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The Development of Individual Rights

Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that each individual has certain rights just because he or she is a human being.  They also believed that while government is necessary, it is the greatest threat to people's rights.  This fear of government came from the Founding Fathers study of history and political philosophy, and from their own experiences.  Because of this fear, the Founding Fathers thought the most important thing the Constitution should do is to limit the powers of the government in order to protect individual rights.

This reading will help you understand how the Founders developed their ideas on rights.  They were influenced by their study of philosophy and their understanding of history from ancient times to their own time.

How Our Ideas About Individual Rights Developed

The emphasis on individual rights is relatively recent in Western history, dating from the early sixteenth century.  In ancient Greece and Rome and during the Middle Ages, individual rights were not thought to be as important as they are now.  People emphasized the duties imposed on citizens by law, by God or by society -- not their rights.

Rights and duties were usually spoken of as belonging to members of various groups in society.  The emphasis was upon the rights of groups, not the rights of individuals.  For example, people spoke of the rights of royalty and the nobility, the rights of the clergy, and the rights of tradesmen and craftsmen in groups called guilds.  Any rights and duties individuals might have were usually related to their membership in such groups. 

Ideas and Rights found in Classical Republicanism

The Founding Fathers had studied the history of the classical periods of ancient Greece and Rome.  The society that had the greatest influence on their ideas was the Roman Republic.  This republic lasted for almost 500 years.  Many philosophers and historians believed the Roman Republic had provided Roman citizens with the greatest amount of liberty under government that the world had ever known.  It was also widely believed that the Roman Republic promoted the common welfare, that is, what was best for the entire society.  The theory based on this form of society became known as the classical republicanism.

Classical Republicanism is a theory that e the best kind of society is one that promotes the common welfare instead of the interests of only one class of citizens.  In a classical republic, citizens are supposed to work cooperatively to achieve the common welfare rather than their own personal or selfish interest.  The Roman Republic was thought to be one of the best examples of this type of society.  Americans in the eighteenth century shared the view that citizens should work to promote the common welfare.  They also believed that a republican government was the best type to serve the purpose.  They thought that for a republican government to work, a society had to have the following characteristics:

1. Civic virtue:  The classical republics demanded that their citizens have a high degree of civic virtue. A person with civic virtue was one who set aside personal interests to promote the common welfare.

Citizens were expected to participate fully in their government to promote the common welfare. They were not to be left free to devote themselves to their personal interests. They were discouraged from spending much time doing such things as making money or caring for their families. They were also discouraged from traveling or reading and thinking about things that had nothing to do with their government. If citizens had the freedom to do such things, it was feared, they might stop being reliable and fully dedicated to the common welfare.

To make sure citizens participated in their government, the classical republics often drastically limited individual rights. There was little concern with protecting an individual's family privacy, freedom of conscience or religion, or non-political speech or expression.

There were certain rights, however, that it was important for citizens to have in order to participate in governing themselves. These were political rights such as the right to vote, to express ideas and opinions about government, and to serve in public office.

2. Moral Education: People who believed in classical republicanism were convinced that civic virtue is not some-thing that comes automatically to people. Citizens must be reared and taught to be virtuous by moral education based on a civic religion.

The classical republicans believed that young citizens must be raised to develop the right habits. They should learn to admire people with civic virtue who were described in literature, poetry, and music. Children as well as adults should be encouraged to practice virtues such as generosity, courage, self-control, and fairness. They should learn the importance of their responsibility to take part in political debate and military service. The whole community must therefore closely super-vise the upbringing of the next generation of citizens and the daily lives of one another.

3.  Small, uniform communities: The classical republicans also believed that a republican government would only work in a small community. A small community is necessary if people are to know and care for each other and their common welfare. The classical republicans believed that people must be very much alike and that a great degree of diversity should not be tolerated. They did not believe, for example, that people should be very different in their property ownership and wealth, religious or moral beliefs, or ways of life.

The classical republicans believed that if people differed greatly in such things, they would not be concerned with each other's welfare. Instead, they would begin to divide into fac-tions or interest groups competing to dominate each other, rather than working together for the common welfare. To prevent this from happening, the classical republicans believed citizens should be supervised to avoid the development of great differences among them in their ownership of property, religion, and way of life.

Their fear of diversity led the classical republicans to be wary of money-making and economic growth. Since only a few people can ever be wealthy, it is better for all to be somewhat poor but equal. To prevent diversity in religious beliefs and lifestyles, the community needs to have one official, established religion and one set of family and moral customs to which all conform.

How Ideas About Group Rights and Individual Rights Change

The classical periods of ancient Greece and Rome had an important influence on the ideas of the Founders. There were three other periods of history that were also critical in the development of ideas about rights.

1. The Middle Ages. The Middle Ages lasted from the fifth century, when the Roman Empire ended, to the fourteenth century.  The political and military structure of medieval society was characterized by feudalism.

Feudalism was a system in which all land was considered to belong to the king and queen and everyone was subject to their rule. The king gave the land to his nobles in exchange for military or other service. The most important characteristics of feudalism that affected the way in which people thought about rights included the following:

Society was divided into different classes and groups such as royalty, nobility, the clergy, tradesmen, craftsmen, and serfs. Some of these classes and groups had special privileges. There was no notion of rights possessed equally by everyone. If you were born into one of these groups, you had little chance of changing the group to which you belonged.

Any rights and duties you had were usually spoken of in terms of the group to which you belonged. They were not commonly thought of as belonging to you as an individual member of society.

Feudalism was brought to England by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The three classes of English society were the

Royalty, which included the king, queen, and their family.

Nobility, which were the lords and ladies, the major followers of the king, who held such tides as earl or baron.

Commons, which consisted of different groups such as knights, merchants, craftsmen, and large landowners who were not members of the nobility. It did not include the serfs.

Each of these classes had certain rights and responsibilities. For example, the king gave land to the nobility and the right to collect rents from the common people living on their land. The nobility, in return, were responsible for supplying a cer-tain number of knights to serve in the king's army.

It was during the Middle Ages, in 1215, that the English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. Among other things, the Magna Carta protected the rights of the nobility from the king. This feudal contract, which set forth the rights and obligations of the nobility and the king, contained basic ideas that influenced our system of constitutional government. The importance of this document in the history of rights and government will be examined in a later lesson.

2. The Renaissance. The Renaissance began in Western Europe in the fourteenth century and lasted until the seventeenth century. The term Renaissance means rebirth. It refers to a renewed interest in classical Greece and Rome. People began to study history, science, literature, art, and philosophy. They expanded their knowledge and view of the world. This led to an increased interest in the rights of individuals and their relationship to religion and government.

As a result, people in Europe began to develop new ideas about the world in which they lived. These ideas were stimulated by a new economic system called capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are privately owned and operated for profit in a competitive market, rather than being owned or controlled by the government. Under capitalism, people gained more freedom to choose their occupations, start their own businesses, and own personal property.  More people had a greater degree of control over their lives and how they made their living than had been possible under feudalism in the Middle Ages. This new economic system led people to pay more attention to their private interests in gaining property than to the common welfare.

In all areas of life, greater importance was placed on the individual, rather than the group into which he or she was born. People could work to improve their position in society. As a result, a middle class of successful citizens developed which gained political and economic power.

3. The Protestant Reformation. Early in the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation, a religious reform movement, resulted in the development of new ideas about religion and government. Up to this time, Christianity in Western Europe had been dominated by the Church of Rome (the Roman Catholic Church). Many of the governments of Europe had also been closely tied to the Church.

During the Reformation, other Christian religious groups challenged the authority of the Church of Rome. Protestant churches were established which began to question the relationship between church and government. John Calvin, Martin Luther, and other Protestant reformers also questioned what authority religious institutions should have over the lives of individuals. A number of the governments became independent of the Church and a limited amount of religious freedom developed.

The printing press was developed and books that formerly only a few people could own became more available. The Bible was one of the most important of these books. For centuries the Bible had been printed in Latin, which few people other than priests could read. Christians relied upon the Church to convey the word of God to them. During the Reformation, Bibles were printed in English, German, French, Italian, and Spanish. Individuals were encouraged to read the Bible in their own language to determine for themselves what it meant.

Protestant religious doctrine emphasized the direct relationship between the individual believer and God. The result was to reduce the importance of the Church and to increase the importance of the individual. All individuals were seen as equal in the eyes of God. Each individual was to be respected and to be held accountable by God as an individual.

However, the new religious beliefs continued to emphasize the importance of working for the common welfare, as had the classical republicans. For example, it was during the Reformation that the Puritans settled in New England. They emphasized the duty of each individual church member to be virtuous and work for the common welfare of the entire church and community.

The Puritans believed that every person was called upon by God to do a particular job. Whatever the task, the good Christian was expected to work hard at his or her calling. The practical result was that by the 1700s, the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had prospered. They lived well and had gained a considerable amount of property.

With their newly gained wealth and prosperity, people became less concerned with working for the common welfare and more interested in pursuing their own personal interests. This change brought about a new way of looking at the relationship between individual rights and the common welfare.

The Renaissance and Reformation Contribute to the Growth of Individual Rights

The Renaissance and Reformation led to a greater emphasis on the importance of the individual than had existed in the Middle Ages or in classical Greece and Rome. The ideas and opinions of individuals were thought to be more important than before. As the Renaissance emphasized individual economic activity and creativity, the followers of the Protes-tant Reformation emphasized the relationship between the individual believer and God. Both developments contributed to an increased emphasis on individual rights.

Americans were greatly influenced by these new philosophical ideas as well as the historical developments.

Taken from, With Liberty and Justice for All

Identify and questions from the reading.  Answer all questions in complete sentences. 

Define or Identify
1.  individual rights
2.  rights of groups
3.  Roman Republic
4.  common welfare
5.  classical republicanism
6.  civic virtue
7.  moral education
8.  factions
9.  established religion
10.  Middle Ages
11.  feudalism
12. Renaissance
13.  capitalism
14.  Reformation

Questions:
1. What changes occurred in the way people thought about rights for the time of the classical republics to the Reformation?
2. How did the economic changes during the Renaissance appear to affect people's ideas about rights?
3. How did the religious beliefs on the Reformation appear to affect people's ideas about rights?

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