What Thomas Jefferson Meant by 'Unalienable Rights'

What Thomas Jefferson Meant by 'Unalienable Rights'

When Thomas Jefferson crafted the Declaration of Independence, he pointed to “certain unalienable rights” with which we were endowed by our “Creator.” 

What did he mean when he wrote the phrase “unalienable rights,” and what rights are “unalienable”?

Jefferson understood “unalienable rights” as fixed rights given to us by our Creator rather than by government. The emphasis on our Creator is crucial, because it shows that the rights are permanent just as the Creator is permanent. 

Jefferson’s thought on the source of these rights was impacted by Oxford’s William Blackstone, who described “unalienable rights” as “absolute” rights–showing that they were absolute because they came from him who is absolute, and that they were, are, and always will be, because the Giver of those rights–Jefferson’s “Creator”–was, and is, and always be.

Moreover, because we are “endowed” with them, the rights are inseparable from us: they are part of our humanity. 

In a word, the government did not give them and therefore cannot take them away, but the government still strains at ways to suppress them. 

To protect fundamental, individual rights, James Madison helped include the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. The intent was to remove them from government’s reach.

The “unalienable rights” explicitly protected by the Bill of Rights include, but are not limited to, the rights of free speech and religion, the right to keep and bear arms, self-determination with regard to one’s own property, the right to be secure in one’s own property, the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, and so forth. 

Among the “unalienable rights” implicitly protected in the Bill of Rights are freedom of conscience–how can one have freedom of speech or religion without freedom of conscience?–and the right to self-defense. As Associate Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority decision for McDonald v. Chicago (2010): “Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day, and in [District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)], we held that individual self-defense is a central component of the Second Amendment right.”

“Unalienable rights” are ours to keep, by virtue of our Creator. So said Thomas Jefferson through the Declaration of Independence, and he was seconded by James Madison through the Bill of Rights. 

A “central component” of our “unalienable rights” is the right to keep and bear arms.

Follow AWR Hawkins on Twitter @AWRHawkins.


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