By Jeff Olson
In recent American history, there has been and still is much discussion and debate in regard to “rights.” We’ve seen a plethora of rights emerge and overwhelm America’s legal landscape, and to the point where the entire concept of rights has been turned upside down. While this has yielded some positive results, it has also helped to advance an entitlement mentality which uses the language of rights as an avenue to give moral force to what are often actually privileges or merely personal desires, or perhaps to advance an agenda of cultural grievances through political correctness and/or identity politics.
The traditional understanding of rights was defined as something to which one has a just claim and something that one may properly claim as due. This included the freedom to act by your conscience without fear of interference from another person or from the government (provided the act was not subversive to order) with the understanding that every right is wedded to some duty, and the exercise of rights is justified only if the claimant of rights stands ready to fulfill the corresponding duties. Our Founders understood the fact that the Creator gave humans a special place among all other creatures, making them free with the capacity for faith and reason, and endowing them with an incomparable dignity within the created order. This undergirds an equality among men/women which is not an inherent revelation from man’s capacity for reasoning, but a product of his appeal to a biblical metaphysic and Christian faith which lay claim to transcendent truth – truth which led our nation’s founders to subscribe to two venerable concepts of human equality: equality before the law, and equality in the judgment of God.
Human rights arose out of an appeal to natural law and were understood to be the birthrights of every free American. Those rights were also anchored deep in English common law and in the history of the American colonies. The emphases of rights in America’s founding documents were intended to limit state power – to define specific areas free from government control. The new concept of rights has no recognized origin beyond human construct and it expands state power and asks government to regulate many aspects of our lives which were once private – thus essentially re-defining not only rights but also the role of government itself. For each new right that is created, an entire network of laws and regulations is written to enforce the corresponding obligations. It is indeed ironic that as Americans demand more rights, we enjoy fewer freedoms.
America’s journey from declaring human equality and rights to securing and protecting them through codified law was a long, arduous and sometimes bloody one, but it was a journey that could have occurred and made such progress only in a country with a Judeo/Christian moral foundation such as ours. One of the civil rights which needed to be recognized and codified during this journey was that of voting. One hundred years ago this coming August 18, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, legally confirming for women the right to vote. Here, our republic functioned as it was designed to through the Constitution, responding to the voice of the people (through the states) in applying a principle of equality enshrined in our Declaration of Independence.
The battle for women’s rights, however, began many years prior to 1920. One hundred eighty years ago last month, in 1840, American abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There, they discovered that women could not participate; rather they had to sit in a separate area curtained off from the main proceedings. The injustice of women not being allowed to participate in a meeting about freedom was both ironic and tragic to both women and, as a result, each vowed to someday hold a convention to discuss women’s rights. Eight years later, that convention became a reality.
One hundred seventy-two years ago this week, July 19, 1848, America’s first conference on women’s rights, the Seneca Falls Convention, took place in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton opened the convention and read a Draft Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence. In it read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” The conference included a resolution calling for women to have rights and responsibilities equal to men and a resolution for suffrage for women. This convention not only helped to launch a movement which would lead to women’s voting rights in America, but it would open the door to other future opportunities for women and others in America and in other parts of the world.