With the kids home from school, maybe this is a good time for a civics lesson—one they probably wouldn’t be getting (but should) if they were in class. Feel free to share this with them. They might understand more than you’d expect.
Why do we refer to God-given rights, as our founders did, as opposed to government-given rights?
If God is the source of a right, then that is final; no earthly power can take away that right. If it’s not innate, given to us by God simply for being born, then it is given by someone earthly who can take it away. If it’s from god, it’s permanent.
Human history tells us, however, that there are plenty of earthly powers that fail to respect those God-given rights, pretend they don’t even exist, and trample over them—trample over the people to whom those rights belong.
That doesn’t stop those rights from existing; it just means those earthly powers are tyrants—whether governments or criminals.
Governments are established to protect the people’s God-given rights. But government, like fire, tends to spread and burn things it wasn’t intended to burn.
That means we, the people, need to be constantly vigilant, to prevent the spread of government beyond its protective purpose.
America’s founders set up our government carefully. They had certain expectations based on centuries of English Common Law. And, because of the distance between the original colonies and Great Britain, they got used to a lot of self-government. That made it easy for them to recognize government overreach, and they pushed back against it.
If you read the list of abuses of power in the Declaration of Independence, you can see many of the things they recognized as tyranny, which were antithetical to a free people. I went through the list of abuses of power in the Declaration, as a thought exercise this week, to identify the right(s) each complaint dealt with. I didn’t always know how to categorize the complaint, but it was enlightening to find multiple complaints related to the same rights. It shows us what they didn’t like, what they saw as tyranny.
So, what are the rights that they showed were being trampled?
One was that they had a right to the rule of law, rather than ruler’s law. Ruler’s law is whatever the ruler says it is, making it capricious, unfair, and tyrannical. The right to the rule of law is what they’d come to expect for half a millennium, since the Magna Carta. They weren’t inventing something new and then complaining that their monarch wasn’t going along; their monarch was bound by the law—so he was clearly violating that law when he ruled by fiat.
The right to self-rule was another big one. The law the people were subject to ought to be something they agreed to; they have a right to representation, to have a voice in what becomes law. They wanted things to be local, to respond to their actual needs. And they wanted a say in what that law was. They rejected having law imposed on them from high up and far away.
They had the right to equal protection before the law—unlike past tyrannies that favored some classes over others, regardless of behavior. They also mention that justice should be swift, and local—instead of forcing them to travel far from home. And records should be available locally—they had a right to government information, the right to transparency of government.
They had the right to property, and to what is often called the “bundle of sticks” that comprise property rights:
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· Right to determine how your property is used—right to control and use property.
· Right to benefit from the use of your property (as you’d benefit from using the milk from a cow you own).
· Right to transfer your property to another—by selling or giving.
· Right to destroy/dispose of your property.
· Right to exclude others from using, benefiting from, or destroying your property.
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Let’s add to these the Bill of Rights—which are not rights given to us in our Constitution, but our Constitution protects us from having government abridge these rights. All of them come under the broader categories of the rights of life, liberty, and property.
These are five in the First Amendment.
· Freedom of religion—government can neither establish a state-favored religion nor prohibit from freely exercising their religion.
· Freedom of speech—government cannot get in the way of people freely speaking their opinions, beliefs, facts that they know.
· Freedom of the press—government cannot prevent the printing of news and media, sometimes extended to freedom of expression.
· Freedom of assembly—government cannot prevent people from peaceably assembling, or gathering together with whomever they choose.
· Right of redress of grievances—government is subject to being petitioned, or sued, when citizens perceive that government has harmed them.
The Second Amendment is the right to self-protection. Here’s a basic difference between a free society and subjects to a ruler. Free people have the right to protect themselves from attack—even using weapons, even causing death in cases in which their life or the life of another is threatened. A subject to a ruler who has abridged this right is dependent on the benevolence of the ruler to provide protection of not. And the ruler might abridge this right particularly to prevent an uprising among the subjects. The founders wanted to make sure that right to self-protection would not be abridged.
The Third Amendment may seem foreign to us today. But in the founders’ time—and this is mentioned in the Declaration—is freedom from having a standing army living among us, including quartered in our homes. Think of it as being drafted into donating your housing space to a military, and in their case a military that was set up not to protect them, but to protect the faraway government’s interests from the people.
The Fourth through Eighth Amendments relate to judicial fairness issues.
The Fourth Amendment is the right to be secure—our persons, houses, papers, and effects—from unreasonable searches and seizures. You yourself, and what you own, are not the government’s possessions for the taking. There has to be a lawful reason for depriving a person of these natural rights.
The Fifth Amendment relates to judicial fairness. It prevents a person from being forced to testify against himself in capital or otherwise serious crime. Also, it prevents a person from being put in jeopardy more than once—a second trial after being found not guilty. It prevents a corrupt government from preventing a person from going about his life by continually putting him in court over the same issue.
The Sixth Amendment is also about judicial fairness: the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury in a local jurisdiction. Also, the accused must be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be able to face witness against him, to have a process compelling witnesses in his favor, and to have defense counsel.
The Seventh Amendment is the right to a trial by jury in controversies over a certain minimal amount, and the jury’s decision shall not be overthrown. Also, the rules of common law must be followed.
The Eighth Amendment prevents excessive bail from being required, excessive fines from being imposed, and no cruel and unusual punishments afflicted.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments are the miscellaneous everything else.
The Ninth Amendment makes it clear that mention of rights in the Constitution does not mean those are all the rights there are. Other rights cannot be denied. The people retain those.
The Tenth Amendment make it clear that any duty not delegated in the Constitution to the United States are duties and rights still held by the States and the people.
The rights that are included in the Bill of Rights reveal ways the founders had experienced tyrants trying to take their rights away, so they thought they needed to be spelled out most clearly—even though they were self-evident and inalienable.
But those last two show they understood that there are more rights, none of which can be taken from individuals except as the just punishment for a crime.
One of those not mentioned is parental rights: to see to the care and upbringing of their children. Another might be making your own healthcare choices.
But, in short, how do you know it’s a God-given inalienable right? It has to be something you’re born with. You deserve it because you’re human. Beyond parents obliged to caring for their child, it must be something others don’t have to be put into servitude to provide for you.