What in the world did the Founding Fathers have in mind when they talked and wrote about “Unalienable Rights” and “Freedom”? These terms get tossed around a lot lately but what is the meaning behind the words?
Let’s explore shall we?
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.
So begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher, proposed that there were rights given to man that could not be taken away or given away. Locke stressed that the essentials of these rights were life, liberty, and ownership of personal property. As these rights were granted by God they superseded limitations imposed by kings, men, or governments. This made Locke so popular that he had to flee to the Netherlands for a time to deprive King Charles II the satisfaction of separating his head from his neck.
Locke published two Treatises on Government which argued that the right to personal property, including the individual as his own personal property, was indispensable to freedom. He also argued that unalienable rights gave citizens the right and the duty to overthrow tyrannical governments.
If you guessed that our Founding Fathers were huge fans of John Locke and leaned heavily on his arguments you may go to the head of the class.
At the time that the Declaration of Independence was written we were of course a British colony. Britain was ruled by a monarch, King George III, and a Parliament. It was also the largest empire the world had ever seen. British colonies were so far flung and extensive it was said that, “The sun never set on the British Empire”. The American Colonies were merely a part of this empire.
Thanks in no small part to the level of education available in the American Colonies a group of dedicated thinkers, following the philosophy of Locke and others, rose to prominence. Their interactions with the British government made it abundantly clear that they were subjects of a tyrannical government.
Treason and Revolution
Our Founding Fathers were not only thinkers, they were men of bold action and personal bravery. Their most important action was an act of treason – declaring their independence from Britain.
Had these men not been so clear in their thoughts they would have been considered madmen. Declaring independence for the American Colonies essentially signed their death warrants. To challenge the mightiest empire, navy, and army on the planet certainly seemed like an effort in futility.
In the long history of mankind there have been many revolutions – some successful and many unsuccessful. At the core of most revolutions is an individual or group that wants to eliminate the existing rulers so that they can plant their own ambitious backsides on the throne. Many offered freedom from oppression but once in power replaced it with their own oppression. The Americans had something different in mind.
The message of our Founding Fathers was powerful. They convinced the American Colonists to take up arms against the mighty British empire for freedom. They felt it was their duty to challenge tyranny and with God on their side they were emboldened.
Freedom from Tyranny
Imagine being in the American Colonies in the second half of the 18th century. You’d hear sermons in church expounding on the ideals of freedom from oppression. You’d read pamphlets from politicians and newsmen talking about a concept of government totally alien to nearly everything attempted before.
A new government whose power would be limited. A new government whose primary role would be to protect and support individual freedom rather than institute mass oppression.
Changing the Order
The preferred pecking order for tyrants is:
- Tyrant and/or ruling class
- Everybody else
The only ones with rights were those in number 1. When the Catholic Church gained enough power they sought to place God above the tyrant with varying amounts of success. Tyrants were quick to use the Church to help keep the populace under control but chafed at any constraints being placed on them by the Church. The Average Joe of the time had little or no freedom.
Our Founding Fathers had in mind a radically different order:
In this order rights flowed downhill. The people derived their rights from God and the government derived its rights from the people. The government’s role was to supervise rather than control.
Freedom without God?
By definition, only God can grant unalienable rights. All rights that man bestows on one another are alienable, that is, they can be taken away. Anything granted by man can be withdrawn by man.
Tyrants fear God. They want to do the constraining rather than be constrained. That is why the tyrants of the 20th century worked so hard to eliminate God. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, all exerted great efforts to eliminate or drastically reduce the impact of the Judeo/Christian religion within their borders and spheres of influence. Their ability to control the population is much easier if they can go back to the original order when God was out of the picture.
America stands alone among nations for having fought a war to provide freedom, not just to a handful of hopeful rulers, but to an entire population. We did not fight a revolution and have the victors slay or imprison the losers or dissenters. We did not strip the previous ruling class or the wealthy of their personal property and their lives.
We provided opportunity and with it the hope of building better lives not just for the privileged but for everyone. America has more stories of people rising from obscurity, from poverty, from mean circumstances and achieving greatness than in any other country in history. We accomplished all this because we fought for and believed in freedom and unalienable rights.
Freedom did not come to everyone right away. Not all the burdens of millennia could be shed at the start of our country.
The Founding Fathers had bitter disagreements over slavery. Slavery had been around for about 5000 years when we started our country. It would take 80 more years and a Civil War to significantly correct that wrong. Not surprisingly, the fight to extend unalienable rights and freedom to slaves was led by clergymen.
What kind of conclusions can we find?
If you do not believe in a Creator you cannot believe in unalienable rights. If man is the highest form of intelligence in the universe then you are doomed to suffer at the hands of those who manage to grasp power and control your lives. What rights you have are given to you by other men. That thought should leave you felling warm and fuzzy on cold nights.
Atheists and governments run by atheists killed over 100 million people during the 20th century. More than all the murders and war deaths of the previous centuries combined.
Land of Hope
- America has been the number one destination for immigrants for over two centuries now.
- When given the opportunity to return to Africa most former slaves chose to stay in America.
- We have over 20 million illegal immigrants in our country right now.
What magnet pulls these people to America when there are so many other countries that they could go to?
What sets us apart are our Unalienable Rights and Freedom which is guaranteed in the founding documents of our country and backed by the promise of God.