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In Defense of Freedom
Natural Law

Our Unalienable Universal Natural Rights
Nancy Salvato, Director of Constitutional Studies

It is written in the United States’ Declaration of Independence that the following assertions are self-evident, “meaning that they hold true without proof or reasoning; they produce certainty or clear conviction upon a bare presentation to the mind.” (Webster 1828)


All men are created equal.

All men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.

Unalienable Rights include:

▪ Life

▪ Liberty

▪ Pursuit of Happiness


In the Preamble  (introduction) to the US Constitution, it is said:


We the People of the United States

(determine or resolve legislatively) – and –


Establish the Constitution


To form a more perfect Union


Establish Justice (deciding controversies according to the laws and to principles of equity)


Insure domestic (pertaining to one’s own country) Tranquility (peacefulness)


Provide for the common (for the use of all) defence,


Promote the general Welfare (the enjoyment of health and the common blessings of life; prosperity; happiness)


Secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity


Prior to people compacting or agreeing to live in a society under a rule of law to which they consent, they live in liberty, which refers to a state of exemption from the control of others.” (Webster, 1828) 


This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government. Civil liberty is the liberty of men in a state of society, or natural liberty, so far only abridged and restrained, as is necessary and expedient for the safety and interest of the society, state or nation. A restraint of natural liberty, not necessary or expedient for the public, is tyranny or oppression. Civil liberty is an exemption from the arbitrary will of others, which exemption is secured by established laws, which restrain every man from injuring or controlling another. Hence the restraints of law are essential to civil liberty. The liberty of one depends not so much on the removal of all restraint from him, as on the due restraint upon the liberty of others. (Webster, 1828)


The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, better known as the “Bill of Rights,” make clear[1]:


People do not give up their liberty (freedoms) when they consent to the formation of fundamental (foundational) principles of government by which a nation is governed, or by which individual members of a body politic are to regulate their social actions; a constitution, by which the rights and duties of citizens and public officers are prescribed and defined.


Among such liberties are:


▪ Freedom of speech

▪ Freedom to keep and bear arms


These first two rights are particularly vital in guarding against the danger of abuse of power.


Pages could be filled explaining in much more exacting detail the philosophies which had the greatest influence over the founders and framers who penned the words and phrases making up each of the above mentioned documents, otherwise known as the Charters of Freedom .[2] For the purpose of this exposition, the definitions provided from Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary should suffice in assisting those in deciphering the intended meaning of these words.


The Origin of Natural Rights "Natural Rights"  

In order to consent to the Charters of Freedom, one must concur with Thomas Jefferson’s premise that every man possesses natural rights and that these rights are considered unalienable Rights, meaning they cannot be transferred. 


Natural rights, to which Thomas Jefferson refers to as unalienable, derived from Natural law or from Divine Power, depending on how you look at it.

The theory of Natural law began with the ancient philosophers, “who depended on reason alone for the conduct of life.”
[3] They deduced that the law of nature allows us to inherently distinguish between good and evil. 


“The assertion of an order of natural laws discoverable by reason is, by itself, neither pro- nor anti-religious.”[4]


The premise is simply that, “We could recognize actions as inherently lawful or unlawful.”[5]

Aristotle argued that humans know or discover how to live together peaceably in a state of nature.  In contrast to Aristotle’s view that man can live peaceably in a state of nature, Hobbes believed that man expressed an “innate desire for self‐preservation in a state of nature” which he described as “the war against all” in his Leviathan (1651).[6] This in turn led to the establishment of a social contract which he proposed is the foundation of civil society.


If one agrees with Aristotle or Hobbes, the following conclusion can be made.  


“From the right to self defense comes the right to the rule of law.”[7]


Yet, the premise from which this conclusion is drawn makes a huge difference in how the rule of law is implemented. 


A belief in natural rights tends to result in pluralistic use of force, because people obviously have the right to defend their rights, whereas disbelief in natural rights tends to lead to an absolute monopoly of force to ensure that the state will have the necessary power to crush peoples rights and to sacrifice individuals, groups, and categories of people for the greater good.


So there are two ways of looking at the rights to which Jefferson referred.  They are either universally discovered through man’s inherent ability to recognize right from wrong, therefore everyone is attuned to natures law and can abide by these fundamental truths or man needs to contract with other in order to survive, and from this contract stems our quality of life. 


Cicero built on Aristotle’s argument. “There is in fact a true law - namely, right reason - which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal.”[8]


“Cicero successfully argued before a Roman court that one of the laws of Rome was unlawful, being contrary to natural law, creating a legal precedent that held throughout the western world for two thousand years.”[9]


Natural rights are rights which are not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of a particular society or polity. In contrast, legal rights (sometimes also called civil rights or statutory rights) are rights conveyed by a particular polity, codified into legal statutes by some form of legislature, and as such are contingent upon local laws, customs, or beliefs. Natural rights are thus necessarily universal, whereas legal rights are culturally and politically relative.[10]


Within the Christian Church, there was initial disagreement about Natural Law. During Medieval times, “the basic message of scripture, the primary authority, was that human minds cannot comprehend god's plan.”[11]

Carl Lotus Becker wrote that during this time, the Pope had “divine right authority over princes as well as over other men.” The Pope could intervene should a Prince fail in their compact, or covenant with their subjects, to rule righteously.

During the Renaissance, Martin Luther espoused state and church as separate but equal servants of God.  In order that they might operate independently of the Roman Catholic Church, “German princes adopted Lutheranism.” Luther gave no consideration to the notion of political theory resting on a moral foundation of natural law. 


Eventually kings “became coequals with the Pope in God’s favor; so that in the seventeenth century the right of kings to rule was commonly thought to come directly from God.” This left the subjects with no path to relief should there be any bad kings.

Saint Augustine did not accept the arguments of natural law theorists; the idea that, “non-human living creatures” are “compelled to proceed in accordance with the ends dictated by their natures,”
[13] and that “man, ‘the rational animal,’ possesses reason to discover such ends and the free will to choose.’[14]


His belief was, “that reason is better than experience only because even animals can experience.”[15] Further, “the only enduring principle was the will of god and the only way of knowing this was faith and revealed wisdom.”[16]   


However, St. Thomas Aquinas shared Aristotle ’s view that reason sets man apart from animals and allows man “to act deliberately in view of the consciously apprehended end and raises him above the level of purely instinctive behavior."[17]


“The Christian conception of natural rights evolved and can best be explained in the following manner: natural law limits positive law (laid down law) whereas natural law determines natural rights”[18] and “the nature of man and the world reflects the will of God.”[19]


Rule of Law

“Machiavelli attempted to destroy every medieval tradition.  This included natural law, which he ignored in his well-known book, The Prince.  He coined the motto, “Might is right, right is might” and became an early proponent of “The end justifies the means.”  Thankfully, in our country, Machiavelli’s ideas didn’t catch on. Or did it?  Some might argue that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern’s recent statement, “We like to use the power of persuasion but when that doesn’t work we use the persuasion of power,” is fairly Machiavellian.[20] 


The system of government implemented by the Framers is most reflective of John Locke ’s Two Treatises of Government (1690) in which he explains that “a legitimate civil government seeks to preserve the life, health, liberty and property of its subjects, insofar as this is compatible with the public good.”[21] John Locke recognized that natural rights are not ceded to the government; they are to be protected by the government. At the same time, Locke recognized the importance of the social contract, which establishes a society in which people agree to live peaceably for their mutual benefit.


The balance between individual rights and living in a society for mutual benefit must be maintained.  As we in the United States transverse these volatile political times, we must realize the importance of understanding “Natural Rights” stemming from “Natural Law.”  The overreach of government is becoming dangerously close to encroaching on our “Natural Rights” as defined by the Framers, whose intellectual level averaged that of a grade 24 education, along the lines of a Stephen Hawking, while their devotion to this country was unsurpassed.  It cannot be emphasized enough, the importance of learning the history and philosophy which went into creating the Charters of Freedom.  It is our lack of Constitutional Literacy which has contributed to the electing of people to office who are without the vision and intellectual wherewithal to decipher the difference between Liberty and Tyranny.  


[4] Introduction to Natural Law

[5] Natural Law and Natural Rights

[7] Natural Law and Natural Rights

[8] IBID

[9] IBID

[11] Lectures for a Medieval Survey

[12] Historical Antecedents of the Declaration: The Natural Rights Philosophy

[14] Introduction to Natural Law

[16] IBID

[17] Introduction to Natural law

[19] Natural Law and Natural Rights is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) research and educational initiative. Opinions expressed by those not directly affiliated with are expressly their own. Responsibility for the accuracy of cited content is expressly that of the contributing author. may or may not agree with opinions and/or content presented unless expressly cited. All content offered by is copyrighted.’s goal is the liberation of the American voter from partisan politics and special interests in government through the primary-source, fact-based education of the American people. © 2005-2013
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