What Are Natural Rights?

And How Do They Relate to America’s Fight for Independence?

Black and white etching of slaves freed after the US Civil War
Freed Slaves After US Civil War. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence spoke of all people being endowed with “unalienable Rights,” such as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” they were confirming their belief in the existence of “natural rights.”

In modern society, every individual has two types of rights: Natural rights and legal rights.

  • Natural rights are rights granted to all people by nature or God that cannot be denied or restricted by any government or individual. Natural rights are often said to be granted to people by “natural law.”
  • Legal rights are rights granted by governments or legal systems. As such, they can also be modified, restricted or repealed. In the United States, legal rights are granted by the legislative bodies of the federal, state and local governments.

The concept of a natural law establishing the existence of specific natural rights first appeared in ancient Greek philosophy and was referred to by Roman philosopher Cicero. It was later referred to in the Bible and further developed during the Middle Ages. Natural rights were cited during the Age of Enlightenment to oppose Absolutism — the divine right of kings.

Today, some philosophers and political scientists contend that human rights are synonymous with natural rights. Others prefer to keep the terms separate in order to avoid the mistaken association of the aspects of human rights not typically applied to natural rights. For example, natural rights are considered to be beyond the powers of human governments to deny or protect.

Jefferson, Locke, Natural Rights, and Independence.

In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson justified demanding independence by citing several examples of ways in which England’s King George III had refused to recognize the natural rights of American colonists. Even with fighting between colonists and British troops already taking place on American soil, most members of Congress still hoped for a peaceful agreement with their motherland.

In the first two paragraphs of that fateful document adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, Jefferson revealed his idea of natural rights in the often-quoted phrases, “all men are created equal,” “inalienable rights,” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Educated during the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, Jefferson adopted the beliefs of philosophers who used reason and science to explain human behavior. Like those thinkers, Jefferson believed universal adherence to the “laws of nature” to be the key to advancing humanity.

Many historians agree that Jefferson drew most of his beliefs in the importance of natural rights he expressed in the Declaration of Independence from the Second Treatise of Government, written by renowned English philosopher John Locke in 1689, as England’s own Glorious Revolution was overthrowing the reign of King James II.

The assertion is hard to deny because, in his paper, Locke wrote that all people are born with certain, God-given “inalienable” natural rights that governments can neither grant nor revoke, including “life, liberty, and property.”

Locke also argued that along with land and belongings, “property” included the individual’s “self,” which included well being or happiness.

Locke also believed that it was the single most important duty of governments to protect the God-given natural rights of their citizens. In return, Locke expected those citizens to follow the legal laws enacted by the government. Should the government break this “contract” with its citizens by enacting “a long train of abuses,” the citizens had the right to abolish and replace that government.

By listing the “long train of abuses” committed by King George III against American colonists in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson used Locke’s theory to justify the American Revolution.

“We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” – The Declaration of Independence.

Natural Rights in a Time of Slavery?

“All Men Are Created Equal”

As by far the best-known phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “All Men Are Created Equal,” is often said to summarize both the reason for revolution, as well as the theory of natural rights. But with slavery being practiced throughout the American Colonies in 1776, did Jefferson – a life-long slave owner himself – really believe the immortal words he had written?

Some of Jefferson’s fellow slave-owning separatists justified the obvious contradiction by explaining that only “civilized” people had natural rights, thus excluding slaves from eligibility.

As for Jefferson, history shows that he had long believed the slave trade was morally wrong and attempted to denounce it in the Declaration of Independence.

“He (King George) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither,” he wrote in a draft of the document.

However, Jefferson’s anti-slavery statement was removed from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson later blamed the removal of his statement on influential delegates who represented merchants who were at the time dependent on the Transatlantic slave trade for their livelihoods. Other delegates may have feared the possible loss of their financial support for the expected Revolutionary War.

Despite the fact that he continued to keep most of his slaves for years after the Revolution, many historians agree that Jefferson sided with Scottish philosopher, Francis Hutcheson, who had written, “Nature makes none masters, none slaves,” in expressing his belief that all people are born as moral equals. On the other hand, Jefferson had expressed his fear that suddenly freeing all of the slaves might result in a bitter race war ending in the virtual extermination of the former slaves.

While slavery would persist in the United States until the end of the Civil War 89 years after issuance of the Declaration of Independence, many of the human equality and rights promised in the document continued to be denied to African Americans, other minorities, and women for years.

Even today, for many Americans, the true meaning of equality and its related application of natural rights in areas such as racial profiling, gay rights, and gender-based discrimination remain an issue.