Equal and Inalienable Rights
When most of us think of “rights,” we imagine things we are free to do, like speak our minds, or practice a religion, or sell something that we have made. We assume, when we imagine these actions, that there is nobody stopping us from doing them. When we study history, however, we realize that many people in the past lacked—and a great many around the world today still lack—the freedom to exercise many of the rights we take for granted.
The American Founders, however, argued that people have rights regardless of whether they are able to put them into practice. This is why they called these rights “natural.” They are part of what it means to be a person. They could be denied and violated, but only under carefully limited circumstances could they rightfully be taken away. Governments were legitimate to the extent that they protected rights. Those that arbitrarily took them away possessed no moral authority.