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The Declaration philosophy - Part I: The origins of rights

By Linda A. Prussen-Razzano
web posted June 16, 2003

Over the last several years, a disturbing trend has developed in both academia and the media when both bodies discuss Constitutional powers, boundaries, and the related subject of human rights. Far too often, voices from these establishments refer to "Rights" as "Constitutional Amendments," inferring that these Rights are conveyed upon individuals in the Constitution. A prime example of this is the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which is most often referred to as an individual's "Second Amendment Rights."

This trend is both dangerous and misleading.

To recognize the true origin of Rights, we must look to the key historical document that served as a predecessor to our Constitution – the Declaration of Independence. Please note, the subject of inherent human rights was discussed in other regions of the world, throughout the centuries, by other revolutionary philosophers; but for the purposes of this doctrine and its application to the Constitution it later spawned, we shall address the ideologies embraced by the Declaration of Independence.

In particular:

"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 -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed…"

All men (i.e., people) are created equal. They may be born into different societies, social strata, familial conditions, with limitations or natural predilections, but their very inclusion in the human race demands recognition of their Rights. Every human being has an inherent right to live, be free of unnecessary constraints, and to pursue their happiness in a just and decent manner that does not infringe upon the rights of others.

History has long shown that oppressed people can and will eventually break the physical, social, economic, or religious chains that bind them. They may do so individually or collectively, with the strength of outside assistance or of their own volition. They may do so passively and peacefully, or violently and suddenly. Whatever their course, they are driven by the same inherent urge that defines the very strength of humanity – its desire to be free.

Those who believe that Rights are not unalienable, are not a necessary component of each individual human being, point to the egregious trespasses of history as proof that rights were not "self-evident." They suggest that since these societies failed to recognize the rights of others (most notably epitomized in the evils of slavery throughout the centuries), that Rights must be constructs of the State, conveyed by the State.

On the contrary, one can judge the justness of a Society or State by how vehemently it protects the Rights of its citizens, encourages the free exercise thereof, and limits its own powers in deference to the liberty of the individual. States can neither convey nor deny us our Rights. They can only allow or forcefully suppress the exercise of them. Our Rights remain a constant and integral component of our humanity.

If one acknowledges that Rights are unalienable, a necessary components of each human being, then they also acknowledge a duty to protect and defend not just their rights but the rights of anyone who finds themselves living in an oppressed society. The variegations of liberty and our ability to pursue happiness depend greatly upon fostering freedom in every society within our sphere of interaction. If we do not, we may one day be faced with the forceful suppression of our Rights by an unjust government or enemy.

If one believes that Rights are simply a construct of State, conveyed by the State, then one has denied themselves any justification for righting the wrongs against others. No matter how deplorably a State may treat its people, we have no obligation or rationale to intervene, because the State has authorized the level of freedom it allows its people and chooses who it will or will not grant "rights" to. Any manner of evil or brutality would be permissible, since this philosophy presumes that the power rests in the State and its hierarchy, not in the individual citizen.

Whether expressly stated or not, each time someone refers to our Rights as an Amendment, they are reinforcing the notion that Rights are conveyed to us by the Constitution…and the State.

A dangerous notion, indeed.

Linda Prussen-Razzano is frequent contributor to Enter Stage Right and a number of other online magazines.

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