The Founders held that every human being possesses certain rights by nature of being born human—"natural rights." Nature, as created by God, is the source of these immutable rights; government exists to protect them.
Early Progressives argued that because there is no such thing as an enduring human nature, the idea of "natural rights" is untrue and unnecessary. Ideas and theories change for the better from age to age; people improve. Historical progress means that the outmoded idea of "natural rights" can be discarded. As a result, government can supplant Nature and God as the ultimate source of rights.
"The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."—Alexander Hamilton, "The Farmer Refuted"
"The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions."—John Locke, "Second Treatise of Government"
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."—The Declaration of Independence
"The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."—Thomas Jefferson, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America"
"'The principal aim of society is to protect individuals, in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature....'"—Alexander Hamilton, "The Farmer Refuted"
"That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."—George Mason, "Virginia Declaration of Rights"
"If 'all men are by nature equally free and independent,' all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights."—James Madison, "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments"
"To declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."—Thomas Jefferson, "Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom"
"The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."—The Constitution of the United States
"If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights."—James Madison, "On Property"
"If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions."—Calvin Coolidge, "The Inspiration of the Declaration"
"Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology."—John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"They put forward their ideas as immutable truths good at all times and places; they had no idea of historic relativity, either in general or in its application to themselves."—John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"Not natural rights but consequences in the lives of individuals are the criterion and measure of policy and judgment."—John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action
"Natural rights being conceived of as eternal and immutable, the theory of natural rights did not permit of their amendment in view of a change in conditions."—Frank Goodnow, The American Conception of Liberty
"Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action."—Frank Goodnow, The American Conception of Liberty
"Changed conditions, it has been thought, must bring in their train different conceptions of private rights if society is to be advantageously carried on."—Frank Goodnow, The American Conception of Liberty
"Social efficiency probably owes more to the common realization of social duties than to the general insistence on privileges based on individual private rights."—Frank Goodnow, The American Conception of Liberty
"The thesis of the state socialist is, that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will; that omnipotence of legislation is the first postulate of all just political theory."—Woodrow Wilson, "Socialism and Democracy"
"Rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon Government and those who conduct government."—Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Commonwealth Club Address"