This is an expanded version of a comment I made on PBS at (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/finding-empowerment-words-founding-fathers/). A fascinating discussion of how one little change in punctuation makes the Declaration of Independence even stronger.
As normally written:
“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”
With one little change:
Natural rights are concepts arising from the nature of members of our species, regardless of race, sex, religion, or any other division you care to make except one: That you are capable of understanding that the rights you claim are equal to the rights of every other person and that you refrain from actions that infringe on the equal rights of others.
Natural rights are completely and solely negatives on the actions of others. They do not require anyone else to take any actions, only that they refrain from infringing on your rights.
Procedural rights, such as voting or trial by jury aren’t strictly necessary by nature but have been found to be good methods within our general societal structure for handling how those rights are defined in general and protected in specific cases.
Children, the insane, or those disabled in any other way that prevents them from being capable of understanding the concept of rights are not regarded as fully equal under the law. There are actions that they may not be free to take and there are consequences they would normally face as a result of their actions that they may be shielded from.
Almost every other political use of the word “rights” is actually an infringement on the natural rights of some people for the benefit of other people. Jefferson and the other Founders seem to have been very aware of those differences and were careful where they used the word “rights.”
Liberty and freedom are liberty and freedom to act without government permission, or indeed without anyone’s permission, as long as those actions do not infringe on the equal rights of others. There are no guarantees of outcome, only the freedom to “pursue” what you consider to be what is needed for your happiness. There is no guarantee that other individuals will treat you justly, whatever you consider that justice to consist of. Only the government must be restrained because only the government is authorized to use force and only in response, aside from the immediate self-defense right of individuals.
Those shackles on government have been rusting away for a long time and they’re getting pretty loose.