Natural Rights

In Summary

Primary sources on natural rights from JMC programs for teachers.

“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”

John Locke

Second Treatise on Government


The authors of the Declaration and leaders of the American revolution drew heavily on contemporary philosophers and their understanding of natural rights. In contrast to political rights, which are granted to citizens by their government, natural rights are inherent in individuals because they are human. It does not matter where in the world one lives or what kind of government one lives under, all individuals have the same natural rights. The sources here are selections of what the Founders would have read about natural rights.


JMC Resources

John Locke


John Locke, an English Enlightenment philosopher known as the Father of Liberalism, greatly influenced the founders of the United States. These selections from Second Treatise on Government touch on Locke’s theory of the state of nature, the beginnings and ends of political societies, and forms of commonwealths.


Second Treatise of Government, 1689

selections from Chapters II, III, VI, VIII, IX, X, XI, XIX


An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1695

selections from “Of Identity and Diversity”

Read More
Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes


Thomas Hobbes, an English political philosopher, presents a dark picture of human nature and social contract theory in The Leviathan. He famously described life in a state of nature as, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The first 24 chapters include Hobbes’ descriptions of human nature, passions, religion, contracts, and societies. His conceptions of natural law, the state of nature, and justice are laid out in Chapters 13-16, found below.


The Leviathan, 1651

Chapter XIII: Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as Concerning their Felicity, and Misery


Chapter XIV: Of the First and Second Naturall Lawes, and of Contracts


Chapter XV: Of Other Lawes of Nature


Chapter XVI: Of Persons Authors and Things Personated



Read More
Thomas Jefferson Portrait

Thomas Jefferson


These letters from Thomas Jefferson include justifications for the American revolution on the basis that the British government was “contravening” on the rights of Americans. He also explains the purposes of the state and federal governments and his adherence to natural rights theory.


Letter to Major John Cartwright, 1824


Letter to Henry Lee, 1825


Letter to Roger C. Weightman, 1826


In a meeting about the delayed opening of the University of Virginia, members of the Board agreed that the, “principles of government which shall be inculcated” at the school should be aligned with the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution. The Board also looks to the Declaration of Independence and the Federalist Papers to guide the education in “general principles of liberty and the rights of man in nature and in society.”


Minutes from a Meeting of the Board of Visitors of UVA, 1825

Read More
Portrait of James Madison

James Madison


In this piece for the National Gazette, James Madison draws a parallel between rights of external property, like land or money, and rights of internal property like opinions and religious beliefs. By conceiving of opinions, personal safety, and religious practice as equal to physical property Madison calls for a form of government that protects those things the same way a government would protect individual property.


“Property,” 1792

Read More

Other Resources

Want to learn more about our programs for teachers and how you can help them grow?
Support Founding Civics Today >>