The Declaration of Independence proclaims as a self-evident truth the First Principle that “all men are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Thomas Jefferson explained the essence of the Founding Fathers’ understanding regarding the First Principle of unalienable rights when he wrote that “a free people claims their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as a gift from their chief magistrate.”
In other words, a basic maxim of American government is the recognition that some rights derived from Nature may not be taken or violated by the government.
This First Principle turned topsy-turvy the prior understanding of authority and rights. Putting aside a few ancient democracies and republics, Kings and nobility historically were the origin of authority, and they granted rights and privileges to their subjects. The people did not possess rights – only privileges – and they were dependent upon the pleasure of the rulers.
Nevertheless, America boldly proclaimed at its birth that some rights were endowed by man’s very nature – and that individuals are incapable of relinquishing them. Because these rights are endowed in people from Nature’s God, they are inherent in each individual and cannot be abandoned – in other words, such rights are unalienable.
Hence, “the sacred rights of mankind,” Alexander Hamilton observed, “are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”
The recognition and protection of unalienable rights is a centerpiece of America.