“Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” – Lord Acton
Every year, people across the United States march in parades, set off fireworks, and don red, white, and blue to huge family cookouts, all in celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In the years since those first Americans pledged their loyalty to the philosophy of natural rights and the equality of all men, the document has remained a national symbol of pride and freedom. However, in the years since the founding of the country and the later drafting of the Constitution, the true intentions of the Founders and the spirit of their work has become intermittently lost and misunderstood.
Among the most common and consequential misunderstandings is the idea that the Founders were worshipers of rights for their own sake, radical individualists with the goal only to secure those liberties to which humans believe, through reason or instinct, they are entitled. In truth, even among libertarian heroes like John Locke or Founder Thomas Jefferson, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not in pursuit of license. In fact, many of those who formed and secured the natural rights tradition of the American Founding outright rejected the idea that rights exist for their own sake, without a higher purpose or end. Our freedoms were thought to exist and were secured for much more than a pleasure-guided exercise of free will.
It is true that this country was founded on the principle that all men have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but it is a mistake to understand happiness to mean “pleasure.” John Locke, an intellectual giant of the Founding era, spoke of happiness as something “true and solid,” stipulating that liberty depends on not mistaking “imaginary for real happiness.” Thus, pursuing happiness was not about fulfilling our visceral pleasures, but about reaching towards a greater good that would result in true human freedom from instinctual temptation and base desire. In purposely choosing the phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” rather than “property,” as in earlier declarations of rights, the Founders were accepting the existence of a purpose of our rights rooted in pursuit of truth and human flourishing.
Further consider Thomas Jefferson’s famous Letter to the Danbury Baptists, a letter which is better known by its declaration of the First Amendment as creating “a wall of separation between Church & State” than for its historical context or recipients. In this oft-cited and seldom-understood letter, Jefferson proclaims:
“Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
He has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. In establishing the importance of the rights of conscience, he emphasizes the contingency of the validity of rights on their compatibility with the duties one owes to society.
James Madison, the “father of the Constitution”, expressed a similar belief in a purpose for our freedom. In his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” Madison explains the logic for religious freedom as an inalienable right. Far from being for the sole benefit of the rights bearer, Madison writes:
“It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.”
In establishing that the purpose and end of freedom of religion is to enable a person to fulfill their duty to God, Madison points to freedom as inextricably bound to a higher end.
Some will claim that freedom of religion is the only freedom ordered toward a greater moral purpose, but the way in which religious freedom was understood shows that the duty Madison spoke of gives a moral purpose to all other freedoms as well. Americans were not given freedom of worship, but freedom of a religion – a distinction important because it expands the duty to the Creator and the purpose of free exercise of conscience to include not only prayer, but broader service to a higher power through actions and choices.
Alexander Hamilton similarly explains a profound rationale for natural rights. In his 1775 paper “The Farmer Refuted,” Hamilton roots the very foundations of our rights in their correspondence to a higher law. He quotes Blackstone in claiming that valid laws “derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original [law of nature].” Then, in defense of liberty and the rights of the people to govern themselves, Hamilton writes:
“Upon this [natural] 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.”
It is clear that Hamilton sees human freedom not as a thing to which we are entitled for our own pleasure, but as a necessary condition for people to follow a higher law.
The confusion over the purpose of rights is understandable. The Founding Fathers often spoke about rights, and it is true that the highest purpose of government is to secure the rights of man, but the highest purpose of man is to use his rights to achieve the greatest moral goods in seeking to glorify and serve our God. The Founders shied away from stating the exact tenents of moral law or religious duties, understanding that much of it exceeds the human capacity of reason and that it is necessary for people to discern and debate the right path by their own conscience. However, they did not understand this to mean that humans have no duty to search for this path or that rights were completely unordered and for the pursuit of individual material or pleasurable benefit.
The American natural rights tradition, which holds that rights are not granted by the State or society, but simply by virtue of our humanity and the mercy of a Creator, has been an incredible gift to the world. It is this tradition that is enables humans to strive towards a more perfect happiness on earth and a more faithful connection with God above. Moving forward as a nation, it is imperative that we keep in mind the true spirit of the liberty our forefathers claimed for us that day. Today and everyday that we exercise our beloved freedoms, we must keep in mind the duty to God, family, society, and humanity on which all of our rights depend and for which all of our rights exist.
This article was originally published on the Acton Institute PowerBlog. It has been republished here, with permission, in slightly modified form.