John Locke was one of the most influential political philosophers that the Founders drew from. In particular, his Second Treatise On Government. His starting place was from what he called being in a “State of Nature.” Here’s my short form take on it.
In a state of nature, i.e. no government, an individual human being by himself has the absolute freedom to do whatever he wants and has no choice but to accept the consequences, for better or worse, of doing so. But people are pretty weak, compared to other animals. Our only real survival tool is using what’s between our ears.
The primary goal of any individual is to survive, having the absolute natural right to life. Survival depends on taking the actions needed to do so, the absolute natural right to liberty. It also depends on keeping the results of your efforts; food, shelter, tools, clothing, territory, and so on. So people have an absolute natural right to defend, with deadly force if needed, themselves and their property (which is what the term of art “pursuit of happiness” means in expanded form to include intangibles).
Now, what happens when other people come into the picture? Working and interacting with other people greatly increases your odds of survival. People can spend some of their time doing what they’re best at or prefer to do and trade that with others who do what you don’t. We can choose, if we see it’s in our best interests to do so, to combine our efforts to accomplish what no one person could do by themselves. But none of this changes the basic absolute individual natural rights.
We have some weaknesses too. We don’t know everything and often make mistakes. If they aren’t fatal, we need to learn from them and go on. All too often, we act on emotion rather than reason. Again, if those actions aren’t fatal we need to learn from them and go on.
But when other people are around, we need to find a way to keep the consequences of acting on those weaknesses from outweighing the benefits of interacting with each other.
If someone takes what you’ve spent time and effort on making or trading for, you’re angry, very angry. If you think you know who did it your normal reaction is to try and get it back and punish the person who did it so badly that they’re never going to do it again.
But what if you’re wrong and it was someone else? What if the punishment you would dole out based on your emotional reaction is way too harsh for the actual damage done? Now we have the need for an external organization that equally protects the rights of all parties to the best of its ability. It puts reason and deliberation and judgment back into the picture.
At least in theory, the people who are judging don’t have an emotional bias. They have the time to actually look at the evidence and decide if the person accused really is the person who did it. They can weigh the harm done against the range of possible penalties and decides what seems sufficient. They can require restitution (which is something we do too little of) to the person harmed.
There is one caveat in all of this which is that the organization has to have the authority to use force, deadly force if needed, to enact its decision. It is exactly the same force that an individual has an absolute natural right to use when in a state of nature to defend himself and his property that is delegated to the government and is the derived source of all proper government powers.
Some forms of government do a much better job of protecting the absolute natural rights of individuals than others. If the current form isn’t getting the job done, in the judgment of the people who are subject to it, they can withdraw their authorization and set up a new organization (government) that they believe will work better at maximizing the benefits of living with others while minimizing the costs in terms of what seems most important to them.
Take all this and then put it into the context of the Declaration of Independence and see if it sounds familiar.