Silly Brits. After all these years, they still don’t understand natural rights.

During a moot debate last week at Franklin Hall in Philadelphia, British lawyers argued that the 1776 American Declaration of Independence was not only illegal, but actually treasonable. “There is no legal principle then or now to allow a group of citizens to establish their own laws because they want to,” the British barristers maintained.

Well, of course seceding from Great Britain and renouncing allegiance to King George III was both illegal and treasonable by British legal standards. That’s why the American colonists  appealed not to their rights as British subjects for a redress of a grievances (as they had done up until 1774) but to the universal supra-political “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and the natural rights that go along with them.

Alexander Hamilton’s words to set his Tory opponent straight in The Farmer Refuted (1775) come to mind:

The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasonings, is a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind….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.

When the Declaration announces that “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security,” this right to “alter or abolish government” is of course not to be found in British common law. It is a natural right to which all men can appeal, regardless of the constitution under which they live.

There is a long history of British lawyers not understanding the natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, a few months after independence had been proclaimed, a British barrister by the name of John Lind published “An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress” in which he completely ignored the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and focused instead on trying to refute the 27 charges leveled against King George III. Americans never bothered replying to him, busy as they were winning the War of Independence.

Two centuries later, the debate in Franklin Hall ended more cordially. The legality of the Declaration of Independence was put to a vote before the audience, and the Americans carried the day, surely because their lawyers had better arguments (though the location of the venue—a few blocks from where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration—may have had something to do with it).