constitutional amendments – made it so.

Do they have a "natural' right to be married?

Do they have a “natural’ right to be married?

Take the right for people to marry the person they want to. Some folk say that right extends only to people of the opposite sex; others say that sex is irrelevant. Who is to decide? In America, it depends on the state – either the people, the peoples’ representatives or their judges. Regardless, the right is not “natural”, it is a practical  matter of law.

Everybody agrees in a right to self-defense – call it a natural right if you will – but the practical right to self-defense is encapsulated, in the US,  in the very human 2nd Amendment. In other countries, self-defense may be a right, but consensus limits gun rights. Philosophers may debate the point – but it is only in the law that the practical existence of rights exists.

We all have a sense of what natural rights exist – “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is as good a summation as any. Although the French version – “Liberté, equalité, fraternité” – is just as valid. Regardless, practical rights exist as a matter of law, not as some divine gift.






Previous post:

Next post: