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Where Do Human Rights Come From?

Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 26 years.

During his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

During his inaugural address, President Kennedy said, "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God."

Do our rights come from the Constitution? The Constitution with its Bill of Rights mentions many freedoms, like the First Amendment freedoms (religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition) as well as other freedoms that are stated in the form of protections (like no cruel and unusual punishment). But it’s one thing to say that the Constitution mentions our rights; it’s another to say that the Constitution is the source of those rights. So, do we get our rights from the Constitution?

The short answer is “yes” and “no.” Some of our rights come from the Constitution while others do not. This essay is devoted to helping you to better make the distinction between the two.

Human Rights Granted by the Constitution

What rights are given to us by the Constitution? It's those rights that define our relationship to the government. Rights such as the right to petition the government, no double jeopardy, and warrants being issued on the basis of “probable cause” come from the Constitution and define how we are related to the government. These rights are a means to an end, that end being greater protection from arbitrary governmental power and fairer treatment to all citizens under our government.

The Right to Vote

An example of this first type of right is the right to vote. The right to vote would be a "civil" right in that it has to do with our relationship to our government and depends upon the form of government that we have. While we possess a "right to vote" in many western nations, we don't normally think that we have the right to vote for every government office. In fact, even in the United States, we don't get to vote for most government positions. There are several countries where citizens have no right to vote.

The emphasis on the right to vote tends to be this: If voting is the means by which an official comes to his office, then every citizen should have a right to participate in that vote, and there should be no discrimination of that right.

Sam Adams, the Father of the American Revolution, said that our rights come from "the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church."

Sam Adams, the Father of the American Revolution, said that our rights come from "the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church."

Human Rights Not Granted by the Constitution

That brings me to the second type of right. Some rights do not emanate from the Constitution. Such rights are outside the orbit of the Constitution and are sometimes referred to as natural rights.

The Constitution does not say that you have a right to practice your religion, speak publicly, own a firearm, or write and publish a book. What it does say is that Congress cannot prohibit or abridge those freedoms. Now, in order for the Constitution to place a prohibition on Congress, we can assume that you are in possession of those rights that Congress cannot obstruct.

Unalienable Rights

Historically, our founders have said that such rights have the the characteristic of being “unalienable” which means that these rights cannot be taken from the citizen. If they came from the Constitution or from government, they could not be “unalienable.”

But, what is the source of these “unalienable rights”? In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that these unalienable rights are “endowed by their Creator.” So these rights do come from authority, but not human authority. They are the bestowments of Divine authority. The role that the government plays with regard to these rights is to “secure” them.

Separation of the Church and State

This is one reason why the ACLU’s interpretation of the separation of church and state is a perversion of American ideals. Neither the government nor the people in their collective capacity are the source of our most basic rights. Rather, such rights are the deliverances of our Creator. Consider these quotes that reflect this basic understanding of the source of our rights:

  • "The rights of the colonists as Christians . . . may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the institution of the great Law Giver and Head of the Christian Church, which are to be found clearly written and promulgated in the New Testament." —Samuel Adams
  • "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a Gift of God"? —Thomas Jefferson
  • "Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God." —Benjamin Franklin
  • "Our government rests upon religion. It is from that source that we derive our reverence for truth and justice, for equality and liberty, and for the rights of mankind. Unless the people believe in these principles they cannot believe in our government." —Alexander Hamilton
  • "Natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator, to the whole human race; and that civil liberty is founded in that; and cannot be wrested from any people, without the most manifest violation of injustice." —Calvin Coolidge
  • "The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." —John F. Kennedy
  • "History comes and goes, but principles endure and ensure future generations to defend liberty—not a gift of government, but a blessing from our Creator." —Ronald Reagan

From these quotes, we can make the reasonable inference that our Constitution is predicated upon a belief in God. As the liberal justice William O. Douglas once remarked, "We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being" (Zorach v. Clauson [1952]). In his dissent in McGowan v. Maryland (1961) Douglas highlighted the transcendent nature of some of our rights by saying that

"The institutions of our society are founded on the belief that there is an authority higher than the authority of the State; that there is a moral law which the state is powerless to alter; that the individual possesses rights, conferred by the Creator, which government must respect."

Atheistic views like those advanced by the ACLU undermine this first principle and would have our freedoms predicated upon the benevolence of the government.

How Do We Know Where These Rights Come From?

Scholars past and present have looked to three main sources of our inalienable rights:

  • They come from God
  • They come from nature
  • They come from human authority (like the legislature)

Let's take the last one: Could rights come from human authority? After all, we could make up anything and say we have a right to it, correct? The problem is that such contrivances can be as equally revoked as they were created. The inescapable problem is that they are arbitrary, and America’s founders recognized that problem. So, rights must have some authoritative agent as their source.

How about "natural rights? The problem here is that "nature" has no mind to grant rights and it is not a source of authority that people would yield submission. We violate nature all the time in many respects. Besides, where in nature would you look for such rights? In the animal kingdom? Does the lion observe the rights of the antelope? Does the polar bear suppress his natural tendency to stalk his prey in respect of its rights? America's founders knew that nature was an insufficient ground for our rights. After all, Jefferson and Company did not just ground our inalienable rights in "nature," but in "nature and nature's God."

So, grounding rights in nature cannot protect your most cherished liberties. The protection of these liberties must be authoritative and absolute. Here we are talking about “rights as laws,” as mandates, as requirements, not like the “law of gravity” which is more of a description of nature than it is a rule of nature.

Perhaps you might say, "OK, but even if we can't sufficiently ground our rights in nature, it's rational to think that we have them and that we can rationally affirm that such rights are necessary." Here the idea is that we have such rights because we can rationally conceive of their necessity . But that only addresses how we came to know that we have rights; it doesn't address their origin or my claim to possess them. Mental fictions, no matter how useful or rational, are still fictions. And let's not forget our history here: "nature" got dragged into this discussion because men wanted to find another source other than God as an authority to justify their actions. But that project has been a failure. To abandon God is to abandon justice, liberty, and the security of inalienable rights.

If we insist on saying, “No, there are some rights that can’t be taken,” then they can’t have as their origin our collective will as if they emerged out of a social contract, or in nature or in out rational contrivances.

In short, our most cherished liberties—including the freedom to write and publish this article—are recognized by the Constitution, but they are not the product of it. Such freedoms are the deliverances of our Creator. They come from God.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2010 William R Bowen Jr

Comments

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on February 17, 2012:

The Constitution doesn't address reproductive rights. God gave man the command to multiply and subdue the earth. No government has no voice in this matter.

Paul on February 14, 2012:

so what if the gov. said that a women could only have one baby,would the consitution hold up? Or would the world court rule?

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on July 31, 2011:

Thank you Pintoman and best wishes on hubpages...

Pintoman on July 30, 2011:

Excellent article and I agree, My Esoteric didn't offer any counter quotes that actually countered.

Although Jefferson was a Deist, he considered himself a Christian, just one that saw Christianity in a pure form, though I would say he was indeed a Deist.

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 05, 2011:

No doubt the battle of quotes could go on forever but I do intend to read more of your hubs for you write very well and understanably. I didn't pursue any further discussion beyond the counter-quotes I offered because I have probably written 10,000 words on the subject so far, only to touch the surface of the real answer, and will be writing 100,000 more, as I am sure you have and will be. Ironically, I started writing hubs to express my religious views, quite different from yours I am sure, and I have yet to get to that as I have been so engrossed in learning and writing about American Constitional and economic history; so much so that I just saw an ad for a Masters in American History and Government that piqued my interest.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on June 05, 2011:

My Esoteric,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I'm surprised that you gave me several quotes of the founding fathers, yet you offered no refutation of the quotes I supplied. They speak for themselves. And I have to say that when it comes to producing the most quotes for my thesis versus against my thesis, I'm going to win that contest.

Second, I have stated in my earlier hub "Tempest in a Treaty" I think the Treaty of Tripoli is probably the best prima facie evidence for the thesis that America is a secular nation, yet the overwhelming evidence leads us to reject such a thesis. I would invite you to read that hub and then we can discuss it.

Third, the freedom of religion and the right to keep and bear arms are a part of the guarantees afforded us under the Constitution and they are certainly compatible with America being a Christian nation. The freedom of religion goes without saying.

As for the right to keep and bear arms, the Bible is replete with men arming to defend what belongs to them and to protect their families. With the exception of a few pacifist groups, Christianity has always been compatible with the idea of waging war and defending one's life, liberty, and property. In fact, the man that put that concept on the map in western civilization was John Locke, a professing Christian who wrote a book defending what he called the "reasonableness of Christianity."

Scott Belford from Keystone Heights, FL on June 05, 2011:

Good Hub Bibowen but, I would offer these counter-quotes

- “The government of the United States is not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion” - John Adams, POTUS # 2

- The Form of Government, which you admire, when its Principles are pure is admirable, indeed, it is productive of every Thing, which is great and excellent among Men. But its Principles are as easily destroyed, as human Nature is corrupted. Such a Government is only to be supported by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private [virtue], and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. There must be a positive Passion for the public good, the public Interest, Honour, Power and Glory, established in the Minds of the People, or there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty: and this public Passion must be Superiour to all private Passions. Men must be ready, they must pride themselves, and be happy to sacrifice their private Pleasures, Passions and Interests, nay, their private Friendships and dearest Connections, when they stand in Competition with the Rights of Society.

John Adams to Mercy Warren - 16 Apr. 1776Warren-Adams Letters 1:222--23

Note - John Adams was probably one of the most devout Christians of our founding fathers

- "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

From 1779 Virginia Bill of Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson, POTUS #3

- "Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth... Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws."

From Thomas Jefferson's 1787 Notes on the State of Virginia

Note - Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, not a Christian

Also, the "unalienable" rights referred to in the Declaration tals about the Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (which mainly delt with enjoyment of property). Nowhere in those Rights do you see anything about firearms and practice your religion; the former of which was created by man for the sole purpose of killing other men with the idea of enslaving the remainder. Religion is also a manmade creation, even though the Creator may not be. The Creator can exist while religion may not by the simple artifact that the Creator never revealed itself to Man. Consequently, neither the right to practice your religion nor bear firearms could be considered "unalienable" within the scope of Life (antithical to firearms), Liberty (which includes speech), and the Pursuit of Happiness.

wba108@yahoo.com from upstate, NY on January 27, 2011:

I wish I had said this! You spoke with power, excellent hub!

onegoodwoman from A small southern town on October 09, 2010:

It is really simple..........

were we humans before the Constitution or not?

Our USofA Constitution merly PROMISES to uphold our human rights, as given to us by our Creator.

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on October 02, 2010:

Thank you, Ms. Dee. Glad it helped.

Deidre Shelden from Texas, USA on October 02, 2010:

Excellent hub on the source of our freedom...our Creator! And the freedom to live out our morality is what our constitution protects. Well explained :)

William R Bowen Jr (author) from New Bern, NC on October 01, 2010:

Mytipen,

The point I was making was not on whether you should legislate on morality or not. Rather, I was saying that immoral behaviors should never be protected by law or by a constitution. Another way of saying it is that "there is never a right to do the wrong thing." It's one thing to not legislate morality (as you stated); it's quite another to pass a law to protect a behavior that is immoral. Thanks for stopping by.

mytipen from Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A on October 01, 2010:

Yes, our basic freedoms come from God or nature but who are we to legislate on behalf of God or nature, which is what we'll be doing if we make laws targetting morality. We can only make laws to control our relationships with one another and not our relationships with our God. If we can't legislate on things like, say, the air we breath, or the color of our eyes, or the way the sun rises and sets, or when the seasons come and go, I don't believe we should legislate on other people's morals. That should be between such people and their God.