From the Rights of Englishmen to the Inalienable Rights of All Men

Daniel Hannan writes in the Wall Street Journal today about Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary will also be celebrated at a Cato conference next week. Alas, he persists in an error that I regret to say he’s made before.

Hannan is a great advocate of liberty and particularly of English liberty. His patriotism is admirable in an English representative to the European Parliament. But he fails to grasp the shift in the idea of liberty that took place in America in the 1770s. Hannan, I think correctly, celebrates Magna Carta as the great foundation of ordered liberty, of what I have called the greatest libertarian achievement in history, bringing power under the rule of law:

As Lord Denning, the most celebrated modern British jurist put it, Magna Carta was “the greatest constitutional document of all time, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.”

It was at Runnymede, on June 15, 1215, that the idea of the law standing above the government first took contractual form. King John accepted that he would no longer get to make the rules up as he went along. From that acceptance flowed, ultimately, all the rights and freedoms that we now take for granted: uncensored newspapers, security of property, equality before the law, habeas corpus, regular elections, sanctity of contract, jury trials.

But he goes wrong when he glosses over the change in thinking that occurred around 1776 in the American colonies:

The American Revolutionaries weren’t rejecting their identity as Englishmen; they were asserting it. As they saw it, George III was violating the “ancient constitution” just as King John and the Stuarts had done. It was therefore not just their right but their duty to resist, in the words of the delegates to the first Continental Congress in 1774, “as Englishmen our ancestors in like cases have usually done.”

Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights. On the contrary, they were very clear that they were fighting for the privileges bestowed on them by Magna Carta. The concept of “no taxation without representation” was not an abstract principle. It could be found, rather, in Article 12 of the Great Charter: “No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm.” In 1775, Massachusetts duly adopted as its state seal a patriot with a sword in one hand and a copy of Magna Carta in the other.

I recount these facts to make an important, if unfashionable, point. The rights we now take for granted—freedom of speech, religion, assembly and so on—are not the natural condition of an advanced society. They were developed overwhelmingly in the language in which you are reading these words.

When we call them universal rights, we are being polite.

It’s true that the colonists came here with the spirit of English liberty running in their veins. They brought with them the books of Locke and Sydney, the examples of Lilburne and Hampden, the writings of Edward Coke. In the 18th century they read Cato’s Letters and William Blackstone. They petitioned Parliament and the king for their rights as Englishmen. 

But the Declaration of Independence marks a break in that thinking. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to write “an expression of the American mind,” he did not appeal to the rights of Englishmen. Instead, the Americans declared:

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. (emphases added)

They appealed not to the British Parliament nor to King George III, but rather to “the opinions of mankind…a candid world…the Supreme Judge of the world.” Hannan glosses over this when he makes reference to 1774 and writes, “Nowhere, at this stage, do we find the slightest hint that the patriots were fighting for universal rights.” True, not in 1774. But by 1776, when Thomas Paine published Common Sense, in which he defended “the natural rights of all mankind” and denounced kings as “ruffians” and “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti,” and the Continental Congress made its case on the basis of the unalienable rights of all men, American thinking had changed. Americans declared their belief in universal rights and their independence from a nation that denied those rights.

As I was researching this post, I found a similar argument from Tim Sandefur a year ago. Alas, Hannan persists in making this error year after year. Besides citing the argument of the Declaration, Sandefur presents in evidence the thoughts of John Quincy Adams on the 50th anniversary of the Constitution:

English liberties had failed [the Patriots]. From the omnipotence of Parliament the colonists appealed to the rights of man and the omnipotence of the God of battles. Union! Union! was the instinctive and simultaneous cry throughout the land. Their Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, once—twice had petitioned the king; had remonstrated to Parliament; had addressed the people of Britain, for the rights of Englishmen—in vain. Fleets and armies, the blood of Lexington, and the fires of Charlestown and Falmouth, had been the answer to petition, remonstrance and address.

Independence was declared. The colonies were transformed into States. Their inhabitants were proclaimed to be one people, renouncing all allegiance to the British crown; all co-patriotism with the British nation; all claims to chartered rights as Englishmen. Thenceforth their charter was the Declaration of Independence. Their rights, the natural rights of mankind. Their government, such as should be instituted by themselves, under the solemn mutual pledges of perpetual union, founded on the self-evident truths proclaimed in the Declaration…. The omnipotence of the British Parliament was vanquished. The independence of the United States of America, was not granted, but recognized. The nation had “assumed among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station, to which the laws of nature, and of nature’s God, entitled it.”

Daniel Hannan is a thoughtful, forceful, and eloquent advocate of liberty under law. But he needs to read the Declaration of Independence and respect what it says, that the United States of America, though inspired by the tradition of English liberty, was founded on the self-evident truth that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that those rights reside in all men and women in every country of the earth.