Sunday, February 07, 2016

Our Rights as Americans

We Americans talk about "rights" all the time. But what are our rights? What do we mean by rights? Where do they come from?

In this and the next few essays, I will discuss our concept of rights and where they come from.

In most other countries, a citizen's rights are either listed in their constitution, if there is one, or in laws either passed by the legislature or declared by the president, prime minister, monarch or dictator. These rights are often very malleable, changing at the whim of the government.

The United States, however, is very different. Our most basic founding document, the Declaration of Independence, defines the concept of "rights" as it applies to the American people. In paragraph 2, it states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In this remarkable document, our Founding Fathers declare that mankind has a creator and that this creator granted certain rights, foremost of which are:

  • Life
  • Liberty
  • The pursuit of Happiness

These rights are not enshrined in law. From the deeply religious point of view of our Founding Fathers, there was no need to, since they were granted by the creator of all mankind. For this, they drew their inspiration from the great English philosopher, John Locke, and specifically from his essay Two Treatises of Government which was published in 1689. As this is a long and unwieldly work, an annotated extract of relevant passages from the second treatise may be found here.

They defined "government" as a creation of mankind and, thus, must exist and operate with the consent of the governed. This, at the time, was a really radical idea. In Europe and most of the rest of the world, government was created by conquerers, whether you called them dictator, emperor or monarch, and the governed had no choice. In most of the world of today, the governed still do not have a choice.

In fact, twice in our short history, we have taken this radical step and thrown out one government and established a new one. The first time was in 1776, when we declared ourselves independent of Great Briton. The next government we established was under the Articles of Confederation. When this form of government failed to work well, we tossed it out in 1787, adopting the Constitution of the United States.

This Constitution remains the legal basis for our nation. In the next installment, I will discuss the rights granted in this 225-year old document.

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