Thomas Jefferson penned the greatest and most profound words in all of American history when he opened the Declaration of Independence with this statement:
“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.”
These unalienable rights are God-given and the main thrust for independent freedom from Great Britain and the declaration of American independence.
Natural Rights Ordained By God
John Locke’s Second Treatise had a profound influence over the phrasing and organization of Jefferson’s draft and finalization of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson built upon the opening words of the Declaration of Independence from a belief that all individuals are held to a “Natural Law” or “Moral Law.” Jefferson and the other drafters wanted to establish a political and governmental system aligned with the natural rights ordained by God and reflect the morality of individuals in the Declaration and, consequently, the U.S. Constitution. One particular source that had great significance to the drafters’ belief in natural law as the guiding principle for American independence and governance came from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. In it, Blackstone revolutionized the landscape for Britain to construct a Constitution by arguing for self-government and the natural right to be free. He claimed,
“This law of nature, being co-eval with mankind and dictated by God Himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all the countries, and at all times: no human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their authority, mediately or immediately, from this original.”
In his widespread pamphlet, The Farmer Refuted, the young Alexander Hamilton argued in favor of the First Continental Congress by quoting from the infamous Blackstone and built upon this argument by stressing:
Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind: the Supreme Being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety…The Sacred Rights of Mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of the Divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
It is within the confines of this natural law that our Founders formulated both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which was written to serve as the mechanism for protecting the God-given rights referenced in the Declaration. As such, one cannot understand and properly interpret the U.S. Constitution apart from understanding the Declaration, namely, that American independence and governance is based on the desire to protect God-given rights. In fact, as a constitutional scholar, Dr. Kevin Portteus explains,
“Lincoln advocated a particular method of understanding the Constitution. He saw the document as the manifestation of a set of principles that guided the Founding Fathers in their understanding of law and nation making, and ought therefore to be employed by modern jurists in understanding the fruits of their labor. Lincoln believed and demonstrated that the Constitution must be interpreted in light of the principles of the Declaration of Independence to be interpreted correctly.”
Accordingly, accurate constitutional interpretation necessarily presupposes, and consequently implicates, a belief in God, in absolute (or self-evident) truth, and the right for every man and woman to freely engage in religious exercise. This was the instrumental guide of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and the belief system constructed by the Founders of our great nation.
Our Founders built upon the dreams and beliefs of the early settlers and framed the U.S. Constitution around the God-given truths that all men are created equal and have the right to govern themselves as a sovereign people. It was within this governance that we have been given the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (including the liberties expressed in the Bill of Rights).
Our Founders had strong conviction that equality of humanity sustains the essence of human rights in a civil society. However, they also believed that if our natural rights were not exercised in accordance with the natural order, they would be abused beyond unnatural limitations.