“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, “
This quote is, of course, from the beginning of the Declaration of Independence or more properly, a letter to King George III and the Parliament of Great Britain. It is an explanation of why the thirteen American colonies have declared themselves independent of Great Britain and will be forming a new nation state. It is, by the by, actually 1320 words long, (that would be more than five pages if it had been typed up.)
The Declaration is revolutionary in its direct challenge to the concept of the Devine Right of Kings. Did you ever stop and think about the “Royal We”? Probably not, but it is derived from the concept of God and I, so that when the King speaks he speaks for himself and, by virtue of his Devine Right, for God. This concept is flung to the wind by the statement of equal creation wherein, any man is created equal to the King, and so say the representatives of the Continental Congress in convention at Philadelphia. But is what they say actually correct?
The concept of Devine Right comes from deep in history wherein he who was the strongest claimed the right to tell others what to do. He would claim the favor of the gods and were he to fail, that failure would be attributed to the gods withdrawing their favor from him. It was a cyclical concept with each leader who overthrew another claiming a direct contract from the gods or god when the majority of the known world became monotheistic. With the growth of Christendom the favor of god begin to run through the church with Kings and Princes seeking the approval of the Pope and his Cardinals.
Thus, the Declaration of Independence became world famous because it said, we don’t believe in the history of Devine Right. One of the oddities of 1776-1779 is that when discussing what form of government should replace the King/Parliamentary concept, Alexander Hamilton actually toyed with the Idea of a King George I of American in the person of George Washington. It would be interesting to know if he was thinking of an elected king or a king appointed by the Congress.
None the less we have discussed the concept of equality before. We know that every man, woman, animal or other living thing are, in fact, not born equal. There are physical, mental, chemical, emotional capabilities and a host of other areas where unequal abilities reside. Were all men (as a species) equal it would have been much more difficult for someone to exert himself physically or mentally over others. As much as we would like to shout “Right makes Might,” we must admit that even now “Might makes Right.” It isn’t whether the majority of ballots are on the right side, it’s just the number of ballots in the boxes. A bad idea is still a bad idea regardless of how many people think otherwise.
But, back to rights and the concept that they are somehow God given. The truly operative part of the first lines of the declaration isn’t about being endowed by the Creator, but the very real necessity that to secure these rights governments are instituted by men. If they were truly God given then they would exist outside the social compact. Thus, the latter idea invalidates the former, for if the rights were God given they would be protected by God. Rather the rights exist because groups of men (again as a species) form governments to create and place boundaries on the rights of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and a slew of other such conditions claimed as rights. In fact they are not rights at all, but rather privileges granted by the government at the request of the people responsible for forming the government. We speak of rights as if they exist in a vacuum, but they don’t. For example there is no right to housing or right to an education or right to health care. Rather, they also, are privileges granted by a compact of people who come together to empower a government.
The founders understood this reality and struggled with whether to name God at all in the document. Neither Jefferson’s first draft or Adam’s first editing have any religious connotations whatsoever. There are three other religious references in the Declaration : “Supreme Judge of the World; Laws of Nature and Nature’s God; Devine provenance.” No one knows how “Creator” wound up in the first lines. Perhaps Jefferson decided to use it as a poke in the eye for George III as in “you may assert Devine Right but you have no more claim to the title than any other human for we are all created equal in the eye of the Lord.”
Regardless, the original concept of rights as proposed by the founders and expressed in the Declaration of Independence did not assert that rights came from God, but that rights were created when men came together in a social compact wherein all men were equal under law. Then, having won the War of Independence and constructing a constitution they went back and created a Bill of Rights to define the rights of a citizen and to protect that citizen from an over zealous government. But that’s another discussion.