What Are Unalienable Rights

The Source of Our Rights

Exploring the Source of Our Rights…and Why No Entity Can Take Them From You

Thomas Jefferson was very clear as to the source of our rights and why that was important.  No matter what you may have heard about Thomas Jefferson –  I know when I was in high school, it was we were taught that Jefferson was an atheist – he spent a good portion of his life crediting God for our country and promoting that idea that our rights are the gift of God.

In Rights of British America (1774), Jefferson wrote,

“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson stated,

“And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”

American flag at parade – stock image

In his second inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson stated, “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”

Natural Right

In an 1817 letter to John Manners, Jefferson wrote,

“The evidence of this natural right (expatriation), like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man.  We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of kings.”

But where Jefferson best explained the importance of recognizing that our rights come from God was in Notes on Virginia, 1782, Jefferson wrote

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?  Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . . .”

He then went on to address slavery and why it was wrong.

So the reason the founding fathers considered it important, is that if our rights, our liberty, are granted by God, no one, neither man nor government, has the right to take our liberty from us. If, however, our rights are granted to us by a government, in Jefferson’s words “under the charters of kings or legislators,” then that government has the absolute right to limit or even completely take our liberty from us.

So what are some of the natural rights that our founding fathers believed are the gift of God?

The Amendments and Our Rights

You can pretty much go through the first eight amendments, although some of them may need to be restated to understand how they are natural rights.

Obviously we have freedom of religion, everyone knows “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion,” but people frequently forget about the second clause, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” 

We have freedom of speech, freedom of the press (I must note that freedom of speech and of the press do not include a right to be heard or a right to have someone provide you with the opportunity or means to publish your views), the right peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We don’t think a whole lot about that last one now, but remember what I said before about the doctrine that the king can do no wrong.  If the king can do no wrong, you have no right to be compensated for what the government may do to you.

We have the right to keep and bear arms. This really goes to two different rights. We have a natural right to self-defense, but as noted in the Declaration of Independence, the founding fathers believed when a government becomes despotic, or oppressive, “it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such Government.” And if you read the writings of the founding fathers that is really the more important reason for the second amendment.  The founding fathers believed every generation owed liberty to future generations.  They believed it was the responsibility of every generation to throw off tyranny, so their children and grandchildren could live in liberty

The remaining 6 amendment are really about either private property rights or ensuring that you are treated fairly if you are accused of a crime, including having other citizens, not the government judge your case.

Amendments in Review

Under the 3rd amendment, the government can’t tell you to keep soldiers in your home. That is really about private property rights.

The fourth amendment is also largely about private property rights.

The fifth amendment is about private property rights and about holding the government to account for criminal procedure, that is making sure you are treated fairly if you are accused of a crime.

The sixth amendment is also about protecting people from the government when they are accused of a crime, including having citizens, not the government decide whether or not you are guilty.

The seventh amendment guarantees the right to have citizens, not the government, decide civil cases.

The eighth amendment, again, makes sure you are treated fairly if you are accused of a crime.

Two Other Natural Rights

There are two other natural rights that I would point out. One of them was touched on in Jefferson’s letter to John Manners, when he spoke of a right to our faculties, it is the right to earn a living as you see fit, so long as it does not infringe another’s rights.  The other is the right  to keep the fruits of your labors, except for that amount which is actually necessary for the operation of government.

Washington in Session with Founders – history.com

Jefferson addressed this in a letter to Joseph Milligan, dated April 6, 1816,

  “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principal of association, ‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, and the fruits acquired by it.’”

Jefferson also addressed this in a letter to Francis W. Gilmer, dated June 7, 1816:

“Our legislators are not sufficiently apprized of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the laws should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions, and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right.”

What about voting?  Do Americans have the right to vote in a federal election?

I will answer that in the next installment.


John Barrett
About John Barrett 7 Articles
About this author - John B. Barrett: I have been an attorney for over 32 years. Initially, my passion for the Constitution was fueled by my passion for firearms and the second amendment. But as I dove deeper, I found that while the right to keep and bear arms is, as US Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story, wrote, "the palladium of the liberties of a republic," there was much more I needed to understand. Chief among these is the importance of the founding fathers’ recognition of God as the source of our liberty. I have read Algernon Sidney's Discourses concerning Government, John Locke's Two Treatises Of Civil Government (plus a number of his other works), The Federalist Papers, The Anti-Federalist Papers, Letters from Federalist Farmer to the Republican, Common Sense, the Rights of Man, the transcripts of several of the state conventions considering ratification of the U.S. Constitution, as well as numerous other writings of the founding fathers and early US Supreme Court cases impacting our liberty and the power of government.

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