Our Founding Principles – Unalienable Rights
“…They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.
This phrase by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence is another source of controversy, both in society at large and in the courts. It is not uncommon to hear someone complain about their “Constitutional rights” being violated, sometimes taking that complaint into the judicial system. Often what is claimed as a Constitutional right is really a privilege granted by law and not a right at all.
Here Jefferson writes of natural rights endowed by God. These rights are unalienable, meaning that they belong to each individual as a condition of their humanity. Ownership cannot be transferred to someone else and they cannot be taken from you without your consent. They constitute the only true rights. Other so-called rights are really privileges or favors. The difference between a right, a privilege and a favor is determined by the conditions under which they can be realized.
A natural right is one that can be exercised independent of the existence of government and without the assistance of others. A right that is granted by government is a privilege; a right that is granted by someone else is a favor. Privileges can be withdrawn, denied or restricted by law. Favors can be withheld by the person from whom you request them.
For example, the right to drive an automobile on the street is a privilege regulated by law. The right to drive that same automobile on your own property is a natural right. The right to drive it on your neighbor’s property is a favor granted by your neighbor. Cohabitation is a natural right; civil marriage is a privilege granted and restricted by law. The right to treat yourself for an illness is a natural right; professional treatment by a physician is a favor even though you pay for the service; if that physician is employed by the government treatment is a privilege and may be restricted by law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that all privileges granted by government must be equally available to all citizens.
A natural right can only be legitimately restricted when its exercise interferes with the natural rights of others. The purpose of government is to secure these rights and to protect them from encroachment. Jefferson mentions three classes of these God given, unalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Orators will sometimes express the same thought in three different ways for emphasis. That seems to be what Jefferson does in this passage. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are all expressions of the same concept. Life has little value without liberty and liberty has little value unless used in the pursuit of happiness. All of our natural rights are inherent in the basic right to life.
The right to life is the right to live out our natural life from conception to natural death. Abortion for example, is neither a right nor a privilege for two reasons. First, life is a gift of God, therefore it is sacred and no one has a right to destroy it arbitrarily. Second, the right to life is unalienable. Alienability refers to the ability to transfer ownership by a legal process to another owner. The right to life is a gift to the unborn baby, and not to the prospective mother. Since it is unalienable, its ownership cannot be transferred to another whether that is the prospective mother or the state.
An auxiliary right of the right to life is the right to protect and defend it. That right is recognized in the Constitution and the law as the right to self-defense. That is the real meaning of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and the powers of Congress to repel invasions and wage war.
Liberty refers to the right to use the life God has given us as we think best. Life is measured in time; therefore, liberty means the right to determine for ourselves how we use that time. We can use it for ourselves, freely use it for the benefit of others, or trade it in the marketplace for wages or profit. The acquisition and accumulation of private property is a product of how we use our time. The value of our time is measured intangibly by the amount of satisfaction we get from its expenditure and tangibly by the amount and quality of the property we accumulate. The relative value of each is determined by us.
Infringement on our time by government is an infringement on our liberty. The most common way government infringes on our liberty is through taxation. Any taxes over and above the amount necessary to carry out the functions delegated to the government by the Constitution amounts to a taking of our time, and therefore our liberty, and is a form of tyranny.
The exercise of our liberty requires the freedom of conscience, the freedom of thought and the freedom of expression. These freedoms are protected by the First Amendment. Liberty also requires the freedom of mobility, the ability to move about in the pursuit of our goals. Amendments four, five, six, seven, eight and nine are all, to one degree or another intended to protect the right to liberty.
The pursuit of happiness refers to the freedom to pursue our own unique quest for fulfillment in life. The best commentary on the pursuit of happiness is contained in a story told about Ben Franklin.
- “While conversing with some friends at a local Philadelphia tavern, Franklin was accosted by a drunken man who had overheard him discussing the Declaration of Independence. Slandering the document, the young fellow shouted at Franklin: ‘Aw, them words don’t mean nothing at all. Where’s all the happiness the document says it guarantees us.’ The quick-witted statesman sympathetically replied, ‘My friend, the Declaration of Independence only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself!’ “
“Happiness” is one of two words sprinkled liberally throughout the writings of the founders, whose meaning can only be determined by the context in which it is used— the other is “commerce”. Occasionally the word “property” is used as a synonym for “happiness” in the notes of the Philadelphia Convention.
While property may be an element in one’s happiness, as used here and elsewhere, happiness seems to refer to general prosperity including such things as financial comfort, satisfying social relationships, a contented and peaceful family life, good health, satisfying labor, and in general, a satisfying life. The famous twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow expressed the same general idea as self-actualization, the highest level of human satisfaction, the successful development and use of one’s personal talents and abilities.