Universal Natural Rights
Nancy Salvato, Director of
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
Unalienable Rights include:
▪ Pursuit of Happiness
In the Preamble (introduction) to the US Constitution, it is said:
We the People of the United States
Ordain (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
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:
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
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 .
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
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.” 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.”
The premise is simply that, “We could recognize actions as inherently lawful
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).
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
“From the right to self defense comes the right to the rule of law.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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
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,”
and that “man, ‘the rational animal,’ possesses reason to discover such ends
and the free will to choose.’
His belief was, “that reason is better than experience only because even
animals can experience.”
Further, “the only enduring principle was the will of god and the only way
of knowing this was faith and revealed wisdom.”
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
“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”
and “the nature of man and the world reflects the will of God.”
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.
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
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.