On Wednesday evening, October 1, Professor Barry Alan Shain of Colgate University spoke to an audience of  about 100 students, faculty, and interested laypersons on “Rights Natural and Civil in the Declaration of Indpendence.”  Shain, author of The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought (Princeton, 1994) provided a brief but substantive sketch of the various views of the nature of rights in the era of the American Revolution.  His discussion forcefully reminded  the audience that the the meanings of rights have changed dramatically over time.

Shain explained that to understand a document such as the Declaration of Independence–and to understand its meaning to its eighteenth-century audience–we must recognize that Jefferson and his contemporaries sharply differentiated between “natural” and “civil” rights.  Pointing out that the relation between these two sets of rights was undergoing a pronounced shift at the time, with some theorists conflating the differences between them, Shain maintained that for Jefferson and most of those who read the Declaration natural rights remained distinct from civil rights and that the Declaration “spoke” the language of natural, not civil, rights.  The list of natural rights in the eighteenth century was short, including life and the right to worship and honor God, and that rights necessarily imposed duties and responsibilities. Individual rights were exceptional. Natural rights were operative in only a narrow set of circumstances, namely those outside of “civil” society.  Shain pointed out that the Declaration, as a natural rights document, never sought to prescribe or articulate “civil rights”; it announced to the world that the United States were no longer under the sovereignty of the British Crown.  Its purpose was to secure foreign recognition and financial support, not provide a blueprint for the civil order of the new nation.  That narrow purpose required an appeal to natural rights, whereas the creation of new governments turned to the realm of civil rights.

Shain’s intellectually stimulating talk elicited a lively question-and-answer session that lasted for 45 minutes, continued informally thereafter for an additional  half hour, and even followed him into the halls outside the Hamilton College science auditorium and into the parking lot.  Shain elaborated upon his concern that both scholars and lay people have viewed the past and particularly the Founding Era through a distorting, ahistorical lens.  In urging us to recognize the historically specific meaning of “rights,” Shain reminded us that our notion of rights owes far more to Abraham Lincoln than to Thomas Jefferson.  For it was Lincoln, Shain insists, who assigned nineteenth century aspirations to an eighteenth century workaday document of the Continental Congress.  Lincoln took the Declaration–a narrowly-focused, time-specific, eighteenth-century natural-rights document–and turned it into something quite different: the nation’s fundamental law that transformed the meaning of “natural” and “civil” rights.

Shain’s lecture was brought free of charge to Hamilton College by the AHI in co-sponsorship with the Edmund Burke Association, a scholarly organization within the Hamilton College Republican Club, and the Hamilton College history department.