Doubts About Natural Rights Before the Declaration of Independence

July 3, 2015

Interpreters who claim that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence embodies a natural rights philosophy often ignore the complex and conflicted discussions of natural rights in colonial arguments in the decade leading up to the Revolution. It is natural, perhaps, to ignore the earlier period since the Declaration embodies the first consensus of the colonies’ justifying independence.Yet it seems problematic to slice the Declaration out of its historical context in this way and not see the Declaration’s position on rights within a broader tradition leading up to independence.

There were in fact many individual and official statements on rights by American colonists in the decade leading up to the Declaration. Notable figures such as Steven Hopkins, James Otis, Samuel and John Adams, James Wilson, John Dickinson, and even Jefferson himself drafted earlier statements articulating the colonies’ rights before the Declaration.1

In addition to these individual statements, officially sanctioned statements such as The Declaration of Rights of the First Continental Congress and the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of War by the Second Continental Congress were among the officially sanctioned statements on rights in the period leading up to the Declaration. It would seem reasonable, if one was trying to ascertain what the Declaration meant, to take account of these other various statements on rights as a context in which to understand the Declaration’s meaning. When we do take account of these earlier statements on natural rights, we find that there is more ambivalence about natural rights than many have emphasized. Bringing this ambivalence to the surface, we see that there were significant doubts among pre-Revolutionary writers about whether natural rights arguments were the best foundation of American rights. That doubt provides an important background for understanding some of the ambivalence about natural rights that is reflected in Jefferson’s writings and the Declaration itself.

If one set of interpreters views the Declaration in isolation from this background, another group of interpreters oversimplifies the colonists’ views of natural rights. These interpreters acknowledge that the colonists did not immediately embrace natural rights arguments, but they assume that there is an almost evolutionary “inevitable” move towards natural rights arguments. The story they tell is that the colonists turned inexorably to natural rights arguments with the Declaration representing the pinnacle, as it were, of that impulse in American thinking.

According to this story, earlier arguments about colonial rights proved inadequate, and the growing move towards independence made natural rights arguments nearly inevitable. We shall question and probe this “evolutionary” story as well, for it oversimplifies a much more complex picture. Doubts about natural rights arguments were very strong in the early period and remained a concern up to and beyond 1774. Furthermore, there was no consensus on the meaning of natural rights. And there were serious doubts about what was perceived to be the foundation of natural rights, namely, social contract theory. These doubts were fed by criticisms of John Locke’s theory among prestigious European philosophers such as David Hume, whose writings were also familiar to the colonial lawyers and thinkers. A number of colonial thinkers assumed that social contract theory was a weak theoretical basis for natural rights arguments and therefore undermined American rights should they be founded on natural rights arguments. In addition, religious and theologically oriented thinkers fundamentally transformed natural rights arguments in ways that attempted to bring Locke closer to more traditional covenantal language and concepts. This transformation in some ways completely rethought natural rights assumptions and in some cases turned them on their head.

When we look back beyond the Declaration, we find a complex and even contradictory tradition in which serious ambivalence about natural rights was expressed. In this chapter, I explore this ambivalence in the first part of that decade leading up to Revolution, particularly in the colonists’ early reactions to the Sugar and Stamp Acts in the mid-1760s. In subsequent chapters, we explore the trajectory of this ambivalence as the colonies moved towards war and eventually the Declaration.

Read more about Doubts_About_Natural_Rights_Chap3