What About the Founders?

Brad Littlejohn at The American Conservative has an enthusiastic review of Nigel Biggar’s recent book, What’s Wrong with Rights? According to Littlejohn, American conservatives are badly confused about rights, but fortunately Biggar is the guide “conservatives stand in urgent need of.”

But Biggar’s guidance leads to an astonishing conclusion. Littlejohn tells us that “Biggar spends no less than five chapters investigating the question, ‘Are there natural rights?’”—only to conclude the answer is “no.”

How would American conservatives adopting Biggar’s conclusion clear up confusion about rights? After all, adopting it would put American conservatives in direct conflict with the American founders. 

On rights, the founders were perfectly clear. Here is John Adams: “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.” 

Littlejohn strikes a very different tone. He rejects the language of natural rights, writing that natural rights “to ‘free speech’ and ‘free exercise of religion’” would be “boundless rights, granted by nobody to everyone.”

How would American conservatives cutting their ties to the founders’ conception of rights natural, essential, unalienable, and sacred reduce any confusion they might have about rights? Perhaps only by putting American conservatives in agreement with American Progressives at the most fundamental level. Here is Woodrow Wilson, the very model of the modern Progressive, on rights:

No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle . . .

Whether or not Littlejohn is correct that American conservatives are confused about rights, it is certainly true they have been subjected to a chorus of voices on the Right assailing the founders’ vision. Perhaps Littlejohn and others like him are creating confusion about rights, instead of bringing clarity to the subject.

Robert Stacy McCain is a member of that chorus of voices. In a recent column at the American Spectator, he makes an 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 crystal clear about that. 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. (I discuss McCain’s article here.)

K.S. Bruce recently joined in, urging Americans to adopt the “1689 Project” in place of the “1619 Project.” Like Littlejohn and McCain, Bruce’s solution is that we eschew the founders as our guides and look to other things to find our way.

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 remains a systemically racist one today. Bruce proposes 1689 instead because that year marks the beginning of the Enlightenment Era.

The year 1689, however, misses the target as surely as 1619 does. 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. By 1776, the differences between the British and the Americans were deep and wide, and the founders’ understanding of rights is at the core of the differences between them. (I discuss Bruce’s article here.) 

Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post goes to an even greater extreme than Bruce. In a recent column at The Spectator, he rejects the whole 400-year project of liberty in the West. He argues that four centuries of striving for political liberty in the West has failed, that the liberty project delivered us into tyranny because the seeds of tyranny were there from the beginning. If Ahmari is correct, one thing is certain: we cannot rely on the American founders to lead the way; their ideas have betrayed us. (I discuss Ahmari’s article here.) 

Ahmari’s argument is very similar to what Patrick Deneen argues in his book, Why Liberalism Failed. According to Deneen, today’s illiberal politics and cultural decadence can be traced directly to the founders’ ideas. (I reviewed Deneen’s book here.) 

Setting aside for the moment the interesting question of who is more confused about rights, American conservatives or this chorus of voices, I’d like to dissent from the chorus and instead suggest American conservatives take to heart these words of Abraham Lincoln’s, from a speech he gave at Lewistown, Illinois in 1858:

Now, my countrymen, if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with the great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence; if you have listened to suggestions which would take away from its grandeur, and mutilate the fair symmetry of its proportions; if you have been inclined to believe that all men are not created equal in those inalienable rights enumerated by our chart of liberty, let me entreat you to come back. Return to the fountain whose waters spring close by the blood of the Revolution. 

Amen.

 

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