This essay is part of RealClearPublicAffairs's 1776 Series, which explains the major themes that define the American mind.
All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights. – John Adams
We have reached a time when each of us must make an effort to rediscover what Adams and Jefferson and the other Founders meant when they declared that we are all created equal. For over a century, instead of trying to help each generation of Americans understand the Founders’ idea of America, political thinkers in academia and their minions in the press have made a concerted effort to replace the Founders’ vision. They have worked to redefine the very terms that the Founders used. No term has suffered more at their hands than “equality.”
It is remarkable that while the Founders’ writings were focused on equality, public discourse today focuses on social and economic inequality.
It is remarkable that while the Founders’ writings were focused on equality, public discourse today focuses on social and economic inequality; “inequality” has replaced “equality” as the term of art in discussing America. This focus on inequality is part of the assault on the American idea that we see every day in the media and in academia. It has become an important source of many Americans’ confusion about America, causing many Americans to doubt that America is an exemplary country, or even a good one.
Today, an ever-expanding notion of inequality dominates public discourse. Assigning grades to schoolwork has come under attack for promoting inequality, as has using merit to determine who is to be admitted to America’s universities. The Founders would have found this preoccupation with inequality—and the understanding of equality implied by it—simply absurd.
So if we need to rediscover what the Founders meant when they declared that we are created equal, how shall we go about it? I propose that we begin by turning to the most famous passage in the Declaration of Independence:
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.
We all are familiar with these words. Our problem is that we are too familiar with them. We have too often heard them without really listening and have skimmed them without striving for their meaning. What to do?
When we want to discover how a mechanical device works, one way to proceed is by disassembling and then reassembling it. To give this passage from the Declaration an opportunity to speak to us afresh, I propose that we use the same technique: let’s disassemble it into its elements and then put it back together again. Breaking it down gives us these four elements:
- Self-evident truths
- Created equal
- Unalienable rights
- Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
Restoring the structure and making the structure graphically evident, we get:
- we are all equal
- we all have unalienable rights
- among those unalienable rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
This layout makes it clear that number 3 simply offers examples of unalienable rights. Consequently, numbers 2 and 3 can be shown like this:
- we have unalienable rights
a. examples are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Reassembling the whole now gives us this:
- we are all equal
- we all have unalienable rights
a. examples are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
Let us note that in the Declaration, “self-evident truths” occupies the highest position. Setting aside that fascinating discussion for now, our layout of the elements makes it clear that the proposition that we are all equal and the proposition that we all have unalienable rights can now be placed side by side—precisely as they are in the Adams quotation with which we began:
All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.
We are all equal; we all possess unalienable rights.
For the American Founders, we are all equal in that we all possess unalienable rights equally; these two truths are, at heart, one truth.
These propositions are two sides of the same coin. For the American Founders, we are all equal in that we all possess unalienable rights equally; these two truths are, at heart, one truth. This way of relating our equality and our unalienable rights provides a precise definition of the Founders’ idea of equality. Endowed equally with unalienable rights by our Creator, we are created equal.
After all, what was the idea at the core of the American founding? Was it not the Founders’ radically new understanding of our rights? According to George Washington, the American Founding occurred at a time “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.” Alexander Hamilton put it like this:
The sacred rights of mankind are . . . written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
The new understanding of the rights of mankind that electrified the Founders was the idea of unalienable rights. Jefferson, Adams, and the other Founders were deeply concerned with unalienable rights. According to the Founders, our unalienable rights, as Adams wrote, are “natural” and “essential.”
It is all there in the Declaration. Look again at the passage from the Declaration above. Note that the term “unalienable rights” gets the greater share of attention: twenty-two words, as opposed to six; and two complete clauses, instead of one. That reflects the Founders’ special emphasis on unalienable rights. Consequently, understanding the Founders’ idea of equality requires us to understand unalienable rights. And to understand unalienable rights, we must understand why they are referred to as “unalienable”: that is a very unusual word, familiar to us only because we know it from the Declaration.
In common speech in the time of the Founders, to alienate was to transfer the title of a property to another person.
“Unalienable,” obviously, means “not alienable”—something that is unalienable cannot be alienated. But what does it mean to alienate something? Or rather, what did it mean to the Founders? Today, we mostly use the term with reference to a breakdown in interpersonal relations. The first definition in my dictionary is “to cause a person to become unfriendly or indifferent; estrange: alienate a friend.” That is not what the Founders had in mind. Here is the definition relevant to their meaning: “Law: to transfer property to the ownership of another.” We alienate property when we sell it, when we give it away, or when we leave it to our heirs. In common speech in the time of the Founders, to alienate was to transfer the title of a property to another person. The Founders’ use of “unalienable” had a clear significance that was readily recognized in their time.
The Founders had a special purpose for using the language of the legal transfer of property in the negative (un-alienable), with reference to our rights: to make clear that our natural, essential, and inherent rights are not our property.
In fact, they were doing more: they were evoking a subtle and profound argument that directly challenged John Locke’s account of rights. That argument takes us to the source of the Founders’ use of the term “unalienable.” Here is Francis Hutcheson, in his A System of Moral Philosophy (1755), rejecting Locke’s account of our rights: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable. . . . [O]ur right to our goods and labours is naturally alienable.” Locke placed property at the core of his account:
Man . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.
For Locke, property is the overarching concept; it gets special emphasis by appearing twice—“estate” is another word for property. By making the case that our rights to our life and to our liberty are such that we cannot alienate them, Hutcheson was arguing that Locke had not correctly characterized our relation to our lives and our liberty. Locke had made what philosophers call a “category mistake.” Property is alienable; unalienable rights are not property.
The Founders went beyond Locke to declare that the British king had no right to rule them, doing so without adopting Locke’s account of rights.
The Founders faced a double challenge. Their century offered two political paradigms: the facts on the ground the world over; and the challenge to those facts represented by the enormous influence of John Locke. In their time, one could travel around the world and find that virtually everywhere, people were ruled by monarchs—kings, emperors, the tsar—who claimed to rule by divine right or by the “mandate of heaven.” Locke, on the other hand, claimed for the people—or, at least, the subjects of Britain’s king—certain rights that they possessed as property. The Founders went beyond Locke to declare that the British king had no right to rule them, doing so without adopting Locke’s account of rights. With Hutcheson’s help, they used Locke’s thinking as a springboard for a great leap forward in how we think about our rights.
What, then, about property? What is its place in the Founders’ firmament? Did they simply drop property from the constellation of their ideas? For the answer, let’s return to Adams:
All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. [emphasis added]
Our right to acquire, possess, and protect our property is one of our unalienable rights; it is found with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Locke, property explained rights. For the Founders, understanding our rights, including our property rights, requires Hutcheson’s subtle analysis in terms of alienable rights and unalienable ones.
With a clear understanding of unalienable rights, we can return to the Founders’ understanding of equality. For the Founders, our natural equality and our unalienable rights define each other. The golden coin of liberty has two sides: on one side is our natural equality; and on the other, our unalienable rights.
[The Founders] understood that equality decoupled from strong individual rights, rights understood as inherent and unalienable, would inevitably result in despotism.
The enemies of American liberty in academia and the media have substituted a counterfeit, now in wide circulation in our nation. This debased coin of the political realm is easy to recognize. On one side is the debased understanding of equality; it claims to legitimize government redistributing property, robbing Peter to give to Paul. Call it the “CP” side, for confiscation of property. On the other side, in place of unalienable rights, are the ever-expanding dictates of political correctness. Call it the “PC” side. The Founders believed that we have a natural and unalienable right to judge for ourselves. Today in America, political correctness increasingly determines which of our thoughts and feelings are forbidden and which are required.
Americans who accept this counterfeit without protest do so because they have forgotten, or never knew, the look and feel of the real thing.
The wisdom of the Founders is nowhere more evident than in their profound understanding of equality. They understood that equality decoupled from strong individual rights, rights understood as inherent and unalienable, would inevitably result in despotism. That is what has occurred everywhere in the world where it has been tried. For one example, consider Cuba. Castro promised that communism would establish equality in Cuba. Once in power, Castro and his henchmen set about confiscating the Cuban people’s property and systematically violating their rights to life and liberty. It can happen in the U.S., too. The further we as a people drift from the Founders’ idea of equality, the nearer we come to being a once-free people who have lost our liberty.
Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea and Reclaiming Common Sense: Finding Truth in a Post-Truth World, both from Encounter Books.
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