The American Principle of Liberty

It is a remarkable fact, though little noticed, that we no longer conduct our politics in the language of the Founders.  What that means is we no longer think politically in their terms. 

Although the American Founding was all about unalienable rights, the phrase "unalienable rights" has gone missing from American politics.  In day-to-day politics, rights are bandied about – civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, but almost never unalienable rights.  "Unalienable rights" has the familiarity and the unfamiliarity of a special item brought out only for special occasions like the 4th of July. 

This would astonish the Founders.  After all, the claim of the Declaration was that we are "created equal" and endowed by our Creator "with certain unalienable rights."  That is the claim at the core of the American Idea.  That is the American principle of liberty.

And it is a single claim, not a compound of two ideas.  For the Founders, unalienable rights and our natural equality are two ways of stating the same truth.  John Adams can help make that clear to us: "All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights[.]"  To be born free and equal is to have certain unalienable rights.  No one is born with the right to rule us, either by descent (for example, the British monarch) or by nature (for example, the Aryan master race).  If a monarch or members of the master race had by birth the right to rule over us, we would not have liberty; our rulers would have the right to do with us as they please.  That no one is born with the right to rule over us means we are born free and equal.

America fought the British to settle that question at the Founding and fought Hitler and the Nazis to preserve that settlement in the 20th century.

This principle of liberty is the core principle of the constitutional republic that is the Founders' gift to us.  No doubt, the Founders would claim that the American republic cannot function properly without it.  The Founders would surely say about our time that to abandon the idea of unalienable rights as we have largely done is to abandon the American Idea itself.

How did this change in our political thinking come about? 

It took a hundred years.  Over a century ago, the American Progressives set out to dismantle the American Constitution piece by piece – in a word, progressively.  They rejected the idea of limited, constitutional government.  Their stumbling block was the American people's reverence for the idea of unalienable rights.  The problem for the Progressives was that unalienable rights inherently place limits on what government can do – that is, on government power.  So unalienable rights had to be pushed aside.  That the Progressives have managed to remove "unalienable rights" from our political discourse shows how successful they have been in replacing the Founders' principle of liberty with their ideas. 

Unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been replaced by an ever expanding list of so-called "rights" that are really entitlements requiring an ever expanding role for government.  The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed "the right to rest and leisure,…the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services."  That was Progressivism in 1948.  However, the Progressives have progressed considerably since then.  Today, they claim that boys who identify as female are entitled to use the girls' showers, that male prisoners who identify as female are entitled to be housed with the women prisoners, that illegal aliens are entitled to the same rights and privileges as an American citizen, and on and on. 

This ever-expanding list of government entitlements is at the root of our ever-expanding federal and state Leviathans and the ever-diminishing liberty in American life.  The evident end-point of Progressivism is a post-American America in which everything is either forbidden or required.

To take back America from the Progressives and to restore America to the Founders' principle of liberty won't be easy.  The Progressives have captured the commanding heights.  They populate the permanent administrative state, the courts, the media, academia, and Hollywood, and they are determined to have their way. But in America, the people are still sovereign.  If we are to turn the tide, each of us must first learn to think like a Founder, just as Americans have always had to learn to do.  Then we must reach out to our circle of influence and beyond as far as we can to help our fellow Americans also learn to think like Founders.  I have this bit of advice for you.  We are not going to change the minds of the people at the core of the Progressive movement.  They are ideologues.  Our opportunity is elsewhere, with the many Americans who can be reached, who want to believe in America, who want to believe that America is a good country that can be made better again, but don't know where to turn for help.  Take up the cause; be the help they need.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.

It is a remarkable fact, though little noticed, that we no longer conduct our politics in the language of the Founders.  What that means is we no longer think politically in their terms. 

Although the American Founding was all about unalienable rights, the phrase "unalienable rights" has gone missing from American politics.  In day-to-day politics, rights are bandied about – civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, but almost never unalienable rights.  "Unalienable rights" has the familiarity and the unfamiliarity of a special item brought out only for special occasions like the 4th of July. 

This would astonish the Founders.  After all, the claim of the Declaration was that we are "created equal" and endowed by our Creator "with certain unalienable rights."  That is the claim at the core of the American Idea.  That is the American principle of liberty.

And it is a single claim, not a compound of two ideas.  For the Founders, unalienable rights and our natural equality are two ways of stating the same truth.  John Adams can help make that clear to us: "All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights[.]"  To be born free and equal is to have certain unalienable rights.  No one is born with the right to rule us, either by descent (for example, the British monarch) or by nature (for example, the Aryan master race).  If a monarch or members of the master race had by birth the right to rule over us, we would not have liberty; our rulers would have the right to do with us as they please.  That no one is born with the right to rule over us means we are born free and equal.

America fought the British to settle that question at the Founding and fought Hitler and the Nazis to preserve that settlement in the 20th century.

This principle of liberty is the core principle of the constitutional republic that is the Founders' gift to us.  No doubt, the Founders would claim that the American republic cannot function properly without it.  The Founders would surely say about our time that to abandon the idea of unalienable rights as we have largely done is to abandon the American Idea itself.

How did this change in our political thinking come about? 

It took a hundred years.  Over a century ago, the American Progressives set out to dismantle the American Constitution piece by piece – in a word, progressively.  They rejected the idea of limited, constitutional government.  Their stumbling block was the American people's reverence for the idea of unalienable rights.  The problem for the Progressives was that unalienable rights inherently place limits on what government can do – that is, on government power.  So unalienable rights had to be pushed aside.  That the Progressives have managed to remove "unalienable rights" from our political discourse shows how successful they have been in replacing the Founders' principle of liberty with their ideas. 

Unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have been replaced by an ever expanding list of so-called "rights" that are really entitlements requiring an ever expanding role for government.  The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed "the right to rest and leisure,…the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and necessary social services."  That was Progressivism in 1948.  However, the Progressives have progressed considerably since then.  Today, they claim that boys who identify as female are entitled to use the girls' showers, that male prisoners who identify as female are entitled to be housed with the women prisoners, that illegal aliens are entitled to the same rights and privileges as an American citizen, and on and on. 

This ever-expanding list of government entitlements is at the root of our ever-expanding federal and state Leviathans and the ever-diminishing liberty in American life.  The evident end-point of Progressivism is a post-American America in which everything is either forbidden or required.

To take back America from the Progressives and to restore America to the Founders' principle of liberty won't be easy.  The Progressives have captured the commanding heights.  They populate the permanent administrative state, the courts, the media, academia, and Hollywood, and they are determined to have their way. But in America, the people are still sovereign.  If we are to turn the tide, each of us must first learn to think like a Founder, just as Americans have always had to learn to do.  Then we must reach out to our circle of influence and beyond as far as we can to help our fellow Americans also learn to think like Founders.  I have this bit of advice for you.  We are not going to change the minds of the people at the core of the Progressive movement.  They are ideologues.  Our opportunity is elsewhere, with the many Americans who can be reached, who want to believe in America, who want to believe that America is a good country that can be made better again, but don't know where to turn for help.  Take up the cause; be the help they need.

Robert Curry serves on the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute and is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books.  You can preview the book here.