A New Message: II. On Human Rights and Government
JUNE 01, 1976 by JACKSON PEMBERTON
This continues a series of articles in which the author draws upon the extensive collection of the thoughts of the Founding Fathers and lets them speak to us relative to the problems we face in the United States today.
We had two alternatives: to yield to arbitrary regulations, unreasonable taxation, and meddling in matters that rightly appertain to one’s private life; or, to resist. At the outset, our resistance amounted to petitions, emissaries, and other appropriate measures; but those efforts only solicited greater oppression instead of the relief we sought. Finally, in alarm for the safety of our most fundamental rights, and resolved by King George’s declaration that we must submit or conquer, we went to war.
Your condition is similar to ours; in some regards better, in others worse. You can employ your Constitutional prerogatives to rectify the abuses of your government; but, on the other hand, you do not recognize the full import of the encroachments being madeupon your rights. Human rights was a subject we were wont to discuss, and it contributed the principal motive in our fight for liberty. The desire of my heart, in your regard, is to give you a. full comprehension and a forceful conviction of both the type and source of your natural rights, for that would animate, empower, and guide you in your response to the growing intrusions of your government. In consequence of that wish I invite you to the following discussion. Please bear with me, for I mean to be brief but refuse to be superficial.
First, consider a stone. Does it have the right to occupy a part of the earth? What then of a poplar tree: has it the right to push aside the stone, to mine the ground for its sustenance, and to inhabit its portion of the world? Then reflect upon the beaver. Has it not the right to harvest the poplar and construct a home for itself and offspring? What is the source of the obvious rights of these things? They are inherent and intrinsic in their very beings. Their rights are not some attachment or appendage, but an integral part of their very existence, placed there by a wise Providence in the instant of their creation. So it is that man, in like fashion, is endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights: the divine rights of man.
Please observe how the rights of the poplar superseded those of the stone, and the beaver’s rights were greater than the tree’s; so man infringes upon the rights of them all for his own purposes, all of which is in harmony with the order of creation. Similarly, man is subject to the rights and powers of the Almighty, his Creator. Therefore, the entire essence of the matter of men and governments is revealed in the question: which is greater, the creator or the created? It seems so simple, does it not? Yet that is the crux of the struggle for freedom in all ages; and you should remember that anyone who would put government above man seeks to invert the order of creation and is in rebellion against his Creator.
Let us not cloak the matter of human rights in any mantle of mysticism: they do not arise from some philosophical argument, or inscrutable religious dogma; they are as real as the powers from which they spring! What precisely is a right? It is the authority or prerogative to use an inherent power or capacity. All creatures come into existence with certain powers and the necessary authority to employ them; or, to what use is a power if there be no right to exercise it?
Like the stone, the poplar, and the beaver, man is created with his characteristic abilities. He is conceived to think, feel, act, and influence people and things about him; and if he have those faculties, he must also have the right to use them. Any other condition denies him the exercise of those attributes which make him what he is, and transforms him into some lower order of creation. He is endowed by his Creator with powers to build and to destroy, and the right to use those powers according to his own free will.
But, if every man is to have free and equal use of his inherent abilities (which is what we meant by "created equal"), then the one man must be restrained from intruding upon the rights of the other; for, if one man be given the right to trample the rights of another, then the first has power over the very soul of the second, to prevent him the free development of his potential. It is precisely at this point that the requirement for good government arises; to insure that men will be restrained from abusing their powers by inflicting their own will upon their neighbors.
You will notice that government has no rights to give to man, but can only operate in the negative role of prevention and punishment, to discourage man from the wrongful employment of the powers and rights he already possesses. But more than that, notice that when those who direct the government (whether its officers or the citizens who elect them) take upon themselves the supposed authority to use the force of government upon other citizens to wrongfully infringe upon their rights, then government is made to operate in direct opposition to its only legitimate purpose for existence: then there is oppression. To whatever degree men use government to impose their will upon their fellows, to that degree are they tyrants.
You have allowed yourselves to be taught the concept that government is a creature in its own right; that it has its own inherent rights and powers. That is common nonsense! Government is nothing without officers to run it and citizens to respect it. Strictly speaking, there are no good or bad governments (some are more wisely organized than others), but only good and bad men. If your government has run afoul, it is not the fault of your government, for you will find it very difficult to discover ways to improve your Constitution in its ability to prevent government officials from misusing their authority. Nay, the error is not in the Constitution, it is in those who have abused the public trust in violation of the Constitution, and it is in those who have allowed them to continue in that abuse.
You will do well to ponder these thoughts carefully in your minds and hearts, for upon these concepts rises the plan of government which has given greater protection to the divine rights and powers of man than any other in all history. If you fail to understand these things, you will not understand your Constitution, and if you do not understand your Constitution, you will not be able to keep it.
Now go back with me a moment and notice that the foremost attribute of the rights of the stone, the poplar, and the beaver was their right to property; and what is more, if that right be denied them, they would be unable to fulfill the purpose of their existence. The stone would have no place, the tree no nourishment, and the beaver no hope. Likewise man, in consequence of his existence, has the right to earn, own, and control property of all types. To deny him that divine right is to destroy his opportunity to realize the fulfillment of his being and to place him lower in the order of creation than the stones beneath his feet! An impossible concept? Then beware of those who seek to direct you in the use of your property!
Now consider the rights of two men in relation to each other. Can one have more rights than another by virtue of his being? We might as well ask if the one has a greater right to attain fulfillment or to pursue happiness (as we were wont to say) than the other. No, not among men; they are created equal in all their rights. As soon as we allow the one more right than another, so soon do we declare that the one should be master and the other servant. Neither can any man appoint himself ruler over another without casting himself as the embodiment of oppression.
And finally, consider two men acting in concert. Do they, by reason of their number and association have any greater right than either of them alone? No. They may form alliances, plot, and plan, but strive as they may, they cannot conjure up any greater rights than they possessed before they were organized. The reason for this is not difficult to ascertain: societies, alliances, and governments are only abstractions, conveniences of thought and speech, and have no real, tangible existence in and of themselves. They are but words representing interrelationships established among men through the exercise of their individual powers.
If a society or government had a palpable being of itself, it too would contain its own intrinsic source of rights; but all such are merely groups of purposes, rules, actions, and persons, only the last of which possesses tangible being and its attendant rights. Therefore, no organization, regardless of the exalted or base nature of its goals, can correctly exercise any rights greater than those of its creator, man.
Listen well my children, for it is ignorance of this principle which has allowed you to sleep while your government gained so much control of your lives, and by the same token, it is by the re-establishment of this precept that you will extract yourselves from its grip.
Were men governed by angels, there would be no need for governments administered by men; but the natural man is everywhere his own enemy and full of mischief, which necessitates an organization able to protect the inherent rights of its members from the abuse of their fellows. Thus men delegate a portion of their rights to governments in order to protect all their rights. Good government must derive its powers from the consent of the governed, for as surely as it steps beyond that authority, so surely does it partake of the whole spirit and intent of tyranny.
Therefore, government must be restricted to those activities which any one of its citizens might rightfully pursue; for if the individual have not the right, how shall the government obtain it save by creating some supposed right out of nothing? Thus the difficulty in framing a good government lies in this: that it first must be given the power to restrain its citizens from violating the rights of their fellows, and at the same time the citizens must be able to control their government lest it gain the upper hand. The purposes for which good men create governments are to protect their lives and rights from domestic and foreign dangers, and to assure them the peace and liberty in which they may reach for the heights of their noblest dreams.
We wittingly formed a limited federal government, a necessary instrument of national security, and the people consented to endow it with authority by ratification of the Constitution. It would be disappointing enough if your government were now only huge, clumsy, and misused by ambitious men; but it has manufactured rights out of thin air and now imposes itself upon you under the pretense of assumed powers. There is one of your greatest dangers. You must regain control of that usurpative monster ere it swallows all your rights, for when it has accomplished that it will have consumed the purpose of your lives also.
I perceive that you do not fully comprehend that your government has presumed to create rights unto itself, and thereby violated yours; consequently I shall make that the topic of a future discussion. For the purposes of this treatise, I wish to turn your attention to the magnificent and satisfying rewards which may obtain in a truly free society. Let me give you a glimpse of the vision that animated us during our discouragements and led us victorious through the perils of our revolution.
One of our troubles was the belief held by some of our countrymen in the divine right of kings; although, the only difficulty with that doctrine was that it was limited to the person of the monarch, whereas in truth, every man ought to recognize his divine right and obligation to correctly and justly administer the affairs of his own kingdom.
Every human being has a kingdom, a province which consists of all the persons and things for which he is responsible. Those within his province have likewise their individual realms of dominion; the child has his possessions and household chores; the parents have their children, the home, and their livelihood; the local alderman has his ward; and so on: and every man, as both king and subject, must respect the rights of his charges to their lives, liberty, property, and happiness. By administering with equity, charity, and humility, he may attract to himself other persons and things which would be pleased to place themselves under his influence. It is a heavenly order wherein each is allowed the free exercise of his rights and talents, and each is responsible and accountable for his own conduct. Clearly, there is the system where all can develop their character and talents to the fullest. There is the key to noble human progress.
It is especially necessary for you to understand the relationship between parent and child, as you have some difficulty in that matter. As man is the creation of, and in subjection to the Almighty, so ought children, partially the creation of their parents, be in like subjection to them until they are of age.
The Almighty does not force his will upon you, but gives you counsel and love, and holds you accountable for your actions; let parents regard their children in like fashion. Your children have been taught to rebel against your authority and to claim immunity to the laws to which they have not assented. Has the Creator asked our assent in respect to His laws? A child has neither the discipline nor the wisdom to live without the law or to assist in its formation; but a child, for the sake of order in society and its own protection, is obliged to obey the law, for that is in harmony with the order of creation and the plan of a free society.
In such a society, each man is free to pursue those occupations to which he is best suited and which will bring him the greatest satisfactions (within the law). The indolent poor are allowed to continue in the state they have chosen, and the misfortunate poor and the aged come by their condition with honor. The rich who are wise enough to share their plenty have no cause to rebel at the thought of transferring some of their excess to those who lack, and find in the attempt the personal rewards of compassion and charity. Thus can man lift himself and those about him. For one man to lift another, both must be free; all else is mastery and servitude, a polarity which ever tends to evil.
Now consider the full measure and meaning of true liberty, that sublime state we envisioned as we framed the Constitution, and the dream that lifted America to a higher plane than any nation has achieved before or since. Only in a society where each individual is allowed the free exercise of his rights and faculties and is held responsible for his actions, can he have complete opportunity to approach the realization of the full capacity of his being, and fulfull the purpose of his existence. And what is that purpose? Nature answers all around that as sand is made to stone, and poplar seed to poplar tree, and young beaver to adult engineer; so man, the child of God, should strive to use all rightful means to draw to himself wisdom and noble influence, so that he may, as much as possible, bless all in his province through love, counsel, and liberty. That was our vision. Now it is yours.
Next: III. On The Constitution
Our writer…tells us that formerly the right of taxation was in the King only. I should have been glad if he had pointed us to that time. We know that kings — even English kings — have lost their crowns and their heads for assuming such a right. ‘Tis true this strange claim has occasioned much contention, and it always will as long as the people understand the great charter of nature upon which Magna Charta itself is founded, — No man can take another’s property from him without his consent. This is the law of nature; and a violation of it is the same thing, whether it be done by one man who is called a king, or by five hundred of another denomination…
–SAMUEL ADAMS, Boston Gazette, JAN. 9, 1769