The English apprentice John Lilburne, writing during the mid‐17th century English Revolution, was the first person to develop a recognizable natural rights philosophy. In some 80 pamphlets, he attacked intolerance, taxes, censorship, trade restrictions and military conscription. He championed private property, free trade, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a rule of law, a separation of powers and a written constitution to limit government power. These incendiary ideas crossed the Atlantic where they were taken up by Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and others, and Lafayette — who played a key role in our Revolution and in the overthrow of two kings and an emperor — championed the ideas in Europe.
Critics have claimed that natural rights are too vague to be meaningful, and they have promoted the doctrine of “positive law.” This basically means laws are legitimate when made by legal processes. But slavery was legal around the world. Nazism was legal. What is one to do when laws support slavery, mass murder and other practices we consider morally unacceptable? Democracy is no help, since majorities have supported terrible things at one time or another.
When William Lloyd Garrison energized the American abolitionist movement during the 1830s, he didn’t make a legal case for emancipation, because provisions of the Constitution supported slavery. He had to make a case independent of law. He drew on the natural rights principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence to launch his great moral crusade. He frequently cited the Declaration in his speeches. “Black children,” he insisted, “possess the same inherent and unalienable rights as ours…”
In July 1847, when housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited four friends in Waterloo, New York, they decided to hold a meeting about women’s rights. They needed some kind of statement explaining what they wanted. They realized they could do no better than the natural rights philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Stanton drafted what became known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments and went on to launch the movement for women’s rights.
When, during the 1950s, Martin Luther King began leading peaceful protests against state‐enforced racial segregation, he couldn’t make a legal argument, because the legal system supported compulsory segregation. He, too, had to look outside the law and develop a natural rights case. In August 1963, at the March on Washington, King appealed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence when he said: