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  Privileges can be withdrawn, denied or restricted by law.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.
The Role of Government
Bookmark and Share
The Illinois Conservative