How Americans' Rights Became 'Unalienable'

On the Divine Rights of All of Us

Posted Jul 05, 2018

Györgyfi CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Györgyfi CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

At the beginning of June in 1776, the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson—along with a few others, among them the 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin—was commissioned to draft a declaration of independence. “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.” So read the parchment signed by delegates to the Second Continental Congress, on July 4th.

Those truths may have been self-evident to most of Jefferson’s contemporaries, but would have surprised most writers of history. Popes have been "vicars of Christ" since within a century after Jesus of Nazareth was hung on a cross; and the divine rights of kings go back 39 centuries at least, to the time when a Sumerian emperor put on the hat with 2 horns usually reserved for supernaturals, and became “Naram-Sin, mighty God of Akkad” to his scribes.

In the Old World, ideas about the divinely instituted, unalienable rights of all men were a very new thing. And they came to the New World on waves of immigration.

Just 6 months before Jefferson put together his Declaration draft, on 9 January of 1776, his friend and correspondent, Thomas Paine, printed the little pamphlet he called Common Sense.  Paine had no doubt that the long tradition of government under “crowned ruffians” had run its course; and he suggested a reason why. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster.”

Those sentiments were seconded roughly 11 years later, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, by a delegate from South Carolina named Charles Cotesworth Pinckney—another Jefferson friend and correspondent. Pinckney thought that people of the United States had fewer distinctions of rank and fortune than the inhabitants of any other country on earth; and in a speech made to the convention on June 25th, he wondered out loud about why that was. “That vast extent of unpeopled territory which opens to the frugal & industrious a sure road to competency & independence will effectually prevent for a considerable time the increase of the poor or discontented, and be the means of preserving that equality of condition which so eminently distinguishes us.”

But nobody said it better than Thomas Jefferson.  Invited, but unable to attend, the First Continental Congress in the summer of 1774, he made recommendations to the other delegates in a provocative essay.  A Summary View of the Rights of British America started with words like this: "Our ancestors, before the emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature has given to all men, of departing front he country in which chance, not choice, as placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote public happiness."  Americans had spilled their own blood, and imperiled their own fortunes, to cross an ocean, and win those lands; and there was no way that the long arms of an Old World king should  dismember them.  The British had encroached on their commerce: "The exercise of a free trade with all parts of the world, possessed by the American colonists, as of natural right;" the British had promoted the slave trade, to their own advantage: "Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice."  As Jefferson summed up: "These are our grievances which we have thus laid before his majesty, with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights, as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate."

Those sentiments were repeated on 4 March of 1801, in Jefferson's First Inaugural Address. The third President of the United States walked to the capital building in Washington in everyday dress, stood in the senate chamber and delivered his short speech. He was proud to have found himself the representative of a rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing the seas with the rich production of industry, and rightly suspicious of politics. “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others?” he asked. And he answered that fairness in politics depended on open borders. The American people were: “Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” Freedom of religion, freedom of person and other freedoms were the result.

Long before anybody wrote history, long before there were divinely instituted governments or a divinely instituted church, hunters and gatherers across Africa knew that emigration was always an option. And that their freedoms depended on that.

The people often referred to as Khoisan lived in and moved around southern Africa for over 100,000 years. No man, or woman, was an island; people enjoyed the society of family members and friends, usually around 40-60 of them. But 3 or 4 times a year, serious disputes broke out. Richard Lee lived and worked with a Khoisan group, the Ju/’hoansi, in the middle of the last century. He concluded that people got into conflicts about work and food, though adultery—on the Kalahari, as pretty much everywhere else—was the most common cause of fatal fights. Egalitarianism was the prevailing ethic in any case; and to enforce it, foragers usually had room to move.  In Lee's words: “Conflict usually results in one or both parties splitting off to seek greener pastures,” and “hunters say ‘to hell with it’,” and “foragers have a great deal of latitude to vote with their feet.”