The Founding Fathers aren’t very popular in public high schools these days. Apart from a cursory and incomplete introduction to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, much of what our Framers wrote is ignored.
Every once in a while, however, a teacher or administrator might quote what she thinks is Thomas Jefferson’s rationale for public education, as if our current fixation on “college and career readiness” were what he had in mind when he wrote: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
Ironically, though, many teachers are ignorant of the very things Jefferson thought necessary for a free civilization. I became aware of this during some acrimonious labor negotiations between my school district and its teachers union. In various ways, the union warned that my rights (and my students’ rights) were in jeopardy if the district didn’t accede to the union’s demands.
The freedom Jefferson had in mind depends on understanding the conceptual and philosophical foundation upon which one can claim a “right” to anything. If that foundation erodes because of negligent education institutions, Jefferson expected the walls of our self-governing republic to topple.
What Can Be Considered a Right?
We often hear of one’s “right” to education or health care, although these are not rights in the technical sense. As the things we are told we have a “right” to grows each year, why shouldn’t a 5 percent raise be considered a teacher’s right?
The rhetoric of rights is appealing. Label whatever you want a “right” and you tip the scales in your favor. However appealing the tactic may be, however, is conceptually incorrect and politically dangerous.
A “right” is not something you deeply desire. The Founders understood that a right is a constraint upon others not to violate what humans do by nature of being human. The very concept of “rights” implies a belief in human nature. In the words of Alexander Hamilton, “The sacred rights of mankind…are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the Divinity itself; and can never be erased.”
You Have a Right to Do What Humans Do By Nature
Rights are not given to us by governments, but they are recognized and protected by the best governments. Rights are ours by nature, which is to say that humans, by nature of being human, do certain things. To protect someone’s rights is thus to protect one’s freedom to live a fully human life.
To offer an analogy: a flower, by nature, absorbs nutrients from the soil and sun and blossoms in the spring. That’s what it means to be a flower. Absorbing nutrients and blossoming in spring are its rights, for that is what it does according to its nature. A society seeking to protect the natural rights of flowers would constrain anyone wishing to stop the flower from doing what flowers do. Thankfully, though, we don’t yet live in such a world.
But humans do have rights. The Founders not only held beliefs about our nature but made a value judgment on that nature. Thus we have “rights,” chief of which is the “right to life,” to secure the sacredness of human life. We also reason and, acting on that reason, we pursue human flourishing; thus we have the right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
By definition, humans reason and act in accordance with that reason. Jefferson can write “all men are created equal,” a phrase that perplexes many of my students who find it patently false after a cursory empirical investigation. But to say “all men are created equal” is to state the obvious: we are all human and we all do what humans do. It’s an obvious but profound and deadly idea, undermining anyone claiming a right to rule by nature over anyone else.
Consequently, this view of human nature entails the right to self-governance. As rational animals exercising reason and striving after our own ends in community with others doing the same, we all have the right to participate in creating the laws under which we live.
In light of this view of human nature, our Bill of Rights safeguards those rights in order for us to fully live as humans. To offer two examples: freedom of speech safeguards our rights both to participate in self-governance and to reason with our fellow humans. And the freedom to bear arms safeguards both our very lives by allowing us to defend ourselves and our right to “alter or to abolish” any government failing to protect our rights.
Rights Aren’t Just Things That Would Be Nice To Have
Contrary to what many students learn in school, rights are not things that we think would be nice or even things that we need to live. For example, an education is not a right if it means that someone must teach me what I don’t know. A “right to an education” is not a constraint upon others to safeguard my human nature, but a demand imposed on others to satisfy a want.
To fulfill one’s illegitimate “right” to an education, someone’s else’s real right to liberty would be violated, for one must be forced to educate you if no one does so willingly. Yes, education is important, but it is not a right. If we institute a system of free, universal education, it should be done so by mutual consent of all involved and should be eliminated or altered when the majority deems necessary. In other words, free, universal education might be a good idea or a good policy, but it is not a right. The same goes for health care and raising teachers’ salaries.
To wade into more controversial territory, much of what is said regarding gay rights or transgender rights also misses the mark. What gay and transgender rights activists fight for are not rights, but definitions.
Prior to 2015, gays weren’t denied their right to marry. They could have married if they had wanted to—if they married someone of the opposite sex. Marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman (for the sake of producing and rearing children). But activists claimed that everyone had the right to marry the one they love, not realizing they were talking nonsense: We don’t marry the one we love by nature of being human, so it’s not a right.
Marriage is a religious and civic institution, not a right by nature. Now, we might get married as a result of acting on our reason to attain human flourishing, but that arrangement is only officially a “marriage” if the marriage-granting institution declares it is a “marriage.”
So to say that marriage is not a right is not to say that government can bar you from entering into a marriage, as was the case with miscegenation laws. But to redefine the traditionally understood definition of marriage to accommodate modern notions of sexuality is not a “right.” After 2015, gays were not finally given their right to marry. But the definition of “marriage” in our civic institutions was changed.
Similarly, transgender people do not have the “right” to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with. A transgender person could use the bathroom of their biological sex if they chose. To allow them to use the bathroom of the sex they identify with would not be to finally grant them their rights. It would be to inscribe into the policies that govern the use of public restrooms a new definition of sex that contradicts biology. If such a change occurs, it wouldn’t be a win for anyone’s “rights.”
Gay and trans activists often claim the mantle of the civil rights movement. It’s rhetorically effective but conceptually incorrect. Blacks were denied their right to fully participate in our self-governing republic, which is theirs by nature. The same can’t be said for those who at one point weren’t allowed to marry the one they loved or those wishing to use a particular bathroom over another equally functional bathroom.
Human Rights Are Often Used, But Poorly Explained
When we understand that rights are constraints upon others to safeguard what we do by nature, we will see that there can only be “human rights.” A right, by definition, is universal, arising from our nature as humans. Fighting for “teachers’ rights” is contradictory if it means something specific to the particular profession of teachers, like getting a 5 percent raise. Humans don’t get 5 percent raises by nature, unfortunately.
Fighting for “teachers’ rights” only makes sense if something that all humans do by nature is specifically denied to teachers, as was the case prior to the recent Janus Supreme Court ruling. Teachers, it turns out, can’t be forced to fork over a portion of their paycheck to a union supporting political causes that violate their conscience. That was deemed a violation of teachers’ free speech, as they were forced to support speech with which they did not agree. Ironically, though, the Janus decision infuriated many of the same teachers claiming to fight for the “right” to a higher raise.
The confusion is not merely semantic. Students are told in various ways throughout their schooling that “human rights” are the end-all and be-all of our civic life. But then they are never told what rights actually are, and they never stop to ask. As a result, their passion is not governed by reason.
Many sincerely believe that “health care is a human right,” which, to them, means society must stop at nothing to provide free health services to everyone. There is an argument to be made for free, universal health care, but consider what happens when that argument is framed as an issue of human rights. A “right” is seen as something that is given or withheld by others, not something written in the whole of human nature. Our rights by nature become just another policy decision made by bureaucrats and politicians, like all the “rights” for which our modern activists fight.
John Dewey, the father of progressive education, would appreciate students’ growing indifference to religious liberty, free speech. and the right to self-defense. A moral relativist, Dewey criticized the Founders for believing in natural rights predicated on eternal truth.
“They had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves,” he writes. “Not natural rights but consequences in the lives of individuals are the criterion and measure of policy and judgment.” Students’ indifference to those natural rights becomes hostility when those rights impede their ability to fashion the world according to their consequentialist principles.
Misunderstanding Civil Disobedience
During the March for Our Lives walkout demonstrations last year, many of my students felt the exhilaration of protesting and civic participation. The walkouts so happened to coincide with my unit on civil rights and civil disobedience, and they viewed the opportunity to advocate for gun control legislation by walking out of school as a moral obligation in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. Only a few experienced the cognitive dissonance upon learning the truth.
Thoreau and King broke the laws that violated their rights. For Thoreau, the Mexican-American War violated the natural right to self-governance, as it was funded without the consent of the governed, and it violated the natural rights of the Mexican nationals being invaded by the U.S. Army. So he stopped paying his taxes. For King, segregation was a violation of human equality entailed by natural rights, so he defied segregation ordinances. Both courageously broke laws that stood in the way of human liberty and willingly suffered the consequences.
By contrast, my students skipped class to advocate for more laws, not fewer—and then asked to not be marked absent. Which laws or policies would actually lead to fewer school shootings was unclear to them, so they took aim at the Second Amendment itself, arguing that it was antiquated and no longer needed; their civil rights activism was anything but.
I’m not blaming them for their ignorance. They are just kids, after all. If we’re lucky, more of them might one day learn the truth about their “sacred rights,” and “the volume of human nature,” and “the hand of Divinity” which writes them both. If we’re not so lucky, at least I got my raise.
The author has published with The Federalist before and is anonymous here to avoid reprisals from the author’s mandatory labor union.