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2.1: Natural Rights and the Declaration of Independence

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    “Nature is none other than God in things.”
    “God…is everywhere in all things, not above, not outside, but present, not a being outside or above being, not a nature outside of nature, not a goodness outside of good.”

    —Giordano Bruno [1548-1600] (1)

    “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

    —Thomas Jefferson (2)

    Ideas are important—even if they initially appear strange and radical. The current U.S. political system originally came from ideas espoused by various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European philosophers. These philosophers, in turn, were building upon the work of medieval and ancient philosophers who thought deeply about the proper ordering of a polity, or political system. This work was grounded in concepts of matter, the universe, and God—many ideas that the Christian church saw as heretical. As a student of U.S. politics, it is important to have insight into the ideas and reasoning that shaped the Declaration of Independence and understand the following philosophical systems that helped shape ideals.

    • Materialism holds that nothing exists except matter, its movements, and modifications. Matter is all that there is, that it is composed of atoms, that matter has always existed, that it cannot be created out of anything, that it cannot be destroyed, that it is continually transformed and recycled into different forms, and that the universe is infinite. Materialism goes back at least to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who taught that man can attain the greatest good and a tranquil state, free from fear and pain, through reasoned and virtuous action.
    • Spiritualism is the doctrine that the spirit exists as distinct from matter and is the only reality. Spiritualists argue that the spiritual world governs the material and is essentially unknowable except through faith and revelation—which means that the material world does not really follow any laws that humans can discern through their own reason.
    • Deism is the belief in a supreme being or creator, who does not intervene in the universe or interact with humankind, but who disappears into the natural rules that govern all matter.
    • Atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
    Statue of Epicurus
    Bust of Epicurus

    Epicurus’s dangerous idea refers to the notion that talking about nature and talking about God are just two ways of talking about the same thing, which has tremendous theological and political implications. If the universe is infinite and has always existed, there is no role for an entity outside of matter and causation to play the role of a prime mover. No need for God in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense.

    Note the references in the Declaration of Independence to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and to “their Creator.” (3) These all fit with a Deist’s understanding of the universe. Atheist and Deist approaches differ from Spiritualism, which sees a distinction between the material world and the spiritual one. People like Jefferson recoiled at that notion of spiritualism. Instead, they embraced secularism, Deism, and the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason.

    In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Enlightenment overtook Europe and constituted the intellectual fertilizer in which U.S. independence grew. Enlightenment thinkers argued that the laws of nature were subject to discovery, and the human condition could be improved through reason. In the area of political philosophy, people like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) were known as social contract theorists.

    Some philosophers imagined how people might live in a state of nature that would allow mankind absolute freedom, where there is no authority to limit individual behavior. According to them, this state of nature would essentially be an anarchical condition in which there was no government, and thus no authority to limit individual behavior. Anarchy was not appealing to Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes argued in Leviathan that the state of nature would result in a war of all against all, and that people’s lives would be “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” (4) The solution was to construct a civil society.

    According to these theories, we could escape from the state of nature, with its unlimited freedoms that give rise to all sorts of conflicts, by setting up a government through a social contract, where the people agree to certain government-enforced restrictions on their liberties in exchange for a measure of security. Consequently, one is not entirely free in a civil society to do as one pleases with respect to others. President George Washington put it eloquently: “Individuals entering into society, must give up a share of liberty to preserve the rest…. It is at all times difficult to draw with precision the line between those rights which must be surrendered, and those which may be reserved.” (5)

    Natural rights are those rights that stem from the state of nature, and thus pre-date the government established by the social contract. Philosophers have tended to say that natural rights are granted by nature’s God, or by virtue of being born. The important thing to remember is that government does not give you your natural rights when it establishes a bill of rights. The bill of rights merely recognizes, and perhaps specifies, your preexisting natural rights. Locke’s classic statement of natural rights went as follows: “…the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker…” (6)

    A contemporary listing of natural rights follows Locke’s lead and includes equality, life, liberty, and property. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, acting as a scribe for the committee whose most vocal members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, substituted “pursuit of happiness” for “property,” which is an intriguing turn of phrase that appears to have its proximate origin in Locke and its ultimate origin in Epicurus. Perhaps the immediate source of the Declaration’s reference to the pursuit of happiness was his colleague John Adams, who wrote in his Thoughts on Government (1776) that “the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.”

    The idea of natural rights frightened monarchs throughout Europe: if the government is not upholding the natural rights of citizens, and instead is consistently undermining them, the people are entirely justified in taking up arms against their rulers. It's this idea that is seen in the American (U.S.) Revolution. Therefore, the Declaration of Independence, —“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal…”—is a careful dissolution of the social contract between Americans and the British Crown. Many colonists revolutionaries felt that being taxed without representation, having troops violate people’s property without warrants, and being subject to arbitrary and capricious governance over a period of time were grievances sufficient to warrant a revolution. Indeed, in the words of the Declaration, it is the “duty” of the people under those circumstances, “to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.” The goal of the revolution was not to go back to the state of nature, but to reconstitute the social contract in a form more amenable to Americans preserving their natural rights, safety, and collective happiness.

    The Declaration of Independence

    In Congress, July 4, 1776.

    The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

    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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

    He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

    He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

    He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

    He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

    He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

    He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

    He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

    He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

    He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

    He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

    He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

    He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

    For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

    For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

    For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

    For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

    For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

    For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

    For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

    For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

    He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

    He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

    He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

    He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


    1. Quoted in Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God. The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2014. Page 151.
    2. Thomas Jefferson writing to his nephew Peter Carr on August 10, 1787.
    3. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence was so secular it had no references to the Creator, God, or the Supreme Judge of the World. Those were all added in the editing process done by the Continental Congress. A good description of this editing process is in Danielle Allen, Our Declaration. A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. Pages 72-78.
    4. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651). Chapter 13.
    5. Quoted in Thomas G. West, “The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights,” in Scott Douglas Gerber, editor, The Declaration of Independence. Origins and Impact. Washington, DC: CQ Press. 2002. Page 72.
    6. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, (1690).  Chapter 2, No. 6.

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