What do the Founding Fathers say about natural rights?
"I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe."
From John Adams, A dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law, 1765
"Among the natural rights of the Colonists are these: First, a right to life; Secondly, to liberty; Thirdly, to property; together with the right to support and defend them in the best manner they can. These are evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature."
From Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists, 1772
"This is what is called the law of nature, 'which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.' Blackstone.
Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety. …
'The principal aim of society is to protect individuals, in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature; …' Blackstone. …
I would recommend to your perusal, Grotius, Puffendorf, Locke, Montesquieu, and Burlemaqui."
From Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted, 1775
"That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
From George Mason, The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776
"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, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
From Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Are all the founding fathers on the same page? It is clear that they reject the thesis that rights are a human convention. And it’s clear that they attribute rights to a supreme being. But do they agree how and when? The dominant thesis is that rights were created when man was created—as an inherent unalienable part of his being. If this is so, conventions, covenants, and commandments, created after man came into being are not and can not be a source of natural rights—even God’s covenants. Hugo Grotius, to take Hamilton’s recommendation, explains this as follows:
“Natural right is the deictate of right reason, shewing the moral turpitude, or moral necessity, of any act from its agreement or disagreement with a rational nature, and consequently that such an act is either forbidden or commanded by God, the author of nature. The actions, upon which such a dictate is given, are either binding or unlawful in themselves, and therefore necessarily understood to be commanded or forbidden by God. This mark distinguishes natural right, not only from human law, but from the law, which God himself has been pleased to reveal, called, by some, the voluntary divine right, which does not command or forbid things in themselves either binding or unlawful, but makes them unlawful by its prohibition, and binding by its command."
There is God, the author of nature, and God who issues subsequent commands.
"Now the Law of Nature is so unalterable, that it cannot be changed even by God himself. For although the power of God is infinite, yet there are some things, to which it does not extend. Because the things so expressed would have no true meaning, but imply a contradiction. Thus two and two must make four, nor is it possible to be otherwise."
In other words, once man was created, his nature, including his rights, are a metaphysical fact as certain as the law of identity. But what about the covenants in the Bible?
"The very meaning of the words divine voluntary right, shows that it springs from the divine will, by which it is distinguished from natural law, which, it has already been observed, is called divine also. … Now this law was given either to mankind in general, or to one particular people. We find three periods, at which it was given by God to the human race, the first of which was immediately after the creation of man, the second upon the restoration of mankind after the flood, and the third upon that more glorious restoration through Jesus Christ. These three laws undoubtedly bind all men, as soon, as they come to a sufficient knowledge of them."
I'm not raising an epistemological issue—how do we know about rights? It's the metaphysical issue that concerns me. Where in reality are rights? According to Grotius and most of the founders, it is in human nature from the very moment man was created. It is a very part of his being and unalienable. If this is true, neither man's covenants nor God's can change this fact. Did the Founding Fathers all agree?