What Are Natural Rights?

Black and white etching of slaves freed after the 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 As such, they can also be modified, restricted or repealed.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 Enslavement?

“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 the practice of enslavement common throughout the American Colonies in 1776, did Jefferson – a life-long enslaver himself – really believe the immortal words he had written?

Some of Jefferson’s fellow enslaver separatists justified the obvious contradiction by explaining that only “civilized” people had natural rights, thus excluding enslaved people 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-enslavement 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 enslaved workers 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 enslaved people might result in a bitter race war ending in their virtual extermination.

While the practice of enslavement 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 Black people, other people of color, 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.

First Amendment and Natural Rights

While it was third on the list of original proposals in the Bill of Rights that Congress submitted to the states for approval, the First Amendment was the first amendment to deal with natural individual rights. Almost without exception, the rights in the First Amendment are thought to be natural rights because they deal with matters of conscience, thought, and expression.

The two clauses on religion—“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” are designed to allow individuals to follow their conscience in matters of faith and worship.

Clauses relating to speech, press, peaceable assembly, and petition are designed to promote discussion and debate concerning the kind of governmental policies that suit a representative form of government, and arguably to promote the development of the individual’s personality.

It is doubtful that the authors of the First Amendment would have claimed to have originated the rights inherent in the amendment. Indeed, the Federalists’ initial opposition to the Bill of Rights stemmed in part from the belief that such rights were naturally inherent liberties that did not need to be specifically listed. By contrast, some provisions—such as the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against double jeopardy or the Sixth Amendment’s requirement of trial by jury—are clearly man-made mechanisms for enforcing fundamental principles of fairness, not morally mandated rights.

Embodying such rights within a popularly adopted written text like the First Amendment is intended to preclude the necessity for resorting to unlawful means for securing their protection. However, such rights would arguably be legitimate moral claims even if they were not embodied in the Constitution. For example, the Supreme Court has on occasion made decisions based on un-enumerated general moral principles, or natural rights, rather than based on a specific constitutional provision. Some legal scholars, for example, believe the modern assumed right to privacy is such a judicially created right.

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Longley, Robert. "What Are Natural Rights?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-are-natural-rights-4108952. Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). What Are Natural Rights? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-natural-rights-4108952 Longley, Robert. "What Are Natural Rights?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-natural-rights-4108952 (accessed June 10, 2023).