Unalienable Rights: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We all expect to have political rights, but some rights are greater than others. In this lesson, we will explore the concept of unalienable rights and see where this idea came from and what it meant to the development of America.

Unalienable Rights

As people of the modern world, we're pretty comfortable with the idea that some rights are just guaranteed. We expect a freedom of speech, a freedom to worship whatever religion we want and, let's be honest, we believe that we are owed a certain quality of life, meaning we expect to always have at least enough to survive. These rights are different than say, the right to drive, which can be revoked if you mess up enough times. You see, we embrace this idea that some rights are more important than others. In fact, we believe that some rights are not even a matter of politics, but a fact of human existence. The unalienable rights are those which can never be forfeited. They are fundamental parts of humanity, the basis for moral interactions between people and are irrevocable. So, they're a big deal. But, it wasn't always this way. Let's take a look through the history of unalienable rights and see where this idea comes from that we all enjoy so much today.

The Enlightenment

For centuries, philosophers and governments debated what sort of rights people had. For the most part, people weren't assumed to have any guaranteed rights, especially those of the lower classes. Then, around the 17th century, something started to change. As people like Sir Isaac Newton began questioning the traditional assumptions about the universe, like the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe, they looked for new and scientific ways to prove what was true and what wasn't. This trickled into economics, politics, and philosophy, and emerging scholars began to challenge all of the traditions their cultures had followed for centuries, instead testing and experimenting with different ideas on a search for universal moral truths. We call this entire period the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment was all about challenging tradition, so philosophers and political thinkers started questioning ideas about the power of the government over the power of the people, and they came to the conclusion that governments only have power because the people give them power. This meant that all people, peasants and laborers included, had political power and therefore deserved political rights. A few thinkers in particular took this even one step further. John Locke argued in the 17th century that humans had some natural rights, those that were not given by the government but instead were given by God. Thus, it would be immoral for a government to try and suppress these. Locke identified these as the rights to life, liberty, and property. Later, around 1725, a Scottish scholar named Francis Hutcheson formally divided the rights of humans into alienable rights, those that could be voluntarily surrendered by people in order to make the government strong enough to function, and unalienable rights, those which could never be given up.

John Locke was a major figure in the Enlightenment
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Unalienable Rights in the American Colonies

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the ideas of the Enlightenment circulated the world. Some people didn't like them too much, like the King of England, but other people found these ideas pretty interesting. In particular, the British colonists in North America were fascinated by concepts like the government owing its existence to the people and the natural rights guaranteed to all. American colonists discussed these ideas themselves and even experimented with them to a degree in their own local colonial governments. Then, in the mid-18th century, after the British government started heavily taxing the colonies without granting them proper representation in the British Parliament, the American colonists really started putting the Enlightenment ideas into practice. The first major use of the ideas of unalienable rights actually appeared in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document drafted by George Mason in 1776. This document asserted that all men had inherent rights, and that this list included the right to overthrow oppressive government.

Thomas Jefferson
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