Skip to comments.Unalienable Rights
Posted on 03/12/2009 10:07:14 AM PDT by Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus
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. (The Declaration of Independence)
As Americans, we often hear or see these words repeated, and many of us as children learned them in the course of our education in the history of this great nation. The question, however, is do we really consider what these words mean, or do we treat them merely as something weve heard a thousand times before, easily forgettable, not worthy of continued thought? While most Americans would understand the gist of what the sentence above says - that we have certain rights given to us by God our Creator that allow us have freedom I believe that too many here in America have forgotten what it means for our rights to be unalienable. When they read this portion from the preamble of the Declaration, a lot of folks gloss over this word, without really understanding what it means. At best the sense is had that these rights are God-given, but this only scratches the surface.
The conviction of our Founders that our rights, including but not limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were unalienable arose out of the liberty ideology articulated by English political theorists, the foremost of whom was John Locke (1632-1704). It was Lockes belief that the commonwealth essentially consensual government, what we would call of the people, by the people, for the people was given by God to man as a blessing, securing to each man the enjoyment of his own property and prosperity without fear of the unlawful invasions of others, as had previous been the norm in the state of nature envisioned by these Anglo-Enlightenment philosophers. As Locke said,
The liberty of man in society is to be under no other legislative power but that established by consent in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact according to the trust put in it .But freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one in that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where that rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. (Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government).
Locke and other classically liberal thinkers took seriously the notion of natural law, viewing it as a God-ordained system for mans political interactions with one another, predicated upon the fact of mans original possession of unimpeded liberty in the state of nature. In joining themselves into a mutually consenting commonwealth, each man yielded only so much of his liberty as was necessary for him to live in society with other men and not trample upon their respective natural rights. Because this liberty was God-given, it was also vouchsafed by God, and to forcibly intrude upon the natural liberties of another - so long as they were not in turn harming other members of society - was an act of tyranny that was in contradiction to natural law, it was inversion of right order and an assault on the liberty of all members of that society.
But - and here is where the concept of unalienability of rights comes in - it was just as much of an inversion, an assault on natural law and on liberty, for a person to voluntarily abrogate HIS OWN possession of his natural rights. To Locke, to voluntarily yield oneself to the arbitrary or complete will and power of another man was to place oneself illicitly into slavery, a state which Locke characterized as the state of war continued between a conqueror and a captive. One of the few powers that man does not naturally have is the power to destroy himself, either by death or by purposeful enslavement to the absolute, tyrannical, arbitrary power and domination of another,
This freedom from absolute, arbitrary power is so necessary to, and closely joined with, a mans preservation, that he cannot part with it but by what forfeits his preservation and life altogether. For a man not having the power of his own life cannot by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute arbitrary power of another to take away his life when he pleases. Nobody can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. (Locke, op. cit.)
Alienating your unalienable rights was essentially to cast off the liberty-protecting role of consensual government and the prescribed rule of law (in our system, our Constitution and whatever laws are in accord with it), and to submit to the liberty-destroying despotism of being dominated by the whim of men.
This, then, is the sense in which we must understand the oft-quoted statement of Benjamin Franklin,
Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.
Unalienability does not just apply to individual citizens - it also applies to societies as a whole, or to certain segments within a society. This is what Franklin was warning against the propensity for man to yield his liberty to another, in return for a crumb of security from his new masters table. This drive is as old as history itself. Thucydides noted it when he observed at one point that the love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger . (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Bk. 1, ppg. 8). Yet, those who give themselves over to the will and power of another usually find that they dont even have the security of peace or prosperity which they thought to obtain.
And this is where we see a large portion of the American people at today, with respect to their own government. As R.R. Reno observed (First Things, http://www.firstthings.com/ onthesquare/?p=1234), the recent election of Barack Obama, far from being a mandate for change, can be thought of as a vote for the status quo - a vote which happened because a large number of Americans are risk-averse and fearful of having to live their own lives, apart from government intervention and hand-holding, facing the risks in life that are the natural corollary to liberty. Many Americans saw the opportunity to vote for a party which open proclaims its desire to continue the course of caring for every American from cradle to grave, and took it, rejecting the party which nominally stood for less intervention, less regulation, but also more risk-exposure through greater personal liberty.
Millions of Americans have put themselves into slavery to the government by means of the myriad of social programs, handouts, supplements, subsidies, welfare, and other accoutrements of the welfare state. And slavery it is, I am not exaggerating here. Murray and Herrnstein, in their book The Bell Curve, observed that there has been a tendency in modern American society towards the development of what they termed the custodial state. In this state of affairs, there is the emergence of a small cadre of rich, politically powerful elites who reduce the vast conglomeration of the underclasses to a status of continuing dependency. As a means of controlling their votes and their behavior, these underclasses are induced to rely upon the provision made by the government controlled by the elites through the carrot of easy money and handouts, and the stick of the threat of having these taken away. While these people are perhaps not physically enslaved with chains of steel, they are spiritually and morally enslaved by the soul-numbing lotus-plant of something for nothing. In short, they have been dehumanized, made less than true or full members of the commonwealth, by the destruction of their individuality, their self respect, and their inheritance of liberty.
In essence, these Americans have alienated the rightfully unalienable, and instead of prospering like they thought they would, they end up being endlessly hectored, pestered, regulated, and aggravated by ever-increasing arbitrary intrusions into their lives nearly always by means of unconstitutional laws or administrative decisions not even attaining to the dignity of law. They are no longer free to raise their children as they will, but are subject to oversight by innumerable social workers and child welfare offices, each seeing that the meager dole given out is properly spent on the children. They are subject to the month by month worry of their check coming in on time, the day by day worry that their children are being stolen from then by disinterested educrats in crumbling schools. They have practically no hope of escaping the cycle of dependency, or at least will not if the Democratic elites have their say in the matter. By giving themselves over to the power of the custodial state in hopes of having the security of insulation from the risks of capitalism and competition, they have lost their liberty, and not gained true security - for they are still at the mercy of the powerful. The imaginary domination by the evil capitalist has been replaced by the very real domination of the bureaucrat. The rule of law, of participation within the commonwealth on the equal footing of consistent statutes yielding ordered liberty, is replaced by the inconsistent and increasingly despotic rule of men.
This is what happens when we forget our first principles, the bases upon which our liberty rests and upon which our constitutional, republican government rests. As conservatives, we must fight to maintain the rule of law in this country, and oppose at every turn the encroachment of the rule of men, the rule of bureaucrat and social theorist. We must not allow ourselves to be sucked into the custodial state, thereby giving up our unalienable natural rights. We must seek to roll back the enslaving social welfare apparatus that blights this nation. We must restore the sense of the unalienability of our rights to our people.
You would think that the right to “life, liberty...” would include the right of self-defense against criminals, wouldn’t you? In many states, you’d be wrong.
"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."
Found an explanation:
Kenneth G. Wilson (1923). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993.
inalienable, unalienable (adjs.)
These two exact synonyms are still Standard, but inalienable, though a trifle younger than unalienable (both are seventeenth century words) is the more common today. Things inalienable [unalienable] cannot be given away, transferred, or otherwise removed.
Ya know,,,You’re right. But I’m sure I’ve seen it both ways.
It was the original draft in Jefferson’s handwriting that used “inalienable.”
As both words have the same meaning, I wonder why “un” was chosen over the original “in?” The “in” version rolls off the tongue easier, in my opinion, errr,, un my opinion!
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