Asserting Rights in the Age of COVID-19

If there’s one discussion that I’m proud to see happening in our country right now, it’s of different people and entities asserting their rights. When President Trump all but claimed that the office of the presidency had absolute power over the country, my mind quickly flickered to the tenth amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Eventually, Trump conceded that the states would determine their opening timelines and processes after giving guidelines.

Yesterday, Kentucky Attorney General, Daniel Cameron, held a press conference reaffirming the first amendment rights of Kentuckians against Governor Andy Beshear’s restrictive policies, specifically against church assemblies and protests. People have lauded Beshear’s handling of the crisis for the state but have conveniently forgotten how as Attorney General himself, he would have sued the Bevin administration before lunch. While he’s mostly avoided making the issue political, he has walked the fine line of violating the rights of Kentuckians.

Then you have the Facebookers who vehemently claim, “Your rights end where my life begins,” anytime someone asserts their rights. While in theory, this is true, they misapply it to democratize the orthodox cult of “we’re all in this togetherness.” A person does have natural and inherent rights, but when those rights infringe upon another’s, they cease to be a right. However, for people to want to assemble in a church or to protest, they must be willing to assume that risk. Liberty comes with risks. For those who don’t want to gather, stay home. No one is forcing anyone to go to church or assemble peaceably in any other regard. Because people assert their first amendment rights does not automatically put others at risk, but those who want to stifle such privileges use poor logic in saying that it puts their life at risk. If those who are so concerned about their lives stayed home while the rest of us go about living our lives, they would have nothing to worry about.

When our country was established and the yoke of the British crown shattered, the defining ideal was liberty. Liberty from tyranny, freedom from excessive taxation without representation, right to worship God how we so choose, and on and on. People today exchange liberty for the illusion of safety, and by so doing, give the government leave to infringe upon the rights of her citizens. At the same time, those who want security are willing to make the deal. How did the Founders envision our liberties? Where did they come from? This is an answer Thomas Paine addressed, and had he not, the efforts of the Revolution might have been for naught.

Alongside Locke and Jefferson stood Thomas Paine for the advocacy of the natural rights of humanity in political and religious liberty. Robert Ingersoll wrote that Paine’s The Rights of Man “was the greatest contribution that literature had given to liberty.” [1] The sole thesis of Paine’s argument for humanity’s rights was an argument from nature—his natural philosophy having been influenced by Isaac Newton. Epistemologically, Paine believed that “He who takes nature for his guide is not easily beaten out of his argument.” [2] Therefore, the greater breadth of his writings utilized the argument from nature to support his conclusions.

Paine wrote that he had obtained a general knowledge of natural philosophy as a child, at which time he began to “confront” the evidence of Christianity.[3] He defined his natural philosophy as “the study of the works of God, and of the power and wisdom of God in his works.” [4] Therefore, Paine would retort, “Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man?” [5] Though he would later deconstruct the Bible as a whole, he borrowed from the Mosaic creation account for its “historical authority.” [6] Ingersoll wrote that despite Paine thinking that the Bible was “absurd and cruel,” he found that there were some excellent and useful things therein.[7] The particular passages that he found suited to his views were those of a natural philosophic “nature” (i.e., Psalm 19).

Paine pointed to the distinction of sexes as the only recorded distinction, and the Mosaic creation account of “the equality of man” was, to Paine, “the oldest upon record.” [8] Man’s natural rights were the foundation for his civil rights. The two were distinguished as thus:

Natural rights are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others. Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a member of society.[9]

What must be understood of Paine is that when he refers to man’s natural rights, he refers to “the natural dignity of man.” This dignity is “the honour and happiness of its character.” [10]

How these views, and the doctrine of natural rights, shaped the views of Paine is evident throughout his pamphlets. Governments “un-made” men by their activities, which denied the natural rights of man. Hereditary succession was one of the most disputed notions in his writings because the hereditary succession was unnatural. While the monarchs claimed that their authority came from God, the truth was that kings and kingdoms were actually not God’s will according to the biblical account that Paine referenced in Common Sense. Therein he argued that God reluctantly granted Israel a king. Before their history as a monarchical state, Israel was governed by judges and the elders of the tribes—a form of government that Paine identified as a “kind of republic.” Ergo, since the monarchs of Paine’s time argued for heavenly sanction, Paine went further into Heaven’s decrees to refute hereditary succession. He would also state that virtue is not genetic, so to claim that one man’s rule would be in tandem with another’s who was virtuous was to ignore the “natural” truth about human nature.

One of the strongest NATURAL proofs of the folly of hereditary rights in kings, is, that nature disproves it, otherwise, she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ASS FOR A LION.[11]

Another view for which Paine argued on nature’s basis was the freedom of a person’s mind. This argument was especially useful in dissolving the notion of an established church because one should practice their religion “according to the dictates of conscience.” [12] The natural rights of man’s intellect belonged to one’s religious choice as long as it did not impede the natural rights of another.[13]

With respect to what are called denominations of religion, if every one is left to judge of its own religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is wrong; but if they are to judge of each other’s religion, there is no such thing as a religion that is right; and therefore all the world is right, or all the world is wrong. But with respect to religion itself, without regard to names, and as directing itself from the universal family of mankind to the Divine object of all adoration, it is man bringing to his Maker the fruits of his heart; and though those fruits may differ from each other like the fruits of the earth, the grateful tribute of every one is accepted.[14]

At the time that Paine argued for religious liberty, the country supported a state church. The result of dissenting groups such as Puritans, and from them Quakers, and later Baptists, was persecution. Paine believed that in man’s natural state to make up his own mind, he should choose that sort of devotion that he thought was his “conscientious” devotion to the Almighty as long as it did not obstruct or violate another’s choice.

Paine would argue that persecution was not an original feature of religion, but that it was always the feature of all law-religions, or beliefs established by law. If the lawfulness of faith was taken away, then every religion would assume its own “benignity.” As a testimony to the detriments of the union of the state and religion, Paine cited the effects that such association had on Spain.[15]

Eventually, as history records, liberty would be won both politically and religiously. The poet Joel Barlow reflected on Paine’s contribution to the Revolution. He wrote that “without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.” [16] While the actual fight took place on the battlefield with Washington, Paine’s battlefield was in mind. Barlow aptly noted this sentiment by realizing that thoughts had to change more than battles could win.

[1] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” The North American Review 155, no. 429 (Aug. 1892): 181–95.

[2] Common Sense  (Appendix).

[3] The Age of Reason 1.11.

[4] Ibid., 1.8. Cf. Thomas Paine, “A Discourse Delivered to the Society of Theophilanthropists, at Paris,”; and “The Existence of God: A Discourse at the Society of Theophilanthropists, Paris.”

[5]Thomas Paine,  The Rights of Man, in Thomas Paine Collection (Forgotten Books, 2007), 88.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” 189–90.

[8] Paine, The Rights of Man, 89.

[9] Ibid., 90.

[10] Ibid., 92. Paine’s theories on happiness and being a member of society are reminiscent of Aristotle (cf. Ethics 1.13).

[11] Common Sense (Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession).

[12] Ibid. (Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs).

[13] Paine, The Rights of Man, 90.

[14] Ibid., 107.

[15] Ibid., 108.

[16] Harvey J. Kaye, Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005), 5.

Antebellum Kentucky was the Frontier for Liberty

Having only recently completed F. H. Buckley’s latest work, American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup, my mind reverted to some work I’d done several years ago. In a history tutorial I took on Early American Intellect, I’d read several sources about Kentucky herself during the post-Revolutionary period. I was intrigued to discover that the state, then, was considered a frontier for liberty and that those who disdained the newly formed federal government of the United States traveled to the Commonwealth to escape the hustle of what they disliked about the newly formed republic. One might find it amazing to envision that the country in her infancy would still find citizens unhappy after defeating the British, but this is indeed what many felt.

Republicanism became a reality when America liberated itself from England. The English crown could no longer claim rights to the prosperity of the new world, and a turning point in history was reached when colonists fought for the chief prerogative of man—liberty. However, in the new republic, factions threatened to unseat any stability that resulted from freedom. The Federalists sympathized with English practices and ways while Republicans—not the political party, but those who favored a republican form of government—disdained the traditions of the former motherland. Those sympathies towards certain customs from the homeland (e.g., aristocracy, monarchical titles, and pomp) were readily associated with a return to the Old World in the New World.

The aftermath of the Revolutionary War did not result in a utopia, and the early republic was not ideal for those who occupied the territory of Kentucky. Several founding fathers were fearful that Kentucky would deal with any government that best suited it regardless of its country of sovereignty; however, Kentucky was not formally a state until 1792. Thomas Jefferson, from Paris in 1786, wrote to Archibald Stuart,

I fear from an expression in your letter that the people of Kentucké think of separating not only from Virginia (in which they are right) but also from the confederacy. I own I should think this a most calamitous event, and such as one every good citizen on both sides should set himself against.[1]

While conceding to their right to separate from Virginia, Jefferson did not desire the territory departing from the confederacy, and with good reason. Jefferson wrote on to Stuart that America should be cautious about how this dilemma played out because America’s response might press Spain, which he did not think was wise at the time.

Since Spain controlled most of what is currently Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Spain controlled the Mississippi River. The river was vital to transporting goods, so Spain closed the Mississippi River to American trade to detract the westward move. However, once Spain realized that settlers in the Kentucky territory belonged to them, they changed their approach towards the settlers. The Spanish conspiracy, wherein Spain offered trading licenses to settlers in Kentucky, threatened the allegiance, albeit dwindling, of the state to the new republic.

Many Americans were moving to Kentucky in search of greater freedom, and the land was promised as payment to soldiers who fought in the Revolution. The Continental Congress was so poor that it could scarcely afford to live up to its promises to those who fought for liberty—a detail that almost resulted in a Revolution against the Continental Congress—so land in the West seemed to be sufficient.  Kentucky was a sought-after territory because it was believed to have been “a mine of vast wealth.” [2] Many left the East coast for the open land and smaller-to-no government in Kentucky, and the central government was too weak to deal with the exodus: “The Western settlers were as defiant of the new American authorities in the East as they had been of the British crown.” [3] This disdain for the British may be one explanation as to why Western politicians voted for the War of 1812 as a matter of honor.[4]

John Jay and the federal government worried about the West’s propensity to cause trouble in the union. Kentucky would not accept the position of United States attorney, and they disdained the federal government’s excise tax, which nearly led to a show of force from the federal government. One historian described the frontier mind as:

Reckless, exuberant, lawless, violent, brave, the frontiersman of Kentucky acted the part of the utterly free agent and by word or gesture expressed a lively contempt for artificial ethical prescriptions.[5]

Another wrote,

The Kentuckians who opened that part of the Old Northwest on the Ohio River were distinguished by a restless energy, freedom of thought, and a sense of destiny, all attributable to their military heritage.[6]

This freedom of thought welcomed the ideas of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson: “Thomas Paine had been the most widely read author in early Kentucky. His Age of Reason was viral, and answers to it were widely circulated.” [7] While Thomas Paine was very popular with Kentuckians, Thomas Jefferson won their hearts. One 1795 Kentucky toast was stated this way, “May the patriots of ’76 step forward with Jefferson at their head and cleanse the country of degeneracy and corruption.” [8]

Kentucky was in a phase of expansion, and goods from the east were continually being traded with the state. From the previous decade’s treaty enacted by John Jay that favored the British, the Treaty of San Lorenzo was welcomed by Kentuckians for its negotiated open-navigation of the Mississippi. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Federalists had passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Kentucky—along with Virginia—called upon the other states to declare this act unconstitutional. Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that Kentucky should, “Sever [themselves] from that union [they] so much value, rather than give up the rights of self government which [they] have reserved, and in which [they] alone see liberty.” [9] What is interesting to note from Jefferson’s letter to Madison was that he used personal pronouns when describing Kentucky as if he was a Kentuckian himself. Nevertheless, the Kentucky legislature repeated its opposition and declared a “nullification” of those acts.[10]

By what right did authority claim obedience? This was the question now being asked of every institution, every organization, every individual. It was as if the Revolution had set in motion a disintegrative force that could not be stopped.[11] Perhaps no one understood this sentiment better than Thomas Jefferson, and no people practiced it more than the Westerners. As volatile and vital as the West was in the early republic, Kentucky was at the forefront of liberty. Coupled with Jeffersonian policies, Kentucky became a magnet for the purest lovers of freedom. The stability of Kentucky concerning the union can be said to have been a catalyst for a westward expansion of the United States.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, Letters, in Thomas Jefferson Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, comp., (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 844.

[2] James Madison, Federalist 38.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 115.

[4] Ibid., 661.

[5] Arthur K. Moore, The Frontier Mind (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1957), 48, 67. Cf. Wood, Empire of Liberty, 319.

[6] R. C. Buley, The Old Northwest (University of Indiana Press, 1951), 1:139.

[7] Kent Ellett, “Jeffersonian Evangelical: Christian Liberty in the Life and Letters of Barton W. Stone,” Discipliana 64, no. 3 (Fall 2004): 79–93.

[8] Wood, Empire of Liberty, 164.

[9] Ibid., 270.

[10] Ibid., 271.

[11] Ibid., 321.

[12] Ibid., 594.

%d bloggers like this: