Core American Ideas: Natural Rights and Limited Government

September 6, 2023

Core American Ideas: Natural Rights and Limited Government

Understanding Natural Rights 

             Understanding the concept of natural rights is crucial because it represents a foundational standard in American history and political thought. Natural rights are rights that individuals possess inherently as human beings, not granted by any government or society. They are often considered unalienable and cannot be taken away, even though they can be violated by oppressive governments. Recognizing the significance of natural rights is essential for grasping the principles upon which the American Republic was founded. It has been a recurring theme in American history, particularly in sermons and writings, and continues to shape how Americans think about government and its role. 

The Source of Natural Rights and the Role of Government 

             Natural rights, such as freedom of speech and the right to form one’s own opinions, do not originate from government. These rights are rooted in the laws of nature and Nature’s God, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Government does not grant these rights but is designed to protect them. While there may be reasonable limitations on certain rights, the core principle remains that individuals possess these rights inherently, even in the absence of government. Government does have a role in safeguarding these rights, but it does not create or bestow them upon individuals. 

The Significance of Natural Rights in American History 

             The idea of natural rights has played a significant role in American history, particularly in the context of important arguments against practices like slavery. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, made a compelling case against slavery based on the violation of natural rights. Natural rights, which assert that all human beings possess inherent rights regardless of race, have been instrumental in shaping moral and ethical arguments. Without the concept of natural rights, other arguments, such as mere inconvenience, would have been less compelling in condemning practices like slavery. Natural rights continue to serve as a fundamental standard for evaluating ethical and moral issues in American society. 

The Shift from Natural Rights to a Changing Rights Paradigm 

             A shift from the idea of natural rights to a different rights paradigm was evident in the 20th century, where rights were seen as dispensations granted by society and government. This new perspective suggested that the kind of rights individuals had depended on their historical and civilizational development. It also introduced the notion that rights could change over time. However, some critics argued that this shift represented regression rather than progress, likening it to the old concept of divine right of kings, where rights were bestowed by the king. This transformation in the understanding of rights and the challenges to natural rights had significant implications for political discourse in the 20th century. 

Recommended Documents on Natural Rights 

             If you wish to explore the idea of natural rights in American history and the arguments surrounding it, you can start with key documents such as Abraham Lincoln’s speeches like the one on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone speech, which provides contrasting perspectives on the importance of natural rights and their role in the issue of slavery. Other documents, including Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and Calvin Coolidge’s speech on the 150th anniversary of the Declaration, also shed light on this subject. Additionally, you can compare Ronald Reagan’s ‘Time for Choosing’ speech with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society speech to understand the trade-offs between expanding government and preserving individual freedom. Regardless, natural rights theory is at the foundation of American political thought, and understanding it is key to understanding the most core American ideas and systems.

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