“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection …” – John Locke, Second Treatises of Government
One of the most fruitful concepts to come out of the political theorist John Locke was the idea that in the State of Nature everyone is equal; there are no Kings, no Aristocrats, and no Plutocrats; everyone is the same. That’s not to say he believed that everybody was equally strong, or smart, skilled; rather he believed that everybody in nature had equal opportunity to pursue their talents and an equal right to justice and rule of law.
The philosophy of Locke was a great inspiration to the Founders who wished to restore some of the freedom of the State of Nature without restoring much of the anarchic conflict that also occurs in nature. Jefferson was drawing direct inspiration from Locke when we wrote those famous lines “all men are created equal”.
I could talk to you of the brave fight our Founders had for their own rights but I would like to emphasize some often ignored. Today we have far too many people who like to talk of their rights and will go on at great length about what they deserve, but it is rarer to find someone who goes out of their own way to defend the rights of others. I would like to honor my favorite examples of a Founder’s unswerving sense of justice and the universality of rights.
If it takes a great man to ignore the his own selfish interests to defend the rights of others, how much greater is the man who ignores his own interests for the sake of his enemies rights, but John Adams did just that. After the Boston Massacre no lawyer would defend the solders responsible, having exhausted many possible choices they finally asked John Adams. So strong were Adams’ views on justice that he believed every human has the right to a free and fair trial, regardless of what they’ve been accused of or who they are. In his view, were the nation to deny due process even to enemies of America, it would be a grave injustice, a violation of American values, and a victory for mob rule.
The next morning, I think it was, sitting in my office, near the steps of the town-house stairs, Mr. Forrest came in, who was then called the Irish Infant. I had some acquaintance with him. With tears streaming from his eyes, he said, “I am come with a very solemn message from a very unfortunate man, Captain Preston, in prison. He wishes for counsel, and can get none. I have waited on Mr. Quincy, who says he will engage, if you will give him your assistance; without it, he positively will not. Even Mr. Auchmuty declines, unless you will engage.” I had no hesitation in answering, that counsel ought to be the very last thing that an accused person should want in a free country; that the bar ought, in my opinion, to be independent and impartial, at all times and in every circumstance, and that persons whose lives were at stake ought to have the counsel they preferred. – John Adams, February 26, 1770
Adams successfully argued that the solders felt threatened by the crowed and fired in a fit of panic. He got acquittals for six of the solders and the other two were charged with manslaughter and branded on their thumbs. Adams considered the event one of his bravest decisions.
I have reason to remember that fatal night. The part I took in defence of Captain Preston and the soldiers procured me anxiety and obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country. Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the executions of the quakers or witches anciently. As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right. – John Adams, January 5, 1773
This is one of my favorite moments in history, for although it is often ignored, it illustrates something people often forget. Often I hear people talk of rights as something only they have, that others must respect their rights while they have no respect for the rights of others. But if we wish to truly fulfill the Founders dream of a country built around a social contract, a country built around consensus and compromise as opposed to one based on “subordination or subjection“; if one truly believes in rights as envisioned by the Declaration and Constitution one must believe that all Men, Women and Children have rights. That Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists have rights. That not just Americans, but all human beings have rights; that everyone whether friend or foe has rights.
To denigrate the rights of others is tantamount to denying rights. If there is no expectation you will respect the rights of others, then why should you expect that others would respect your rights?