1689 or 1776?

K. S. Bruce has written a thoughtful and informed commentary urging America to adopt the “1689 Project” in place of the 1619 Project. 

As you probably already know, the 1619 Project is an ugly attempt by the Left to persuade the uninformed that America was founded as a slave nation and is still today a systemically racist one. Bruce proposes 1689 instead because that year marks the beginning of the Enlightenment Era. The year 1689 misses the target, however, as surely as 1619 does. The Enlightenment Era did begin in 1689 and America is the quintessential Enlightenment nation, but 1776 is still the right choice for America’s founding year—which means President Trump’s 1776 Advisory Commission picked the correct year for its report to the nation. 

Because the Enlightenment Era began in Britain, 1689 marks the beginning of the British Enlightenment—but the American Enlightenment was a far cry from the British Enlightenment, and by 1776 the differences were deep and wide. 1689 might be a good pick for the year the British should rally around, but let’s leave that decision to them. 

Enlightenment thinking spread from Britain, but its fate was very different wherever it traveled. The French Enlightenment took a significantly different direction than the British one, and the American Enlightenment took yet another direction from both the British and the French. Voltaire in France was as different from John Locke in England as Thomas Jefferson was from either one of them.

Bruce notes a key distinction between the British Enlightenment and the American Enlightenment in this way:

Locke’s own writings described “life, liberty and the pursuit of property,” which the American Framers adapted to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But setting up the two lists in this way is actually quite misleading. Bruce even misquotes Locke, making it seem that Jefferson only changed the last item in a list of three. This version leaves out the most important point. For Locke, property is the overarching concept. Locke puts property front and center:

Man . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.

By glossing over the antecedent of Locke’s list, Bruce’s sentence creates a false impression. To make this clear, let’s put Locke’s version of the list and the Declaration’s version of it in context and side-by-side:

Man . . . hath by nature a power . . . to preserve his property—that is, his life, liberty and estate.” 

“Men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, . . . among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Locke’s triad is appended to property. The Declaration’s triad is appended to unalienable rights—and property is missing. With the actual contexts in place, we are faced with two fundamentally different accounts.

But even that does not go far enough. By declaring in favor of unalienable rights, the American founders were explicitly rejecting Locke’s account of our rights. Moreover, they did so in a way that was in their time instantly recognizable to anyone at all familiar with Locke’s account. The founders’ rejection of Locke’s thinking was obvious then yet goes unrecognized today because, unlike the Founders’ generation, we no longer know the meaning of the word “alienable.”

“Alienable” has a precise definition, unchanged from the founders’ day to our own. Here is how my dictionary defines alienable: “adj. Law. Capable of being transferred to the ownership of another” (emphasis added). That is the complete definition in my dictionary. “Alienable” refers to our right to our property. Our right to our property is an alienable right; it is because our right to our property is alienable that we can sell, exchange, and bequeath it. If I sell or give you my car, I have transferred the ownership of the car to you. You then become the rightful owner of the car, and, because your right to the car is alienable, you can sell or give it to another. 

But our unalienable right to our life and our unalienable right to our liberty are not our property; they cannot rightfully be sold or transferred as property can be. It is because our right to our life and our right to our liberty are unalienable rights that they are surrounded by the elaborate legal safeguards of due process, including the right to a trial by jury. These legal safeguards are a far cry from the relatively simple process of transferring ownership. 

To say that we have unalienable rights is to say that Locke’s account of rights was mistaken. 

In fairness, Bruce’s version is standard fare. Open any book or scholarly paper which discusses the Declaration and you are likely to read that Jefferson substituted the “pursuit of happiness” for “property.” Part of the problem is that it is entirely too easy to state it that way. But doing so completely misrepresents what Jefferson did, and completely misrepresents the founders’ thinking. John Adams spells it out a bit more completely for us: 

All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

In the words of George Washington, America’s Founding took place during a time “when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined than at any former period.” And it was the idea of unalienable rights that was most important to the founders. 

In fairness to Locke, though he got it wrong, he deserves the credit for instigating this astonishingly productive debate about our rights; it was perhaps the most important philosophical debate in history. The wise often remind the rest of us that mankind makes progress via trial and error. There can be no better example of that profound truth than what happened between 1689 and 1776. 

If you would like to take a deeper dive into the distinction between alienable and unalienable, you can do so here

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