What was the understanding of the American Founding Fathers of the natural rights endowed by the Creator to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Unless one dissects the etymology of such words, unfortunately arbitrariness becomes the decisive factor in interpreting them.

“The intellectual nature of the human person,” according to the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the World, Gaudium et Spes, “is perfected by wisdom, and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of man to a quest and a love for what is true and good.” And that is because although “mankind is stricken with wonder at its own discoveries and its power, it often raises anxious questions about the current trend of the world, about the place and role of man in the universe, about the meaning of its individual and collective strivings, and about the ultimate destiny of reality and of humanity.”

This is why, according to the 19th-century Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, in his work Politics, Law and Morality, wrote: “A complete separation of morality and politics constitutes one of the prevalent errors and evils of our century.”

The birth of the American nation, based on the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God—an archaic English term used by the Anglican clergyman Richard Hooker in The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1593?) for the natural law and the positive norms as written in Scripture—came in reaction to the English sovereign’s lack of recognition, or rather the violation of the free exercise of man’s natural capacities to live freely, for which “in the Course of human Events, it [became] necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands [with an oppressive government] which have connected them [to each other] and assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle[d] them.”

These words, authored by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, “linked American independence,” as Joseph Ellis explained in his book The Character of Thomas Jefferson, “to grand and great forces that transcended the immediate political crisis and swept the imagination upward toward a purer and more principled world.”

The point of departure for American existence, unlike the European one, is not the recognition of individual rights by civil authority. It is rather the acceptance of individual and collective liberty so as to live as God intended, which entails that such liberties are to be both acknowledged and safeguarded by civil authority.

Essentially, this gift, i.e., the natural right to exercise the endowed and inalienable faculty to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which solely comes from God and not from any government, is to be guided by the natural law—the law of God inscribed in the human heart.

The U.S. Constitution has been and continues to be interpreted by the three branches of government through two distinct schools of thought: originalists or strict interpreters and non-originalists or flexible interpreters; the former sustains that the meaning of constitutional provisions should remain fixed according to an original understanding until the document is formally amended, while the latter argues that the Framers of the Constitution foresaw a continual adaptation of law. Both, however, implement policies that either promote and protect natural rights or degrade and violate them.

A salient case in point of the latter can be seen when the judiciary branch, i.e., the Supreme Court, legalized a woman’s right to abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973) under the pretension that this is a natural right ensured by the Constitution. The Court’s sentence ruled in favor of the individual right of the woman over the unborn infant because a fetus is not considered a person, i.e., a human life, and therefore is not entitled to any rights.

The juridical parting point is how life is defined by pro-abortion advocates and justices. The term life is semantically poor, as its Latin lexicon (vita), which stems from ancient Roman vocabulary. The Romans, being the pragmatics that they were, did nothing else but Latinize the various Greek terms for life, which are the following:

Bios: life, in as much as a being is born and dies in its precariousness and mortality.

Zoé: eternal life, which has no beginning and has no end. It is a dimension of life which is different from bios, such as divine life. Here, the divine is not subject or destined to life or death. As in Christian tradition, the martyr sacrifices his own life, i.e., he surrenders the bios knowing that he shall find the zoé.

Psyché: life in motion or movement, for which in certain circumstances human life is more than bios, bringing into play other things, such as character, which cannot be derived from the physical human body.

Soma: a dimension of life that is inseparable from the bios but which is not reducible to the soma; it can be translated as a body.

It is clear that the ancient Greeks had a subtle perception of the different manifestations of life without confusing them with each other. Therefore, with a philosophical language, all of these meanings were synthesized into one sole word: person. And although the English vocabulary defines life with terms reflecting the Greek aforementioned words, its fixed meaning has been reduced to biological existence. Since Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness has been enforced as a subjective interpretation of morality, the concept of human life then becomes arbitrary. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that since the U.S. does not recognize the child in the mother’s womb as a person, such life can be terminated at any point after before gestation.

If one were to read between the lines, it is quite apparent that the above Supreme Court sentence was a full distortion and exploitation in what John Locke, the philosophical protagonist of the American Revolution, referred to as self-preservation:

[H]e who makes an attempt to enslave me thereby puts himself into a state of war with me. He that in the state of Nature would take away the freedom that belongs to any one in that state must necessarily be supposed to have a design to take away everything else, that freedom [self-preservation] being the foundation of all the rest; as he that in the state of society would take away the freedom belonging to those of that society or commonwealth must be supposed to design to take away from them everything else, and so be looked on as in a state of war.

Self-preservation is therefore equated to removing whatever is inconvenient in just about any fashion. Since a fetus cannot interact in society, it is not part of society, and therefore it is not entitled to any natural rights as deliberated by Roe v. Wade and subsequent legislation.

Since the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court established its right to say what the law is. This power is contested by numerous jurists who hold that this authority is not mentioned among those delegated by the Constitution to any specific branch of government, in addition to originalists who claim that, for example, the issue of abortion was never considered when the Constitution was being amended. And, as spelled out in Madison v. Marshall, 4; Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), “attractive as a ‘right to privacy’ may be, the ‘government has a right to invade it unless prohibited by some specific constitutional provision.’”

Perhaps the most recent conflict over whether constitutional meaning should evolve or remain fixed has occurred in reference to the legal recognition of same-sex partners to contract a marriage. Originalists maintain that since most states had anti-sodomy laws at the time the Bill of Rights was ratified, it would then be unconstitutional to permit or concede rights. And “even if ‘the governing majority has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral,’” non-originalists answer, as Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) stated, “‘that is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.’”

Although the originalist and non-originalist arguments on the Constitution tend to fall within the field of positive law, the aforementioned controversies are argued and based, for or against, on the exercise of natural rights derived from the Constitution itself.

Perhaps the most publicly apparent clash between both schools of thought happened during Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination hearings in 1987. Bork held that the courts “invade the proper domain of democratic government” when they legislate judicially under the guise of protecting unenumerated constitutional rights, to which then-Senator Joseph Biden (and member of the Senate Hearing Committee), upholding the principle of the natural law, responded:

I believe all Americans are born with certain inalienable rights. As a child of God, I believe my rights are not derived from any government. My rights are because I exist. They were given to me and each of my fellow citizens by our Creator, and they represent the essence of human dignity.

Bork’s position was an attack on judicial sentences, or for that matter legislation, that creates rights when they are not sanctioned by the Constitution. Mr. Biden’s assertion that the Constitution cannot interfere with the exercise of God-given natural rights, though paradoxically under the Obama administration, this had been manipulated to promote the right to procure abortion, contract same-sex “marriages,” and the right to change one’s sex.

What was the understanding of the American Founding Fathers, Jefferson in particular, of the natural rights endowed by the Creator to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Regardless of which juridical school one embraces, unless one dissects the etymology of such words, or as Cicero spelled out, to speak and covey their truth, arbitrariness unfortunately becomes the decisive factor in interpreting them. And this will not conduce man “to a quest and a love for what is true and good,” but to “prevalent errors and evils” as we are witnessing in our society.

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