Inalienable rights

July 4, 2010




Genesis 1:26-27

 “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.


By January of 1776, it was obvious to the American colonials that King George III was not going to moderate his demands upon the colonies. Even though the rebellion had been going on for a year, many Americans had hoped for some sort of reconciliation with their government, but eventually they realized that was not going to happen. Thomas Paine, in a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense,” had said it made no more sense for America to continue to have allegiance to Britain than for a young person to continue living with their family into old age, and that was the consensus of the Continental Congress. On June 11, 1776, Congress asked a “committee of five,” consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, to draft a document formally declaring the independence. The five men met together and determined that the most suitable person to do it was Thomas Jefferson, even though he was the youngest member of the five. In fact, Jefferson was the youngest member of the Congress but a brilliant young man. He had already written the preamble to the constitution of his own state of Virginia. So Jefferson went to his lodgings, got his little writing desk, put it on his knee, and set to work. He finished his initial draft and sent it round by messenger to the lodging of his good friend, Benjamin Franklin, who also consulted with John Adams. Adams read it and felt that he certainly could not match the literary skills of Jefferson, so he did not make any recommendations, although he did say, that he had some reservations about George III being called a tyrant.

Benjamin Franklin, who made his money in printing and publishing, however, went through the documents with more care and made a number of suggestions, all of which Jefferson accepted. The draft declaration was then taken to the Congress, and they did what committees tend to do -- they started going over it, and they made many changes to what Jefferson had written. Jefferson was not particularly happy about this.

In the end the document was passed after various things had been taken out. The major section that was deleted was Jefferson's scathing indictment of slavery. Franklin and Adams and the other two men agreed with Jefferson on this, but South Carolina absolutely refused to approve the document if that was left in, so this passage was taken out. Interesting, isn’t it, that Jefferson—who bought slaves, who owned slaves, who worked slaves, who made money out of slaves, who bred slaves, and did other things with slaves, which we cannot talk about in polite society—wrote this denunciation of slavery, but then Jefferson was a man of monumental contradictions. In any case, the vote was taken: twelve in favor, one abstained. NY abstained. Thus, the thirteen colonies declared their independence.

Included in that Declaration of Independence was a critical statement, that indicated that our Creator has endowed us with certain inalienable rights. Now we’ve got to understand what that meant in the mind of Jefferson. Jefferson was rised in the Anglican church, which became the Episcopalian Church after the Revolution. Previous to the Revolution, there was no freedom of religion in Virginia. The Anglican church was the state church. In order to run for office, you had to be a member of that church. So Jefferson was raised Anglican and remained in the church, but he was never an orthodox Christian. He was what was called in that time a deist. He believed in one God, who created the earth and all its creatures, but after that God pretty much left the earth on its own. Jefferson did not believe that God answers prayer, he did not bleive in miracles. He did not believe that Jesus was the incarnate son of God. He did believe that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Jefferson was a shcolar who read the NT in the original Greek and produced his own version of the NT in which he cut out everything that he did not like. So Jefferson, when he spoke about a Creator God, was thinking in terms of a God who created the world, who set it in motion, but who is no longer actively involved in it.

Jefferson believed that the world had to be run by human beings without divine intervention, but he believed that the Creator had endowed His creatures with the ability to do that. He believed that human beings have unalienable rights derived from God. We are created in the image of God as Genesis says, and therefore we have the abilities to become lords and stewards of creations.

So that is some of the background to the Declaration of Independence that was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The Declaration lists our grievances against George III and declares that people have natural or unalienable rights that no government has the right to overthrow. the second sentence is one of the best known sentences in the English language: “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.”

to say that these rights are unalienable is to emphasize that they are rooted in our very nature. We are born with them we cannot be deprived of them. The word “unalienable” means “not to be separated from,” “not to be given away or taken away.” these rights belong to us by nature. We cannot give them away, we cannot lose them. They are an essential part of our being. Government does not give you these rights. You have these rights because you are a human being. No government or religion or human institution can give you these rights or take them away



The first right Jefferson mentions is “LIFE.” You have a right to be here. You have a right to live, and not just to live. The Bible speaks of abundant life, a life of joy and blessedness. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV).



But when we read the Declaration of Independence, we primarily think about liberty. The statue of liberty sits on Liberty Island, it used to be Bedlow Island till 1957 when they changed the name to Liberty Island. The statue stands 305 feet and one inch from the base of the pedestal to the top of the torch. It was given to us by the French government in 1884 and the thing was so big they had to build it in the streets of Paris. The USA paid 284 thousand dollars to build the base, and the French contributed 250 thousand dollars to build the stature. Today “the lady,” as New Yorkers sometimes call her, is priceless. in 1903 Emma Lazarus inscribed these words on a tablet on the pedestal:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Freedom is certainly a word for July 4. Jefferson defined freedom in one of his letters, saying, "Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual."[Letter to Isaac H. Tiffany, April 4, 1819 in Appleby and Ball (1999) p 224.] What Jefferson is saying is that obviously we do not have the freedom to do anything we want. We do not have the freedom to harm other people. But notice what Jefferson said, he said that the law is not the defining restriction on your natural liberty. The rights of others is what restricts your libery. Government cannot create a right to liberty, it can violate that right. The limit of an individual's rightful liberty is not what law says it is but is simply a matter of not oppressing or hurting other people, In other words Jefferson wanted us to apply what we call the Golden Rule, “do unto other as you would have them do unto you.” Or maybe he would have put it negatively. Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.



The last “unalienable right” Jefferson mentions is happiness. Actually Jefferson did not say you have the right to be happy. He said you have the right to try to be happy. Jefferson believed God has given us the capacity for happiness. This raises a question. If we have the capacity for happiness, why are there so many unhappy people? Why are there so many unhappy people in America where we have unprecedented opportunities to pursue happiness?

Well, for one thing, many derive their happiness from what happens to them. For many people, happiness is dependent on their happenings. If their happenings happen in the way they want them to happen, then they are happy, but if their happenings do not happen in the way they want them to happen, then they are unhappy. To say the same things in other words. As long as everything is going along fine, they are feeling good, but if things turn bad, they are feeling bad.

They have what we might call an “Oklahama happiness.” I mean the musical Oklahoma. The chorus of one song says,

Oh what a beautiful morning,

Oh what a beautiful day,

I've got a wonderful feeling,

Everything's going my way.

Now this approach to happiness means that people spend an inordinate amount of time, money, and energy trying to manipulate events, so that things happen the way they want things to happen, but the sad reality is this: There comes a time when you realize that all your skills, and all your time, and all your energy, and all your money cannot manipulate things so that they work out the way you want them to. Thus if you base all your expectations on events and things, you will inevitably be unhappy.

The problem is that many people pursue happiness where it is not to be found. Psalm 1:1 says “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” the word “blessed” literally means “happy” and “fulfilled.” Notice then the lesson of this verse: It tells us first where we will not find happiness. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked.” You won’t find happiness there. “Nor stands in the way of sinners.” You won’t find happiness there. “Nor sits in the seat of the scoffers.” You won’t find happiness there.

Then verse 2 tells us where we will find happiness. “But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” the first word in verse 2 is a wonderfully critical little word, “But.” What does the “but” say? In marked contrast to the person who was walking in the counsel of the wicked, or standing in the way of sinners, or sitting in the seat of the scornful, we have a person here whose delight is in the teaching of the Lord.

What does that mean? What is this teaching of the lord? It is this: you came from God, you survive through God, God loves you. God has sent Christ into the world to save you, to empower you to live in newness of life. God will write His Law in your heart by His Spirit, to take away the stony heart of skepticism and cynicism, to give you the warm pulsating heart of love for and delight in God.

Verse 3 of the psalm is descriptive of this happy person: “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.” that is us, if we seek our happiness in God and not in the things of this world. In this world, everything passes away, and thus can bring only unhappiness. True happiness is in the Lord who is always there for us. In God, we are planted like a tree, and our leaf “shall not wither.”


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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