What is the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the idea of Natural Rights?

July 3, 2015

It is commonly assumed that Americans as individuals have a set of “God-given” or “natural rights” which are declared in the Declaration of Independence and ultimately embodied in and protected by the Constitution of the United States. It makes sense to call this the founding myth of the United States. It is the story of how the American colonies came to throw off the rule of Great Britain and begin the process of becoming independent and free “united states.” It is the story too that Americans tell when defending and arguing over their rights and when protecting themselves against what is viewed as the inappropriate encroachment by government. This founding story, in other words, articulates a political philosophy that justifies the rights and protections that Americans cherish so highly.

But what if part of this story is incorrect or misleading? What if the Declaration of Independence is much more ambivalent about natural rights than has been commonly thought? And what if the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, held an alternative theory of rights that was rejected by the majority of his colleagues? Would these facts matter?

Posed here are two different types of intersecting questions, and both are at the heart of my inquiry. The first group of questions is historical in character and concerns the political ideas held by the leadership in the American colonies in the decade leading up to the Revolution and embodied in the Declaration. This group of questions can be approached through the traditional methods of the historian. The second set of questions is philosophical and political in nature. These questions ask about the relevance of history for deciding questions about how we live, or what some people refer to as “normative” questions. Generally speaking, what impact should history have on questions of political philosophy and rights? More specifically, if the Declaration does not mean what we think it means or does not have a stable set of meanings, does that matter? I bring both set of questions together in this book and find the intersection of those questions fascinating and interesting.

This book is thus in some sense a dialogue between the historian and the political philosopher. It asks whether a historian’s revelations about the past should have any relevance to political philosophy and in particular to the American understanding of rights. Ultimately, the larger question at stake is how history should figure into political philosophy. The answer, I suggest, depends on how we understand both history specifically and rights in  general. I pursue these questions in two different ways: first, from the side of the historian, doubting the still common and popular conclusion that the Declaration unequivocally endorses a philosophy of natural rights, and second, from the side of the philosopher, who wonders whether it matters what the Declaration means and what value history as a discipline should have in determining how we live and specifically what rights we protect. Let me flesh out both sides of my argument.

The Declaration of Independence is one obvious location to pursue questions at the intersection of history and political philosophy. Historically
speaking, the Declaration is an interesting and important historical document that tells us something significant about the views of the colonial leaders at the moment they were declaring political independence from Great Britain.

Read more about Liberty_in_Americas_Founding_Introduction.