Natural rights and the American founding: An interview with Thomas West - Introduction


By Lael Weinberger, JD/PhD candidate at the University of Chicago's law school and history department. Follow him on Twitter @LaelWeinberger.

History

Before there were modern human rights, there were rich traditions of thought that engaged with the idea of “natural rights.” There’s a longstanding debate about how modern human rights relate to earlier natural rights ideas, but it’s not too controversial to say that “rights talk” writ large really assumed significance in the era of natural rights. The American founding had plenty of discussions of natural rights. The Declaration of Independence spoke of “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and of rights “endowed by the Creator.” The Constitution’s Ninth Amendment is thought by some to be a nod to the deep tradition of natural rights (“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”). But there are plenty of controversies about natural rights and the American founding, ranging from the conceptual (what are natural rights?) to the practical (how important were natural rights to the concrete political issues and constitutional design?).

Thomas G. West, professor of politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan, has tackled many of these issues in his recent work, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom, published by Cambridge University Press in 2017. 

 

Over the next several days, we’ll be talking with Professor West about his recent book, tackling history and political theory. Be sure to check back here for the interview!

The United States Declaration of Independence