God Talk and Americans’ Belief in Inalienable Rights

Inscription in the Jefferson Memorial of the Declaration of Independence

Inscription in the Jefferson Memorial of the Declaration of Independence

I posted earlier this week regarding whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that they “consent” to laws and taxes through their legislative representatives. There may be good reasons Americans no longer believe they really consent to the laws their representatives enact, but it is a striking change from the beliefs articulated during the founding era.

In considering whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence, we next consider the most-well known section in the Declaration, “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.”

There are, of course, entire books devoted to these few lines. A few observations, however. First, what is the link between there being a creator and persons being endowed with “unalienable” (or inalienable) rights?

Americans typically read the commitment to inalienable rights to mean that these are rights no government can take away. They’re right in that the government cannot take away these rights, but “inalienability” is irrelevant. After all, the government cannot just take way alienable rights either.

“Alienate” is a term from property law. It means to transfer something. We alienate rights over property all the time by selling or given the property away. For example, the rights I have over the sofa I just bought are “alienable” rights. If I sell the sofa to someone else, then I have alienated my right to use and to dispose of that sofa; I have transferred those rights to the purchaser. But if someone breaks into my house and steals my sofa (it is a sweet sofa), the fact that my rights over the sofa are alienable does not in any way lessen the fact that the person who stole my sofa committed an injustice.

So, too, with government action. Alienable rights cannot any more be taken away by someone than inalienable rights can be. Where the bite with a right being “inalienable” comes in is that inalienable rights cannot be given away. Inalienable rights constrain the holder of those rights in a way that alienable rights do not. Inalienable rights are rights that cannot be given away.

Inalienable rights are, for example, the dramatic backdrop in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. In both books the family’s property is entailed along the male line, meaning that the heir who receives the property in one generation only has the right to use the land during his lifetime. That heir cannot sell or otherwise transfer the land permanently (say, by giving it to his wife or daughters). Ownership is inalienable in the stories.

The Declaration’s affirmation that the rights mentioned are inalienable is in fact a restriction on what individuals can do with those rights. They cannot transfer them to anyone else.

Rousseau discusses the notion’s significance in explaining a passage from Grotius:

If a private citizen, says Grotius, can alienate his liberty and make himself another man’s slave, why should not a whole people do the same, and subject themselves to the will of a King? The argument contains a number of ambiguous words which stand in need of explanation. But let us confine our attention to alienate. To alienate means to give or to sell.

This then begs answer to the question, why would anyone in his or her right mind give away the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness?

Of course, today, the discussion over assisted suicide and the right to die is precisely a discussion over whether life is an inalienable or an alienable right. John Locke, for example, comments that suicide is impermissible because life is an inalienable right.

As for alienating liberty, it’s easy to imagine in the past a community willingly ceding their liberty to strongmen in what is effectively a protection racket. Aristocrats initially were the warrior class. A community might give away a lot in terms of rights to be protected by a class of warriors from the depredations of roving bandits. Or even in the Bible, because of the pressure of famine, the Egyptians effectively sold their liberty to Pharaoh. They alienated their liberty to preserve their lives.

The practicality of affirming that rights are inalienable is when one observes despotism one does not need to inquiry into the history of consent and agreement to know that the despotism is wrong. If rights are in fact alienable, then it’s entirely possible that through a long trail of problems and pressures, a community was consensually reduced to the status of effective slavery. One would need to go, as it were, through all the past paperwork to know whether the despotic power was in fact just or unjust, consensual or not. But when rights are inalienable, it does not matter what the paper trail says, whether people purported to transfer their rights to the despot in the past. The despotism is perforce wrong because the people never had the ability to transfer the rights in the first place. They were inalienable rights.

To return to the original question, then, what is the relationship between a Creator and inalienable rights? Moderns often take the god-talk in the Declaration as little more than a nod to the superstitions of the time. Jettisoning the god-talk, however, jettisons the possibility of rights being inalienable.

In Locke, for example, the reason that life is inalienable is because humans don’t own themselves, God does. No one can dispose of the life of another person because doing so trenches on God’s rights. This includes the human himself or herself: We cannot commit suicide because God owns our lives, not we ourselves. So, too, we cannot become slaves to another because we are already, as it were, God’s slaves. The irony is that the more abased humanity is before God the greater the dignity humans must accord to each other; liberty, as well as life and the pursuit of happiness, are all the more protected because of rights humans don’t and can’t have over themselves. They are “unalienable.”

I realize that I haven’t discussed what it means for the right to pursue happiness to be inalienable. The phrase “pursuit of happiness” is read so differently today than when it was written that it needs its own column to discuss. (Here’s a hint, although a likely unhelpful one: The King James Bible, the one used predominately in the era, renders, for example, Proverbs 3 as “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom.”)

The bigger point is that the increasing skepticism of our age undermines the prerequisite for affirming the Declaration’s assertion that certain rights are inalienable. Don’t get my argument wrong. This is not an argument for religious belief: I think that promoting religious belief in order to make sense of the Declaration of Independence is a silly, even frightening, notion. Nonetheless, if indeed the argument of the Declaration is an argument fitted particularly for a religious people, then we need to ask ourselves what the implications are when Americans fail widely to affirm a crucial postulate in the Declaration’s argument. Put differently, the question is what the implications are if Americans as a people are today ill-suited for the Declaration’s argument, and what the implications are if the Declaration’s argument is ill-suited for America.

James R. Rogers

James Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University, and is a fellow with the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. He also served as editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics from 2006 through 2013.

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  1. says

    James Rogers mentions Locke and Rousseau in relation to “unalienable rights,” but he fails to mention two more relevant sources: Rev. Francis Hutcheson (who coined the phrase “unalienable rights”) and Jean Jacques Burlamaqui (a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Geneva and the era’s leading authority on natural law). In a nutshell, unalienable rights correspond to the inescapable duties of piety and benevolence, and governments exist to secure these rights to be pious and benevolent. See “The Declaration of Independence without Locke: A Rebuttal of Michael Zuckert’s ‘Natural Rights Republic'” at https://www.academia.edu/29164747/The_Declaration_of_Independence_without_Locke_A_Rebuttal_of_Michael_Zuckerts_Natural_Rights_Republic_

    Regarding the Ciceronean view of leading American Founders, in which piety and benevolence are characteristics of the mature human and the prerequisite for happiness, see “Nature’s God: Cicero and the Declaration of Independence” at https://www.academia.edu/6508461/Cicero_Natural_Law_and_the_Declaration_of_Independence

    For a discussion of the Founders’ May 1776 anti-Lockean DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS (essential for understanding the “pursuit of happiness”), see “Safety and Happiness: The American Revolutionary Standard for Governmental Legitimacy” at https://www.academia.edu/1479704/Safety_and_Happiness_The_American_Revolutionary_Standard_for_Governmental_Legitimacy

  2. gabe says

    Perhaps, the question is:

    Without anything GREATER than one’s own self, can rights be secured? Upon what are they grounded?
    correspondingly, and what I suspect may be an underlying, if unstated theme of the essay, is without such ground can (again, ought?) one expect that the citizenry will recognize that rights are simply the other side of the coin of *obligations.*

    As to “happiness”, as understood in the day, it was rather different than the modern understand which tends toward the hedonistic / avaricious; that era’s understanding of happiness presupposed a moral, religious(ly) inclined or aware people pursuing a virtuous life BY fulfilling their obligations to others and themselves (wisdom, learning, prudence, temperance, etc.). Only then may rights / happiness be said to being pursued.

    Far cry from the modern lament: ” I want the world and I want it now!”

  3. Scott Amorian says

    Keep in mind that the DOI was the continuation of the Declaration of Rights issued by the Continental Congress of 1774. The rights referred to in the DOI were the rights enumerated in the Declaration of Rights. The DOR was a complaint of the violation of certain rights. The issues of rights discussed in 1774 were not resolved to satisfaction. The successive document of 1776 redressed those failures in accordance with natural law.

    Other issues over rights could have been mentioned in the 1776 document, but were not. King George public denied that he would continue to protect the colonies. That alone was cause for separation from Britain because it is the protection by the King that enables his sovereignty. This fact was not mentioned in the DOI. One would think that such an important issue of natural law would find a clear and prominent mention in the DOI. But it would not have been appropriate to include it in the DOI because it was not mentioned in the DOR. The DOI of 1776 was the redress of the failure of rights discussed in the DOR of 1774, no more, no less. Those certain unalienable rights were the rights mentioned originally in the DOR.

    There was no international court to make judgment in the case, but a judge still had to be called upon if the Americans were to have an authoritative ruling. The God of Natural Law was called upon to make the natural law case authoritative. Without the invocation of such a judge the DOI would have no standing since there would have been no court to have standing in. No court, no ruling. Therefore the court of God had to be appealed to.

    The theory of law in the DOI was theory found in natural law. Natural facts that did not need to be introduced were simply noted as being self evident. The non-self evident facts presented in the DOI were the facts of failure to respond appropriately to the violation of rights given that complaints had been made previously when a reasonable amount of time and effort were given to redress the violations. The redress did not occur. Therefore the judgment of God’s court of natural law must be that the colonies were independent.

  4. John Schmeeckle says

    In response to Scott Amorian, I think that the Declaration of Independence goes far beyond the 1774 declaration of rights and grievances by including HAPPINESS. The 1774 declaration mentioned the rights of life, liberty and property, which were summed up as SAFETY in the May 1776 resolution for independence, which also defined happiness in terms of virtue. The Declaration of Independence should be read as a continuation of this May resolution, which prominently mentions the principle of protection and sovereignty. Scott Amorian is mistaken in claiming that the Declaration doesn’t mention this principle. To quote from the Declaration’s denunciations of King George: “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

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