Saturday, May 23, 2009

Unalienable Rights

The conversation concerning the National Tea Party platform quickly moved to identifying and stating underlying principles. Americans are in the habit of referring to founding documents as 'source material' for underlying principles without close examination of the Founders' intent and rationale in developing the phrasing which we have come to revere. This is particularly true with regard to the Declaration of Independence and most particularly to the Preamble:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

If the Preamble is stripped down to a rather harsh reality, this is what it looks like to me:
"People are entitled to commit treason by the Laws of Nature and Nature's God. The obvious truth is that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Therefore..."

The Founders understood the need for a theological basis for overturning the divine right of kings as then commonly preached through sermons focused upon Romans 13
Romans 13

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

They used a rhetorical device "We hold these truths to be self-evident" to assert an equality before God that is in rather stark contrast to the submission to "the minister of God" mandated by Romans 13. Had the rebellion failed, they would have been hanged by the minister of God and we would not be left trying to redetermine the consistency of our unalienable rights to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I believe it to be rather difficult to identify the core principles for the National Tea Party at a time when the populace is strongly divided as to the meaning (as well as the point at which unalienable rights are "granted") of Life, when concept of Liberty has devolved, among many, to the license of an unsupervised barnyard and the pursuit of Happiness has likewise devolved into "if it feels good, do it". Difficult doesn't mean impossible but proceeding to principles without defining (or redefining) words which have been stripped of the intent of the authors seems unlikely to prove particularly fruitful.

I have never seen an exposition of the probable position of the Founders regarding the question of when life begins. They were, in general, men who were very familiar with the Bible and very familiar with the core of the Western canon as well as being well versed in the intricacies of British common law. My understanding of each of those sources is that "quickening", the mothers awareness of movement by the baby, was a point of determination as to whether a separate life (and separate rights) existed.

I understand that the issue of the point at which rights pertain to an individual is a real thicket of thorns but can a reform party focused upon the usurpation of individual rights by overweening intrusion on the part of the government and its creatures succeed without such a definition? If one considers the result of abandonment of the pious justification "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" in favor of "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." to have resulted in the Civil War then the serious nature of the question becomes apparent.

I do not believe that the productive citizenry of the United States will long tolerate mob rule having the aim of reparation and redistribution. If we are going to complete the revolution to "when in the course of human events" it would be wise to begin the return with clarity.

No comments: