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“From this concept of the dignity of man—dignity which exists only through our relationship with God—there has grown up recognition of what called “natural rights.” These are the rights which all men and women are entitled to: rights which belong to them simply because they participate in human dignity. There are other rights in our world: rights conferred by society at large, or by certain political economic and social groups. These latter are man-made rights. But natural rights are rights which originate in the nature of every man—the character and personality given to men by God, the privileges that come from the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Everyone is entitled to possess these rights, no matter how strong or how weak he is, no matter how rich or how poor, not matter how civilized or how savage, no matter how famous or how humble. Precisely what these rights are has never been entirely agreed upon, even among professed Christians. The medieval philosophers of the church debated for centuries on the character and extent of these rights: St. Thomas Aquinas’s description of the rights of nature is one of the more important. Richard Hooker, an English theologian, discussed natural rights and natural laws in the sixteenth century, and his writings greatly influenced subsequent English and American opinion. John Locke, in the seventeenth century, said that there are three primary natural rights, ‘life, liberty, and property.’ In America, Thomas Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, made these rights ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Edmund Burke, perhaps the greatest modern political thinker, when he criticized the confused notions of natural right then popular among the French revolutionaries, went on to say that there are certain true and abiding natural rights, though they cannot always be set down independently and without qualification. Among them, he wrote, men have a right to live by law, for law is made to benefit them. ‘Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have right to the fruits of their industry, and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death.’ But, Burke added, ‘Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.’”

–Russell Kirk, The American Cause (Chicago, Ill.: Henry Regnery Co., 1957), 30-31; revised edition expertly edited by Gleaves Whitney, ISI Books.

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays on or by Dr. Kirk may be found here

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4 replies to this post
  1. What a coincidence. I am currently reading "The American Cause" and what a gem it is. It is an unsung hero within Kirk's literary portfolio. Kirk's "American Cause" takes us on wonderful, pleasant walk through the history and purpose of America and the path is paved with his 3 cardinal ideas of America: justice, order and freedom. Kirk wrote, “The American cause is not to stamp out of existence all rivals, but simply to keep alive the principles and institutions which have made the American nation great.”

    "The American Cause" should be the primer for all civics classes and the patriot handbook for all Americans and would-be Americans.

  2. Brad, should there be a "not" in the sentence about whether "Precisely what these rights are has [not] been entirely agreed upon…"? That would certainly be more typical of what Russell usually said about such things.

    Thanks for bringing up this quotation. It's much better than I could find quickly the other day, and shows clearly the chasm between RAK and most current interpreters of natural rights. And of course he considered the "state of nature" to be simply silly, when it isn't also pernicious.

  3. John–yes, typo on my part. I've changed it in the post–NEVER.

    Dennis, I'm on page 40, in the middle of a rereading. This was one of the first Kirk books I ever read. I found a used copy at a great used bookstore in Logan, Utah, back in 1990. Wonderful, to say the least. And, of course, Gleaves has done a brilliant job on the latest edition.

  4. Brad:

    My entree into Kirk was 'baptism by fire' when over 2o years ago I first read his "The Conservative Mind". Lately I've been 'kindling' all I can on Burke, Kirk and, frankly, those names mentioned in TIC's masthead. I must say just reading "The American Cause" is so refreshing and comforting. If there is a better collection of thoughts on the truth of America's purpose I would like to know of it.

    TIC is a true find. Thank you Winston an Brad for creating it. Have a wonderful Memorial holiday.

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