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Essay Winner: "Natural Rights"

The winner of the SAR Knight Essay contest was Joseph Nusbaum, a high school senior from Pensacola Catholic High School in Florida.

By Joseph Nusbaum
Winner, Youth Essay Contest
SAR Magazine, Vol. 111 No. 1

The concept of natural rights appears numerous times in the original founding documents of the United States of America. Natural rights are those God-given fundamental rights that cannot be taken away by the government. The founding fathers fought and bled to do something revolutionary with natural rights—to create a large nation led by the people, rather than by the tyrants from which they had come. Many men were highly influential in developing this future of defense of natural rights for the United States, but paramount among them were John Locke and Thomas Paine.

John Locke, an Englishman born in the early 1630s, was a philosopher and advent crusader for the then-revolutionary idea of natural rights well known for his text Two Treatises of Government (1689). In Colonial England, the current monarch, who exerted control to a great degree over his subjects, granted all rights to the people. There was no concept of basic human rights; rather, anything that the people received was to be viewed as a gracious gift from their lofty ruler, not as a fulfillment of the duty expected of the ruler. In those days, the English people served their ruler, not the other way around.

The problem with that way of thinking was that if government can grant rights, then government can later take them away. John Locke was among the first philosophers to rethink this method of government. In his book Two Treatises of Government, Locke expressed a revolutionary view that the direction of service in government should be reversed —that government exists to serve the people.

In his Second Treatise of Government (1689), Locke expressed his idea that those in power were to serve their subjects and attempt to guide them as best as they could. His writings express the idea that rulers were to protect the common good first and their personal good last. More specifically, he wrote that it was the duty of government to protect natural rights, not grant them. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence years later, he borrowed heavily from the ideas of John Locke. When he wrote that “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,” he was speaking of Locke’s ideas of natural rights.

Jefferson also followed Locke when he wrote in the Declaration that it is government’s responsibility to protect these rights. Among the first orders provisioned in the document is that the people shall lead the country. It was decided that the government should not appear as a separate entity that exerted complete control over the people, but rather as a raw expression and representation of the masses. The Founding Fathers used the ideas written years earlier in an attempt to “form a more perfect union” by adopting this revolutionary way of thinking about government and leadership.

Another founding father who was influential in promoting the concept of natural rights was born a century later. Thomas Paine was born in England, the land he would eventually pit the United States against. Indeed, after emigrating in 1774, Paine quickly became involved in the revolutionist movement, and wrote two pamphlets, Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1774), in an attempt to inspire the colonists toward revolution. These texts were met with immediate success in Colonial America, despite being simply signed “by an Englishman.” Common Sense was especially influential as it came into circulation shortly after the beginning of the Revolutionary War and was key in spreading the idea of a peaceful, democratic republican post-war government once independence was achieved (Raphael, 237). The pamphlet did well to compare the senseless bloodshed brought by a tyrannical monarch with the peace-proposed system of democratic government that would protect the natural rights of all its citizens. The rhetoric conveyed by Thomas Paine was hugely successful; the American people were so inspired by his words that John Adams remarked that “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain” (Commager, 273). However, his writings during the American Revolution were not the only in which he displayed his zeal for the protection of natural rights. Indeed, Paine was imprisoned for a year in France in late 1793 for spreading the concept of free thought and freedom of religion. Though he was released the following year, he did not stop writing on the subjects. In 1797, Paine published Agrarian Justice, which outlined his beliefs regarding the right to private property and even discussed the concept of government defense of personal income, though the latter would not be incorporated into United States law until around a century later (Paine 3). Regardless, his spreading of ideas central to modern American democracy was key to igniting the Revolutionary War and guiding the nation to the system of government that is still in use today.

The concept of natural rights was later incorporated into the Constitution via the Bill of Rights. This is illustrated best by the First Amendment which states in part that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Note that it does not say “Congress hereby grants to the people the right of free speech.” Instead, it is written to protect the fundamental natural right of free speech from being infringed upon by the government. Thus, the influence of Locke, Paine, and others can be seen in the Constitution as well.
Despite being men separated by great spans of time, John Locke and Thomas Paine shared a goal: the defense of natural rights for all. They both condemned tyranny and declared that equality and justice were vital to the protection of natural rights. They believed that a land could exist where the people would lead themselves and rights were not granted by the mercy of an all-powerful leader, but rather by God himself.

The dreams of Locke and Paine were realized by the growing United States, a country where all citizens desired one thing: a land where natural rights were indeed natural, not gifts from the government. The Constitution and its first Amendments stood to realize this and protect citizens from a tyrannical government. The Founding Fathers immortalized the ideas of Locke and Paine in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, documents that forever stand to protect the natural rights of
all people in the United States.

Works Cited

  • Barker, Robert S. “Natural Law and the US Constitution.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris. The Spirit of
    ‘seventy-six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Print.
  • Monk, Linda R. The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution. New York: Hyperion, 2003. Print.
  • Niles, Hezekiah. Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America: Or, An Attempt to Collect and Preserve Some of the Speeches, Orations, & Proceedings, with Sketches and Remarks on Men and Things, and Other Fugitive or Neglected Pieces, Belonging to the Men of the Revolutionary Period in the United States. Baltimore: Printed and Pub. for the Editor, by W.O. Niles, 1822. Print.
  • O’Scannlain, Diarmuid F. “The Natural Law in the American Tradition.” Fordham Law Review 79.4 (2011): n. pag. Web.
  • Raphael, Ray. Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation. New York: New, 2009. Print.
  • Stoner, James R., Jr. “Declaration of Independence.” Natural Law, Natural Rights, and American Constitutionalism. N.p., n.d. Web.

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