The Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property

By Diane Rufino

The Constitution was written for those in whose name it was cast – “We the People.”  Why was it written for the People?  As the Preamble explains, it was written so that people and their posterity would know what to expect from their new government. Basically the government would protect citizens from internal strife and from attack from the outside, but most importantly, it would defend individual liberty.  In other words, the Founders did not establish the Constitution for the purpose of granting rights but rather for the purpose of protecting rights.    

The Constitution was also written to memorialize the notion that sovereign power rests with the individual and not with the federal government or any governmental agency.  Power starts at the bottom and trickles up to the government and not the other way around.  When this concept is understood, then Americans can have to proper perspective to understand the Constitution.  As Patrick Henry explained: “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; It is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it comes to dominate our lives and interests.”    

Our Founders were able to recognize that power rests with the People because of Natural Law, a philosophy put forth by Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman lawyer and statesman, and later by the British philosopher, John Locke.  Natural Law, the bedrock principle of our founding documents, states that our rights come from God and not from any government.  It was reasoned that certain human liberties are so fundamental to one’s existence that they must come from our Creator.  In the grand order of the world, God reigns supreme, over the world and over all nations, and because he has created us in his image, he gives each of us a spark of his divinity through intelligent thought, the ability to reason, and wisdom.  No other living being is capable of such deep thought, profound wisdom, and reflective reasoning.  Because humans share reason with our Creator, and because our Creator is presumed to be benevolent, it follows that we too will be benevolent, when employing reason correctly. Reason and benevolence is termed “right reason” and is the foundation of law.  As such, law promotes good and forbids evil; it promotes good conduct and punishes evil conduct. Our Founders studied such examples in the Old Testament. They noted how laws emerged so man could defend his life and property.  In forming into a community, individuals agree to surrender or transfer some degree of their natural rights to a government which is able to better protect those rights better than any man could do alone.  And that is why the Constitution reads, in the Preamble:
 “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
It states the precise reasons “We the People” agree to transfer a certain degree of their natural rights to the federal government, and just as the philosophy of Natural Law explains, the reasons are for the purpose of providing safety and protection and for protecting rights and liberties more effectively. The reason the federal government can establish justice, for example, is because the right to protect one’s life, liberty, and property originally lies with the people, in their inherent God-given rights.  The rights are transferred to the government.  Hence we have the police, our criminal laws which are supposed to deter crime and force persons to conform to good conduct, and the criminal justice system.

Because government exists solely for the well-being of the community, any government that breaks the compact can and should be replaced, according to natural law.  And again this goes back to the premise that since our rights come from God and not out of the benevolence of the government, the government has no authority to take them away. 

Only the United States has a Constitution, or legal foundation, that is premised on the fact that our rights come from God. And this is important because in this country, more than in any other nation, our fundamental rights should be respected and protected by government.  That is why we refer to our nation as the “American experiment.”

We acknowledge that the views and the writings philosopher John Locke played a crucial role in our Founders’ view of liberty.  His influence was most apparent in the Declaration of Independence, the constitutional separation of powers, and the Bill of Rights.  James Madison drew his most fundamental principles of liberty and government from Locke.  Locke inspired Thomas Paine, George Mason, Benjamin Franklin, and others.  Thomas Jefferson believed Locke to be the most important thinker on liberty and natural rights. 

Drawing inspiration from John Locke, Jefferson, the drafter of our Declaration of Independence, our charter of freedom, believed strongly in the right to property, which he understood to be part of the natural right to pursue happiness. He believed that government is morally obliged to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty, and property, and our government, as based on limited powers and the principle of checks and balances, was crafted to protect these fundamental rights.  The Declaration was initially written to read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by the Creator with certain natural rights that among these are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursuing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”  This language was believed, especially according to Virginia’s George Mason, to be a literal improvement of Locke’s phrase “Life, Liberty, and Property.”

Locke established that private property is absolutely essential for liberty: “Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.”  He explains that the primary reason for men to organize themselves into societies and to institute a common government is for “the Preservation of their Property.”  Certainly, the right to property and the right to the fruits of one’s labor (including compensation) are as fundamental a right as the right to life itself.

Locke believed people legitimately turned common property into private property by mixing their labor with it, improving it.  He insisted that people, not rulers, are sovereign, which also happens to be the bedrock principle underlying our Constitution.  Government, Locke wrote, “can never have a Power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the Subjects Property, without their own consent.  For this would be in effect to leave them no Property at all.” He makes his point even more explicit: rulers “must not raise Taxes on the Property of the People, without the Consent of the People, given by themselves, or their Deputies.”  Thus, according to Locke, an individual’s labor, his intellect, his personality, the good will he earns through his honest and ethical conduct, and the fruits of all of these are his PROPERTY and are to be protected with the greatest zeal by any legitimate government.

Locke went further and affirmed an explicit right to revolution: “Whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence.”

In 1772, John Adams wrote “The Rights of the Colonists,” which he delivered to a Boston Town meeting.  He started his historic document with these words: ” Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.”  As the colonists were British subjects at the time, Adams further wrote in his essay: “The absolute rights of Englishmen and all freemen, in or out of civil society, are principally personal security, personal liberty, and private property.”

Arthur Lee of Virginia (1775) wrote: “The Right of property is the guardian of every other Right, and to deprive the people of this, is in fact to deprive them of their Liberty.”  William Blackstone, the great British legal scholar, wrote: “So great is the regard of the law for private property, that it will not authorize the least violation of it; no, not even for the general good of the whole community.”  Ayn Rand, author and philosopher, wrote: “Just as man can’t exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality, to think, to work and keep the results, which means: the right of property.”  And finally, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association–‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.'”  Frederic Bastiat, a French economist, wrote: “Each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of one is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.”

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About forloveofgodandcountry

I'm originally from New Jersey where I spent most of my life. I now live in North Carolina with my husband and 4 children. I'm an attorney
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