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The citizens right to life as stipulated in the declaration of independence

Today, while all Americans have heard of it, all too few have read more than its second sentence. Yet the Declaration shows the natural rights foundation of the American Revolution, and provides important information about what the founders believed makes a constitution or government legitimate. Later, the Declaration also assumed increasing importance in the struggle to abolish slavery.

It became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of the nineteenth-century abolitionists. It was much relied upon by Abraham Lincoln. It had to be explained away by the Supreme Court in Dred Scott. And eventually it was repudiated by some defenders of slavery in the South because of its inconsistency with that institution. When reading the Declaration, it is worth keeping in mind two very important facts.

The Declaration constituted high treason against the Crown. Every person who signed it would be executed as traitors should they be caught by the British. Second, the Declaration was considered to be a legal document by which the revolutionaries justified their actions and explained why they were not truly traitors. No government is perfect; all governments violate rights. This was well known. So the Americans had to allege more than mere violations of rights.

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They had to allege nothing short of a criminal conspiracy to violate their rights systematically. In some cases, these specific complaints account for provisions eventually included in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In Our Republican Constitution: Securing the Liberty and Sovereignty of We the PeopleI explain how the Declaration encapsulated the political theory that lead the Constitution some eleven years later. To appreciate all that is packed into the two paragraphs that comprise the preamble to the list of grievances, it is useful to break down the Declaration into some of its key claims. The Declaration is like the indictment of a criminal that states the basis of his criminality.

As British political theorist John Locke wrote: On the one hand, this will become a great embarrassment to a people who permitted slavery. To be held to account.

What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

This promise will provide the heart of the abolitionist case in the nineteenth century, which is why late defenders of slavery eventually came to reject the Declaration. Inalienable rights are those you cannot give up even if you want to and consent to do so, unlike other rights that you can agree to transfer or waive. Why the claim that they are inalienable rights?

The Framers claimed that with inalienable rights, you always retain the ability to take back any right that has been given up. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: THAT all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

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After an extensive debate, the officially adopted version read with the modifications in italics: This version is still in effect today. All men 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. In 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court relied upon this more radical language to invalidate slavery in that state.

And its influence continued. In short, that first come rights and then comes government. In modern political discourse, people tend to favor one of these concepts over the other—either preexistent natural rights or popular consent—which leads them to stress one part of this sentence in the Declaration over the other.

The fact that rights can be uncertain and disputed leads some to emphasize the consent part of this sentence and the legitimacy of popularly enacted legislation. If we take both parts of this sentence seriously, however, this apparent tension can be reconciled by distinguishing between a the ultimate end or purpose of legitimate governance and b how any particular government gains jurisdiction to rule.

So, while the protection of natural rights or justice is the ultimate end of governance, particular governments only gain jurisdiction to achieve this end by the consent of those who are governed.

After all, justifying the independence of Americans from the British government was the whole purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Restates the end—human safety and happiness—and connects the principles and forms of government as means to this end. On the one hand, long-established government should not be changed for just any reason.

What are the three rights listed in the Declaration of Independence?

The mere fact that rights are violated is not enough to justify revolution. All governments on earth will sometimes violate rights.

But things have to become very bad before anyone is going to organize a resistance. Therefore, the very existence of this Declaration is evidence that things are very bad indeed. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. Several of these items end up in the Bill of Rights.

Others are addressed by the form of the government established—first by the Articles of Confederation, and ultimately by the Constitution.

The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: This is powerful stuff. At the Founding, these ideas were considered so true as to be self-evident.

Declaration of Human and Civic Rights

However, today the idea of natural rights is obscure and controversial. Oftentimes, when the idea comes up, it is deemed to be archaic. As I explain in The Structure of Liberty: Justice and the Rule of LawI believe his is a mistake.