Rights of Man – Part the First

“If…man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally?”

     Paine’s question, early in “Rights of Man Part the First,” assumes great significance when considering civil society and governance. Perhaps more important are the answers themselves, for the answers one gives provide significant insight into that person’s view of government.

     What, then, are those rights and from where are they derived? Paine defines two general categories, natural and civil, thusly:

“Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in rights of his being a member of society.”

     Paine’s definition of “natural rights” were, as mentioned previously, summarized by Thomas Jefferson as being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, though Paine would also include private property as well. What is most intriguing here is that Paine argues that liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and private property are directly linked to the right to life, saying that natural rights “appertain to man in right of his existence.” Implicit in Paine’s argument is that these rights are inviolable provided exercising of these rights does not infringe upon another’s pursuit of their own natural rights. This is the general philosophy of the modern Libertarian Party in America and may be generally considered the dominant attitude of the American public. 

     These rights are also reflected in the first two amendments of the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition allow for unfettered criticism of government. Freedom of religion prevents government interference in matters of conscience. Finally, the right to keep and bear arms not only allows for self-defense, but is that last line of defense against tyrannical government.  

     Civil rights, in this treatment, appear to be mostly an afterthought. Paine’s contention here is that civil rights only exist in civil society; therefore, these would generally include the rights to vote, a jury trial, protection from criminals as well as foreign threats.  

     These arguments bring us now to the second question – the origin of the rights of man. With regard to natural rights, Paine says

“…the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?…Because there have been upstart governments, thrusting themselves between, and presumptuously working to un-make man.”

Paine also goes on to say:

“The illuminating and divine principle of the equal rights of man (for it has its origin from the Maker of man) relates, not only to the living individuals, but to generations which preceded it, by the same rule that every individual is born equal in rights with his contemporary.”

     These statements may be succinctly summarized by another phrase penned by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Both men are explicitly stating that “natural rights,” as Paine defines them, are derived directly from God and are a consequence of our humanity. This question has vexed America for decades now, with many believing that these rights are derived not from God but from government. It is for this reason that, as Paine asserts, governments have “[thrust] themselves between, and presumptuously working to un-make man.” Only after the connection between man and God is destroyed can natural rights be usurped.   

     We arrive now at our most important question – do modern Americans have more or fewer liberties than at the time our Republic was founded? In “Rights of Man,” Paine observes

“Man did not enter into society to become worse than he was before, nor to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured. His natural rights are the foundation of all his civil rights.”

      Are then, the rights of modern America better secured or do we have fewer of them? Ostensibly, it would seem that our rights are better protected. Over the course of American history, slavery has been abolished, women and minorities have been guaranteed the right to vote, and civil rights laws have been passed which seek to end institutionalized discrimination. These are all spectacular achievements in the protection of Americans’ civil rights.
But what of our natural rights? Have these been as well protected and championed?

     Consider the most important of all rights, without which no other right may exist – the right to life. The right to abortion on demand is considered and essential part of “women’s rights” in modern America; yet, can it not be said that a woman exercising her “right to choose” is, to use Paine’s term, injurious to the baby’s natural right to life?    

     Contemplate also the right to private property. In many areas of the United States landowners are severely restricted in their use of their privately held land due to endangered species laws or other environmental concerns. Can we truly refer to this as “private property” if government controls its use?    

     Finally, ponder the right to liberty. Current estimates show that the United States’ public debt at the end of the next decade will be in the range of $15 – 20 trillion, a sum nearly beyond comprehension. With outstanding public debt this high, are American citizens not merely slaves to their government, working simply to pay down this debt?    

     These are serious and important questions that deserve serious debate and reflection.

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 10:23 pm  Comments (5)