Unalienable Rights

I’m one of the people that has fairly often argued that the American Revolution and all that followed is based (in some measure) on John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Robert Curry of The Claremont Institute in an American Thinker article titled Why ‘Unalienable’? disagrees with me, saying.

Locke’s Two Treatises of Government appeared in 1690.  The articles by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay that became The Federalist began appearing in American newspapers in 1787.  Quite a lot had happened during that intervening century.  The greatest development of all during that time was the onset of the American Enlightenment, that explosion of human genius that gave America and the world the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Federalist.  The Founders carried out a revolution in thinking about the meaning and possibilities of human life unlike anything the world had ever known before — and by 1776, they were only getting started.  Thomas Jefferson later called The Federalist “the best commentary on the principles of government, which ever was written.”  He was right about that.  The distance in thought between Locke’s Two Treatises and The Federalist is simply enormous.

And you know, he has much right here. When I talk about Locke, my point is that he clarified much out of the miasma of (primarily) English medieval growth in rights and freedom. He was not the final answer. The American Enlightenment built on the work of Locke, of Luther, of Blackstone, of Smith, of Francis Hutcheson, and of many others reaching back into antiquity. Mr. Curry writes:

The Founders had a special purpose in using the language of the legal transfer of property in the negative with reference to our rights.  Their special purpose was to make it clear that our natural, essential, and inherent rights are not our property — that is, their special purpose was to make it clear they were not relying on Locke’s account of rights.

In fact, they were doing more; they were evoking a subtle and profound argument that directly challenged Locke’s account of rights.  To take you to that argument is to take you to the source of the Founders’ use of that special word “unalienable.”  Here is Francis Hutcheson in his A System of Moral Philosophy (1755) rejecting Locke’s account of our rights: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable … our right to our goods and labours is naturally alienable.”  Locke, you see, put property at the core of his account:

Man … hath by nature a power … to preserve his property — that is, his life, liberty and estate.

For Locke, property is the overarching concept.  In fact, property gets a special emphasis by appearing twice; “estate” is another word for property.  By making the case that our rights to our life and to our liberty are such that we cannot alienate them, Hutcheson was arguing that Locke had not correctly characterized our relation to our lives and our liberty.  Locke had made what philosophers call a category mistake.  Property is alienable; unalienable rights are not property.  It is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath our property.

The Founders embraced Hutcheson’s argument.  They understood that our rights to life and liberty are natural and inherent to our being as humans.  Our unalienable right to our life and our unalienable right to our liberty cannot rightfully be sold or transferred as property can be.  To say those rights are unalienable is to emphasize how fundamentally different they are from our right to our property — and to reject Locke’s account.

And that is the final point of rights. They are not ours to keep or give away or sell for whatever advantage. They are a gift from our creator, which we are bound by duty to Him, to those who discovered them, and to our descendants who will enjoy them, to defend.

I think Mr. Curry overstates a bit, but he does it to make a point. The way Locke presents, it is entirely up to us whether we fight, with words, or other means, to maintain our rights. The conception that America brings the world is that it not optional, it is our foremost duty to maintain our unalienable rights. And that is final.

And right here we find the baseline reason why it was the English and the Americans who abolished slavery wherever in the world their writs run. Because those men, women, and children have exactly the same rights as George Washington or King George. That is how important the change from Locke to the American founders is.

And that is why President Coolidge could say, on our 150th anniversary of the Declaration that proclaimed this to the world that:

If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.

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6 Responses to Unalienable Rights

  1. audremyers says:

    Fascinating discussion.

    Do you suppose, in regard to this ” It is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath our property.”, that it was Hutcheson to whom the powers that be looked when we, a couple of centuries later, instituted eminent domain?

    Liked by 1 person

    • NEO says:

      Eminent Domain as such is an inherent quality of sovereignty, it’s pretty much always existed in some form. Our form of it is mentioned in the takings clause of the Constitution (just compensation, which is a huge improvement over just taking, I reckon). It really got going with the road building boom in the 20th century, before that it was mostly courthouses and customs houses and such. Like anything else, it grew abusive, such as Kelo, and so now, some are trying to reel it in.

      I’m not as familiar with Hutcheson as I should be, but I doubt it, seems as if he, like the founders would have insisted on just compensation, at least.

      Remember all those castles William the Conqueror built – he didn’t buy the land, he simply took it, at sword point. We don’t hear much about the former owners of the land that the Tower of London is on, but they existed.


  2. Jefferson understood Locke’s use of “property” was not literal. Reasonable academics usually believe the same; that is until one has a bee in his bonnet and wants to assail founding principles etc.

    Property is all you possess in the functions of liberty- including your intellectual capacity.

    I think your understanding of Locke and our Founders is accurate.

    Liked by 1 person

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