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The Philosophy of Individual Rights Before the Constitutional Convention in England and America
Although many individuals today might like to romanticize the origin of individual rights in America, suggesting that such rights began and ended with the passage of the current version of the United States Constitution that now governs the totality of the American land, the actual history of a private citizen's individual rights in America and England is far more checkered and complex. America's founding fathers owe a far greater debt to English and French philosophies of rights and liberties than were acknowledged at the time for the idea that the individual citizen possesses certain inalienable rights that cannot be impinged upon by the state. Also, the Articles of Confederation that were eventually passed contained the seeds of the later document that was to govern the land, even though it was too weak a document to provide the type of unity that the international politics of the time demanded to accord respect to the new American union and nation.
The English Empiricist philosopher John Locke was one of the first philosophers to coin the idea of "life, liberty, and property" as being inalienable rights of every human citizen and person. Equally important as the exact definition of the rights themselves was the simple notion itself that individual citizens possessed rights that were intrinsic to their human mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual persons that no sovereign could impinge upon. Unlike earlier political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes who placed a priority on an overall orderly society under the will of a monarch, Locke turned his view to the rights of the human being in society, rather than focusing on the state or on society alone as an entity in need of order and protection.
Thomas Jefferson was later to take up Locke's philosophy and words. As later and concisely and eloquently stated by Thomas Jefferson, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with *inherent and* [certain] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & 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 abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles, & organizing it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness."
Happiness, rather than property held sway in Jefferson's rhetoric, for the Declaration was a rhetorical rather than a legal or even a philosophical document. Still, the principles were the same as articulated in Locke's philosophy. Jefferson paid a nod to Hobbes in the Declaration's text when he noted, "Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown 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 & usurpations *begun at a distinguished period and* 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, & to provide new guards for their future security." Jefferson states that he and his fellow rebels know the risks of disorder than severance poses, but the risks of tyranny to the individual are more in need of address, ultimately, than the risks posed to society.
None of Jefferson's ideas were new, thusly -- nor was even the language he used to articulate them. In fact, the idea of individual rights could be said to extend far back in England as the Magna Charta, which specified the duties owned not simply of lords to the king but also of the king to those who served him. Even the ultimately unsuccessful Roundhead revolution of Cromwell did establish some idea that Parliament, as opposed to purely royal and dictatorial authority, could hold sway over an executive authority conferred by birth rather than election, and that Houses elected by the populace should have a voice in the form of…[continue]
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