Lost in Translation

The founders declared we have rights that are “unalienable.” Today, when we discuss those same rights, we generally use a slightly different word; “inalienable” is now the preferred usage.

Does this difference matter at all? After all, your dictionary will tell you that each is a synonym for the other. But what if this difference points toward something important? 

Although both unalienable and inalienable were in use at the time, Jefferson chose to use unalienable in the Declaration of Independence and elsewhere in his writings. The other founders preferred unalienable, too. Here, for example, is John Adams in the Constitution of the state of Massachusetts: “All people are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential and unalienable rights . . .” To read the founders is to witness them nearly always choosing unalienable. 

There is little doubt about what influenced Jefferson’s choice. It is well known that Jefferson was a devoted follower of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Francis Hutcheson (and of Hutcheson’s close philosophical follower Dugald Stewart).  It was Hutcheson who invented this demarcation of our rights, so important to the founders, and Hutcheson who set the example for the founders’ choice of “unalienable.” Jefferson, in writing the Declaration and throughout his adult life, consistently relied on Hutcheson’s thinking and used Hutcheson’s terminology. By using the language of Francis Hutcheson, the founders were acknowledging and pointing to the source of their thinking about our rights.

Here is Hutcheson on our rights in his book A System of Moral Philosophy (1755): “Our rights are either alienable or unalienable.” 

There is only one letter of difference between “unalienable” and “inalienable” but the founders’ choice of “unalienable” tells us something important about which thinkers they were reading and which thinkers they were relying on in the great task of the founding. Anyone familiar with the writings of Francis Hutcheson will instantly recognize that the founders were using Hutcheson’s language and relying on his understanding of our rights.

This means that the difference between “inalienable” and “unalienable” is actually profound. “Unalienable” provides us with a key to understanding the founders and the founders’ thinking—and America’s drift away from the founders’ usage reflects America’s drift away from the founders’ thinking.

Because Hutcheson’s analysis of our rights was rooted in a brilliant and devastating criticism of John Locke’s account of our rights, the founders provide us with eternal testimony about the true source of their understanding of our rights. They also fortify us against those who try to convince us that the founders were reliant on Locke’s account of our rights.

If you would like to take a deeper dive into this fascinating subject and also explore Hutcheson’s critique of Locke on rights, you might find this of interest.

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