What Our Founders Believed Rights Are

What Are Rights? This Is What the American Founders Believed

By: Dan Sanchez

In 1776, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that everyone is endowed with “unalienable Rights.” Years later, the Bill of Rights elaborated on those rights.

Subsequently, the rights of many (although not all, tragically and atrociously) Americans were secured to a greater degree than in any polity in human history. The results were spectacular and gave “rights” a luster that has endured to this day.

But the word “rights” has long since been hijacked by enemies of the original idea of rights. To steal the prestige earned by that idea, they have hitched the word to their favorite government-granted entitlements. They champion “rights” to welfare, health care, education, internet access, etc.

But, this is far removed from what the American founders meant by rights. They meant what their philosophical hero John Locke meant. So, let’s explore what Locke meant by rights.

In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke wrote that, “every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.”

In modern usage, “property” refers to external possessions. But in Locke’s time, the word encompassed anything that is “properly” owned by someone, including one’s own body. For every human being, the exclusive use of his own “person” or body is “properly his,” as Locke wrote. This later became known as the doctrine of “self-ownership.”

Locke then posited that when an individual works on previously un-owned natural resources, he appropriates those resources: i.e., makes them his property. Locke referred to such property in external goods as an individual’s “possessions” or “estate.” An individual can transfer ownership of any of his possessions to anyone else, either in exchange or as a gift.

All of the other rights that Locke posited in his Two Treatises (the right of self-defense, the right of revolution, etc.) are extrapolations of these two fundamental rights: the right of self-ownership and the right to own external possessions, either through original appropriation (or “homesteading”) or through being the recipient in a voluntary transfer of ownership.

Thus, for Locke, and by extension for the American founders, “rights” are ultimately a matter of ownership or “property” in the original broader sense. Individuals have rights to their “lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property,” as Locke wrote.

This means that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…” To deprive someone of life by murder, health by assault, or liberty by coercion would violate that victim’s “property in his own person.” And to deprive someone of possessions by theft would violate the victim’s “estate,” i.e., property in those possessions.

This is what the authors of the Declaration of Independence were referring to when they proclaimed the “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” And this is what the framers of the Bill of Rights were elaborating upon when they drafted the first ten amendments of the US Constitution.

By “rights,” they did not mean government-granted entitlements. Indeed they would have rejected such entitlements as incompatible with true rights. Government can only enforce someone’s phony “right” to welfare, health care, education, or internet access by depriving someone else of their genuine rights: either by seizing their earnings or commandeering their labor.

And such rights violations only serve to hamper much more effective—and rights-respecting—private efforts to abundantly provide goods and services like material security, health care, education, and internet access.

It was respect for genuine rights, not the provision of government-granted entitlements, that made the American experiment the wonder of the world. And only a re-embrace of rights will make America exemplary again.


The above article (What Are Rights? This Is What the American Founders Believed) is republished here with permission and attribution to the author Dan Sanchez and Foundation for Economic Education.

TLB recommends that you visit the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) for more great articles and information.

This article was originally published on Dan Sanchez’s Substack publication “Letters on Liberty.”

About the articles Author: Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in chief of FEE.org.

Note: In-Article image added by TLB Staff & Graphic in Featured Image (top) pixabay liscence


Related Article by this Author:

What Our Founders Meant by Equality


Checkout TLBTalk.com:

Click Here to Visit the TLBTalk.com Site


Welcome to the TLB Project Neighborhood

TLBTalkRepublic Broadcasting NetworkThe Liberty BeaconThe Butcher Shop



Stay tuned to …


The Liberty Beacon Project is now expanding at a near exponential rate, and for this we are grateful and excited! But we must also be practical. For 7 years we have not asked for any donations, and have built this project with our own funds as we grew. We are now experiencing ever increasing growing pains due to the large number of websites and projects we represent. So we have just installed donation buttons on our websites and ask that you consider this when you visit them. Nothing is too small. We thank you for all your support and your considerations … (TLB)


Comment Policy: As a privately owned web site, we reserve the right to remove comments that contain spam, advertising, vulgarity, threats of violence, racism, or personal/abusive attacks on other users. This also applies to trolling, the use of more than one alias, or just intentional mischief. Enforcement of this policy is at the discretion of this websites administrators. Repeat offenders may be blocked or permanently banned without prior warning.


Disclaimer: TLB websites contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available to our readers under the provisions of “fair use” in an effort to advance a better understanding of political, health, economic and social issues. The material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving it for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material for purposes other than “fair use” you must request permission from the copyright owner.


Disclaimer: The information and opinions shared are for informational purposes only including, but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material are not intended as medical advice or instruction. Nothing mentioned is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

1 Comment on What Our Founders Believed Rights Are

  1. Rights smites… Those don’t matter anymore, especially a RIGHT TO LIFE (since Dobbs all of a sudden rediscovered the 10th Amendment while ignoring all other LIFE language in our Founding Documents (especially the 14th Amendment))… We are clearly a POST CONSTITUTION MOBOCRACY the Left has been working toward for Decades (likely more like 150ish+ years)… Their endless twisting of language (like “Promote the GENERAL Welfare” to create individual Welfare handouts State) and shifting to “EQUITY” (their latest fetish) vs “EQUALITY” like you discuss in your related piece reference here-in. Which I am thankful for your piece today, and as I somewhat addressed in my first ever ORIGINALIST FEDERALISTS VS TODAY’S FASCI-FEDERALISTS piece here on TLB, and will expound upon in my piece next Sat the 19th. So, again, THANK YOU for your writings, and especially this very timely piece now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.