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Alienable Rights

Re-examining Thomas Jefferson's definition of fundamental human rights.

by Everett Wilson
January 7, 2002

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Alienable Rights_Everett Wilson-Re-examining Thomas Jefferson's definition of fundamental human rights. When Thomas Jefferson referred in the Declaration of Independence to “unalienable rights” endowed by the Creator, he radically popularized — if not created himself - a category that barely exists in scripture or history. Certainly “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are not unalienable — that is, “not to be separated, given away, or taken away.” In the eighteenth century these three, along with certain though unnamed others, were routinely taken away by due process in Jefferson’s colonial America. They still are today, even in the “great democracies” of the western world. In the scenario written for us by history, a better case may be made for saying that due process (I got this from James Leroy Wilson) is the fundamental (unalienable?) human right.

Jefferson was writing wartime propaganda and knew he was; extravagant claims are useful for such a purpose. A modern propagandist, pressed with “And what exactly did you mean by that?” would respond with a satisfied grin, “Sounds great though, doesn’t it?”

In point of fact, most rights are alienable, a legal term meaning transferrable to the ownership of another. Every voluntary contract ever signed has to do with the transfer or exchange of one or more rights, which is why the contract was required in the first place. Most rights of every prisoner have been transferred to the responsibility of the state. Every tax is an infringement of the “right to property” declared by John Locke. Children have the right to be cared for, but do not have the right to their own bodies when they must be bathed, clothed, and disciplined. And when Jefferson was writing his beautiful phrase, he was also supporting an army dedicated to depriving British soldiers of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In times of war, we transfer willingly or not certain of our rights to the state: our young people to military draft, the possible curtailment of free speech, even the right to remain in our own homes if the government requires our removal for military reasons. Even in these situations, however, every action must have recognizable justification: no one is given the arbitrary right to do wrong, even in warfare. We put up with these things in the hope that peace will be restored and with it the rights guaranteed to us by our constitution.

Are there any “unalienable rights” whether endowed by the Creator or recognized among people of good will as necessary to civilized life? There are indeed, but Jefferson’s three are not among them. Unalienable does not mean that these rights are never violated — they have been routinely violated throughout human history — but that even in wartime their violation is an offense against God and the human race. There are probably more of these than I can name, and some may argue the legitimacy of those I do name. But these three are at least arguable, from the evidence of scripture and history:
  • The right of children to be cared for;
  • The right of the helpless to be remembered, and to share in whatever resources are available for the maintenance of life;
  • The right of due process as recourse against false contracts and accusation, unlawful confiscation, and unlawful assault.

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