“Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right to do what we ought.” – Lord Acton
Today, people across the United States will march in parades, set off fireworks, and don red, white, and blue to huge family cookouts, all in celebration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. In the years since those first Americans pledged their loyalty to the philosophy of natural rights and the equality of all men, the document has remained a national symbol of pride and freedom. However, in the years since the founding of the country and the later drafting of the Constitution, the true intentions of the Founders and the spirit of their work has become intermittently lost and misunderstood.
Among the most common and consequential misunderstandings is the idea that the Founders were worshipers of rights for their own sake, radical individualists with the goal only to secure those liberties to which humans believe, through reason or instinct, they are entitled. In truth, even among libertarian heroes like John Locke or Founder Thomas Jefferson, the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were not in pursuit of license. In fact, many of those who formed and secured the natural rights tradition of the American Founding outright rejected the idea that rights exist for their own sake, without a higher purpose or end. Our freedoms were thought to exist and were secured for much more than a pleasure-guided exercise of free will. (more…)