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 “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights...”

— John Adams

The New Criterion recently published a review by Michael Anton of a new book by Thomas West, The Political Theory of the American Founding. Anton’s review is entitled “Founding Philosophy.” 

Anton and West are two of the best, and The New Criterion deserves praise for publishing Anton’s thoughtful review and for highlighting West’s important book. Both the book and the review are deserving of all the acclaim that will be heaped upon them. 

Early on in his review, Anton addresses the question of how we are to understand the claim in the Declaration of Independence that we are all equal. In what way are we equal? After all, we are certainly not equal in intelligence, strength, beauty, or virtue; we do not all have the same gifts and talents.

The Declaration teaches that all men are created equal. But do we today understand equality as the Founders did?

In his book, West presents Harry Jaffa’s explanation of the Founders’ declaration that all men are created equal.  Anton puts the Jaffa/West account like this:

“The idea is elegantly simple: all men are by nature equally free and independent. Nature has not—as she has, for example, in the case of certain social insects—delineated some members of the human species as natural rulers and others as natural workers or slaves.”

This account will be familiar to any reader of Jaffa’s work. Because it was a favorite of Jaffa’s it shows up again and again in slightly different versions in his writings. Here is one: 

“The queen bee is marked out by nature for her function in the hive.  Human queens (or kings) are not so marked.  Their rule is conventional, not natural.  As we have seen Jefferson say, human beings are not born with saddles on their backs, and others booted and spurred to ride them.”

Jaffa’s now iconic account of equality is true and important, and a tenet of my own civic faith. The claim can even be made that it has established a reasonably secure beachhead on the vast continent of America’s forgetting of the thinking of the American founders.

Because Jaffa’s account is so well established perhaps the time is ripe for a look into its history and logic to find out what more we can learn, to discover if we can expand the beachhead that Jaffa achieved.

Jaffa’s neither booted nor saddled image has a splendid pedigree. Here is the Jefferson quote Jaffa refers to:

“All eyes are open to or opening to…the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”  

Jefferson in his turn had borrowed the metaphor. It was made famous by Richard Rumbold. Rumbold was a British subject executed for his political views in 1685, shortly before Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. In his famous “Speech from the Gallows", he declared:

“I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”

To us, Jefferson’s words have a very clear meaning: that “the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few [born] booted and spurred” means human beings are not born subject to the rule of monarchs and aristocrats who have political power by right of birth.

Although Rumbold said “none comes into the world with a saddle on his back [nor does anyone come into this world] booted and spurred”, he uses the image in service of a very different political vision than Jefferson’s—and ours. In the same speech, just before his execution, Rumbold denies that he is “antimonarchical”:

“It was ever my thoughts that kingly government was the best of all where justly executed; I mean, such as it was by our ancient laws—that is, a king, and a legal, free-chosen Parliament—the king having, as I conceive, power enough to make him great; the people also as much property as to make them happy; they being, as it were, contracted to one another!”

The Glorious Revolution which followed soon after Rumbold’s execution did not put an end to monarchy in Britain, nor did it even seek to end monarchy. Neither it nor Rumbold were “antimonarchical.” The Glorious Revolution kept the monarchy, and brought in William and Mary in order to put the monarchy on a new, improved basis. The new arrangement included the Bill of Rights and other reforms that put some limits on royal power. The intent was kingly government, as Rumbold’s said, “justly executed.”

You might think that Rumbold and those who carried out the Glorious Revolution were simply unwilling to confront the obvious conclusion that if none are born to rule and none are born to be ruled by others born to rule, then the world was done with government by monarchs and titled aristocrats. And you would be right.

The traditional British unwillingness to stray very far from their tradition becomes somewhat understandable when you consider what happened when the French got around to having their revolution. The French Enlightenment exalted abstract reason. Consequently, the French revolutionaries were perfectly willing to draw the logical conclusion that the time for monarchy and the aristocracy was over. As a result, the French Revolution was decorated with human heads displayed on pikes. The French traded monarchial tyranny for the tyranny of the Jacobin mobocracy and eventually the tyranny of Napoleon. The French actually voted to make Napoleon their emperor, in effect choosing to put saddles on their backs and to be ridden by those booted and spurred and ready to ride them.

But the Americans did not establish a new monarchy like the British nor did they fail catastrophically and then in defeat humiliate themselves by choosing a new and even worse tyranny. The Americans drew the conclusion embedded in Rumbold’s metaphor, and went on to create a regime of liberty unlike anything that had existed before. Because Jefferson was thinking differently, the booted and saddled image meant something different to him than it did to Rumbold.

What made the difference in America? Unalienable rights, of course. The “palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred” alone does not get you to the American founders’ idea of equality. To get to the American idea of equality you must introduce unalienable rights. 

After all, what was the idea at the core of the American founding? Was it not the Founders’ radically new understanding of our rights? According to George Washington, the American founding occurred at a time “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.” Alexander Hamilton put it like this:

“The sacred rights of mankind 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 new understanding of the rights of mankind that electrified the Founders was the idea of unalienable rights.  Jefferson, Adams, and the other Founders were all about unalienable rights. According to the Founders, our unalienable rights, as Adams wrote in the quote at the head of this article, are “natural’ and “essential.”

The important point if we are to understand the Founders is that unalienable rights are fundamentally different from the kind of rights conferred by the British Bill of Rights. After the Glorious Revolution put an end to the Stuart dynasty, rights were granted to the British people by a royal sovereign as a condition of him becoming their new king. The British awarded the throne to William of Orange—who was from the Netherlands—and his co-monarch wife Mary on the condition that William agreed to a Bill of Rights as part of the deal.

The American founders had a very different conception of rights. Unalienable rights are not rights granted by a ruler as part of a political bargain but are natural and essential and inherent to each individual human being. 

The French revolutionaries did not follow the example of the Americans on unalienable rights. Instead, they followed the political doctrine of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In Rousseau’s political vision, everyone surrenders all their rights and submits to the general will which then creates and maintains absolute equality. Everyone and everything must be subject to the general will. What is required, Rousseau wrote, is “the total alienation of each associate, with all his rights, to the whole community.” 

Unalienable rights would have made it possible for the British and safe for the French to confront the absurdity of hereditary power.

It is all there in the Declaration:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…"

Note that unalienable rights get the greater share of attention—twenty-one words as opposed to six and two complete clauses instead of one. That reflects the Founders’ special emphasis on unalienable rights.

The problem for us is that living as we do on that dark continent of forgetting we see even this statement which we all know through a glass darkly. What to do? I propose to disassemble into its elements and then re-assemble in order to give it the opportunity to speak to us afresh. Let’s first consider the elements and then the structure. 

Listing the elements gives us these four:

Self-evident truths

Created equal

Unalienable rights

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

Restoring the structure and making the structure graphically evident, we get:

Self-evident truths

1. that we are all equal

2. that we all have unalienable rights

3. that among those unalienable rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

However, 3 simply offers examples of unalienable rights.  Consequently, 2 and 3 can be shown like this:

2.  that we have unalienable rights

a. examples are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Putting this together, we get:

Self-evident truths

1. that we are all equal

2. that we all have unalienable rights

a. examples are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

Let us note in passing that in the Declaration, “self-evident truths” occupies the highest position.  Setting aside that fascinating discussion for now, our layout of the elements makes it clear that that we are all equal and that we all have unalienable rights can now be placed side-by-side precisely as they are in the Adams quote with which we began:

We are all equal. We all have unalienable rights.

These truths are two sides of the same coin.  For the American founders, we are all equal in that we all possess unalienable rights equally; these two truths are at heart one truth:

We are all equal. We all possess unalienable rights equally.

This way of relating our equality and our possession of unalienable rights provides a very precise definition to the Founders’ idea of equality. Endowed equally with unalienable rights by our Creator, we are created equal.

By the way, the Founders learned to think about our rights in terms of alienability/unalienability from the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Here is Hutcheson on rights: “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable.” His book, A System of Moral Philosophy, arrived in 1755, just in time to influence the thinking of the founders.  When Hutcheson turns in that book to discussing equality—he calls it “natural equality”—he also takes up a version of the Rumbold image, minus the boots and saddles:

“Had providence intended that some men should have a perfect right to govern the rest without their consent, we should have had as visible undisputed marks distinguishing these rulers from others as clearly as the human shape distinguishes men from beasts.”   

It is interesting to note that his most precise statement regarding our equality makes it clear that we are naturally equal because our natural rights belong equally to all:

The natural equality of men consists chiefly in this, that these natural rights belong equally to all.”

Why “chiefly”? Because, of course, any account of our natural equality must also include the absence of “visible undisputed marks distinguishing…rulers from others.” But our natural equality mainly, principally, primarily consists in our equal possession of our natural and unalienable rights.

The Founders understood that the golden coin of natural liberty has two sides, on one side our natural equality and on the other our unalienable rights. According to the standard set by the Declaration, creating a regime of liberty meant the Founders had to design a system of government which, unlike the British regime of the time, would recognize our natural equality, and which, unlike the various attempts of the French, would secure our unalienable rights. That was the challenge laid down by the Declaration and the task taken up by the men who gathered in Philadelphia and crafted the Constitution.

“We the People” no longer understand equality—the moral and natural touchstone of our experiment in self government. Consequently, we are in danger of losing the Founders’ gift, our republic of liberty. Equality decoupled from strong individual rights inevitably results in the despotism that has occurred everywhere it has been tried. Abandoning the Declaration Standard according to which our natural equality and our unalienable rights define each other has made it possible for the enemies of natural liberty to substitute a counterfeit, now in wide circulation in our nation. This debased coin of the political realm is easy to recognize. On one side, there is the debased understanding of equality; it claims to legitimate the redistribution of wealth, robbing Peter to pay Paul. On the other side, in the place of unalienable rights, there are the dictates of political correctness; they more and more determine which of our thoughts and feelings are forbidden and which are required. Americans who accept this counterfeit without protest do so because they have forgotten or never knew the look and feel of the real thing.

Our only salvation is a return to the Founders’ common sense understanding of natural equality and unalienable rights.

Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea, from Encounter Books.

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