We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable (as Jefferson wrote in his first draft of the Declaration), that all men are created equal, that they are endowed (i.e., gifted/supplied/blessed) by their Creator (that would be God) with certain unalienable (i.e., non-transferable/inherent/innate/implicit) rights, among which are (at least the right to) life, (the right to enjoy) liberty, and (the freedom to pursue) happiness.
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary tells us truth is “Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been, or shall be.” Sacred meant “Entitled to reverence; venerable, inviolable.” Undeniable? That speaks for itself.
The Supreme Court in 1897 called Mr. Jefferson’s little 1300-word essay “the thought and spirit of our government,” relegating the Constitution itself to merely the “body and letter” of our government. I (and others) contend that the Constitution can only be rightly understood and interpreted in the illumination provided by the Declaration.
But let’s not take Jefferson’s view on the matter; it is, after all, rather sparse. You might prefer Alexander Hamilton’s more expansive view:
Good and wise men, in all ages, … have supposed that the deity, from the relations we stand in to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is indispensably obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever. This is what is called the law of nature … 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.
Too verbose? Something more succinct? Perhaps that of John Adams:
You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.
Declaration of Independence and Constitution signer, and drafter of the Articles of Confederation, John Dickinson, put it this way:
Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness … We claim them from a higher source—from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us; exist with us; and cannot be taken from us by any human power without taking our lives. In short they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice.
Or perhaps from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:
[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties (i.e. rights) are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.
The Founders who proclaimed their belief in natural law/natural rights are too numerous to list. As Chester Antieau writes in an essay entitled Natural Rights and the Founding Fathers – The Virginians:
It would be amazing if any Revolutionary leader of the Commonwealth could be found who did not subscribe to the doctrines of natural law and right. Moreover, the doctrine was widely held and continually expressed by the popular assemblages throughout the Commonwealth during Revolutionary days.
As Thomas West argues in his new book The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom:
the founders shared a ‘theoretically coherent understanding’ of politics rooted in natural rights philosophy.
So is this essay about law or rights? Both; law begets rights and natural law begets natural, unalienable rights. The Founders understood this, nearly to a man.
As Jefferson would write late in life, the thoughts he expressed in the Declaration were nothing more than the:
The dual concepts of natural law and natural rights were not discovered by the Founders; these ideas had been expounded upon for millennia. Plato (427–347 B.C.), Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Cicero (106–43 B.C.), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), William of Ockham (1280–1349), Richard Hooker (1554–1600), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and Matthew Hale (1609-1676), all these men contributed to natural law thought long before John Locke (1632 –1704)—upon whom Jefferson largely relied—took up his pen. Frenchman Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) and Swiss thinker Emmerich de Vattel (1714-1767) later added to the assembled wisdom. The Founders studied them all.
harmonizing sentiments of the day … an expression of the American mind.
But another set of “enlightened” political philosophers: David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, and others were hard at work during this same timeframe dismantling the classical-traditional view of natural rights. These philosophers of the Enlightenment (who inspired the bloody French Revolution) rejected God as the author of the Natural Law, or at least diminished His significance, and elevated human reason, the “general will” that was found in legislative majorities, to the pinnacle of authority. The Enlightenment philosophers, in the words of noted historian Carl Lotus Becker:
deified nature and denatured God. Since Nature was now the new God, source of all wisdom and righteousness, it was to Nature that the eighteenth century looked for guidance, from Nature that it expected to receive the tablets of the law; and it was just as necessary now as ever for the mind of the rational creature to share in the mind of this new God, in order that his conduct, including the ‘positive laws of particular states,’ might conform to the universal purpose.
But the Founders rejected this notion. For them, natural law was “antecedent to all earthly governments,” it preceded even the creation of man; and it gave rise to natural, unalienable rights. Around that concept they built our government.
They agreed with Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), who wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in America in 1771:
This will of [man’s] maker is called the law of nature. For as God, when he created matter, and endued it with a principle of mobility, established certain rules for the…direction of that motion; so, when he created man, and endued him with freewill to conduct himself in all parts of life, he laid down certain immutable laws of human nature, whereby that freewill is in some degree regulated and restrained, and gave him also the faculty of reason to discover the purport of those laws. … Such among others are these principles: that we should live honestly, should hurt nobody, and should render to every one his due.
Ergo, Jefferson’s “Laws of nature and Nature’s God” which gave the colonists the right to “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station” to which they felt entitled.
But was natural law enough? Was Blackstone’s “faculty of reason” sufficient “to discover the purport of those laws?”
Blackstone himself conceded it was not. He added:
[D]ivine providence… in compassion to the frailty, the imperfection, and the blindness of human reason, hath been pleased, at sundry times and in diverse manners, to discover and enforce its laws by an immediate and direct revelation. The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the holy scriptures.
Which leads us to the Law of Moses, i.e., the Ten Commandments.
When God inscribed: “Thou shalt not murder” on a block of stone it became “revealed or divine law,” in Blackstone’s view, and this particular commandment enshrined a right to the preservation of one’s life. “Thou shalt not steal” affirmed a right to retain property, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” affirmed a right to receive honest testimony.
But did the Israelites or even we today really need an inscription in stone to confirm that murder and lying are wrong, that human life should be preserved? When Cain slew Abel, 1500 years before Moses delivered the two tablets, did Cain really need God to personally come and tell him he had violated natural law? Abel’s blood is said to have cried out from the very ground upon which it had poured. Cain needed no reminder of the gravity of his action, as Romans 2:15 reminds us, the natural law was written on his heart, as it is ours. But due to the “frailty” of our ability to naturally discover the natural law purely through reason, some key features had to be revealed to us.
And this was the view of the Founders.
But as we all “know,” Jefferson and the others of his time were writing in what is today considered “Founders’-speak,” a “dead language” consigned to the “dustbin of history” along with Koine Greek and Babylonian, the language of an “unenlightened age” where men had only recently cast off the geocentric theory of the solar system and still owned slaves. Or so the critics of natural rights theory would have us believe.Today we know better, they say.
There is no god and there is no soul. Hence, there is no need for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is dead and buried. There is no room for fixed and natural law or permanent moral absolutes (wrote Father of the modern public school, John Dewey).
Despite these attacks, the idea of natural law and unalienable rights still persisted. In his January 1961 Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy reminded us that:
The world is very different now. [M]an holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
Two years after Kennedy’s inaugural speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”
We have waited for more than 340 years for our … God-given rights … To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
As we will see, Dr. King is merely reciting Blackstone.
Though he did not live to enjoy the final fruits, King’s movement achieved its long-awaited goal: unjust laws were repealed and God-given rights restored. Why? Because the rights they sought were grounded in natural, immutable law—they were unalienable.
“Constitutional Corner” is a project of the Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc.
 GULF, C. & S. F. R. CO. v. ELLIS , 165 U.S. 150 (1897)
 The Farmer Refuted, February 23, 1775
 A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
 John Dickinson, An Address to the Committee of Correspondence in Barbados, 1766
 Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 18, 1781
 Letter to Richard Henry Lee, 1825
 Carl Lotus Becker, The Declaration of Independence, A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 51.
 More copies of Blackstone’s Commentaries were sold in the American colonies than in the rest of the British Empire.
 Commentaries on the Laws of England, Introduction, Section the Second
 John Dewey, “Soul-Searching,” Teacher Magazine, September 1933, p. 33