Forgetting the Founders

In a recent column at the American Spectator, Robert Stacy McCain makes a most astonishing claim: “We Americans have inherited our liberty in the same way that the British have inherited their Queen.” This is not a playful aside. McCain makes this claim a number of times, at one point putting it this way: “[O]ur rights as Americans have been bequeathed to us as an inheritance . . . the rights of Englishmen were likewise inherited, through the same historical processes by which the king inherited his crown.” (Emphasis in the original.)

The American founders would be astonished and dismayed by this claim. They rejected the idea of inherited rights. They are perfectly clear about that.

Here is Thomas Jefferson: “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 . . . ” John Adams put it this way: “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights.” Here is Alexander Hamilton: “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.”

In short, according to the founders, our right to life and our right to liberty are not inherited, they are inherent; our unalienable rights are intrinsic to, and inseparable from, our nature as rational beings and moral agents. 

The “historical processes” that over time gave rise to the rights of Englishmen were a sequence of concessions of privilege wrested from royal sovereigns. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84:

Such was the MAGNA CHARTA, obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John . . . Such, also, was the Declaration of Right presented by the Lords and Commons to the Prince of Orange in 1688, and afterwards thrown into the form of an act of Parliament called the Bill of Rights.

The British claim their rights are the accretion of deals made by a sequence of sovereigns when those sovereigns were under duress due to historical circumstances. In the American idea, we possess certain unalienable rights by nature. 

Claiming we Americans have our rights by inheriting them does not simply get the founders’ understanding of rights wrong, it overthrows the American idea of government.

We the American people are sovereign; in the founders’ vision, ours is a government by, for, and of the people. That the British “have inherited” their royal sovereign and that their royal sovereign, in turn, has “inherited his crown” means that the Brits are subjects, not citizens; along with the rights they claim to have by inheritance, the British have inherited the condition of being subjects of a royal sovereign. McCain, in an interesting aside, raises the question of how we are to understand just who inherited whom: “the British have inherited their Queen—or rather, has the Queen inherited the British?” 

When the British people take a stand for their liberty, they can lay claim to the rights they believe they have by inheritance—but that is not the American way.

Let’s take a closer look at Adams’ words: “All people [even the British] are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights [rights they have by nature, not inheritance].” You will notice that the founders were not simply saying they had an idea of rights that is different from the British idea; they were saying the British idea is mistaken. The founders claim that a British person, like people everywhere, is born free and equal. That is the reality, whether or not the person understands it. It is also the reality whether or not, or to whatever extent, the regime in place where a person is born recognizes it.

Of course, history matters, here as in Britain. Every generation of Americans has the responsibility to preserve the founders’ gift of constitutional government and to pass it on to the generations to come. But when we take a stand for our liberty, the American way is to lay claim to our unalienable right to liberty. That is what America’s founders did.

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