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Inalienable vs. Unalienable Rights

April 29, 2009

If you look up the definition of ‘Unalienable” today you will very likely be redirected to the word “Inalienable,” usually with the comment that ‘unalienable’ is simply an alternate spelling of ‘inalienable’. This may be partly true, but at one point in time there certainly existed an important difference between the two words.

Inalienable Rights

Inalienable Rights are defined as: Rights which are not capable of being surrendered or transferred without the consent of the one possessing such rights.

According to Morrison v. State, Mo. App., 252 S.W.2d 97, 101.

Unalienable Rights

Unalienable Rights are defined as: [Rights which are] incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition.

This is a fairly important philosophical distinction that has been lost through the evolution of language. It is highly important to understand that when the two words did hold separate meanings, the Declaration committee of the Continental Congress opted to use the word, “unalienable,” in the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, over Jefferson’s original wording which included, ‘inalienable.’

Without getting too deep into meta-ethics, it’s clear that the committee supported the idea that human rights, or Natural Rights, where inherent to all people and could not be transferred, even by those having the rights. Most importantly – these rights where not created by governments – but rather, where acknowledged to already pre-exist and supersede government. Therefore – claiming these rights are unalienable – a government cannot later claim that a people have spoken or chosen to given up their rights. The only way possible to forfeit an unalienable right – is as a just penalty for violating another person’s unalienable rights.

I bring this distinction up because it may be useful in the future when discussing topics such as whether or not health care is, or can be, a human right, the idea of ‘positive’ vs. ‘negative’ rights, etc.

[ht: Mostert, Gw]

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom Ulrickson permalink
    December 30, 2009 1:09 pm

    I stumbled on your website as I was preparing for my worldview class that I teach at our local church. This week’s topic: Is healthcare a right? Before we can answer that question, we have to know what a right is, and then things get complicated. I was researching unalienable rights vs. inalienable rights – there is a difference. One of the websites that I stumbled across (can’t remember where now!), answered the question about Jefferson’s copy vs. the Declaration of Independence in Washington D.C. . This author said that Jefferson originally had “inalienable” in his draft, but that John Adams and Benjamin Franklin had him change it to “unalienable” in the final copy. Thank God they did! The author surmised that it was probably because of their different worldviews – Jefferson being a deist. I don’t know if I buy that, because I thought BF was a deist also. It is amazing how the terms are used interchangeably – even by the supreme court. But I think it is imperative that we use the correct term and understand the difference. Thanx! T

  2. February 23, 2010 9:44 pm

    I teach English at a community college in western NC. In several of my courses, however, we focus on the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. I notice that a comment above states that Jefferson was a Deist. This is a common misunderstanding due to “revisionist history.” Deism is a belief that God constructed our universe like a watchmaker builds a watch. He made it, wound it up and set it in motion, just like a clock, and then He (God) went off to some other universe (or some other corner of ours) to tend to other matters. God is no longer directly or personally involved in matters concerning our universe. That, in a nutshell, is Deism. Hence, if this belief system is accurately described here, the Deists would not pray because God is not here or involved to hear prayers. Yet, Jefferson prayed, both in private and in public, if official documents and his own letters are to be trusted. A Deist praying would be like a college student who lived entirely alone, returning from a long day at school and/or work, opening his dorm room or apt. door, and shouting, “I’m home !” To whom would he be speaking? Likewise, to whom would a Deist be praying? We know Jefferson prayed; hence, he could not have been a Deist. In fact, he states in his own words that he is a Christian. I think this fact is important enough to be clarified. The more our founding fathers are denigrated as Unbelievers, the more their writings can be dismissed as coming from Deists or atheists or other such man who could not be trustworthy.
    Thanks for allowing me this short soapbox.

    Ren Decatur
    Asheville, NC

  3. bassman permalink
    March 12, 2010 7:55 pm

    The pronunciation of the word unalienable is very important for understanding. We have been taught in our falsehood schools that the word conotates something foreign as an alien(out of space or beyond the border so to speak). If it is pronounced correctly (un-a-lien’-able), if you understand in law what a lien is, it is a much more powerful concept. A right to own property means it cannot be liened. We should have our property with allodial title where your land can never be taken and cannot be taxed(as true sovereigns). Interesting how words never lie and most titles on property are Joint Tenants or Tenants in Common. If you are a tenant you are not a landowner. Liens do not apply only to land as I have used that only as an example.

  4. April 1, 2010 3:58 am

    Lots of good stuff here. I get sick to my stomach when I see conservatives misuse the work ‘Inalienable’. Thanks for your contribution in correcting them.

    I also really like the correction by Bassman as to the pronunciation of the word. I did not know that before, but I will be sure to remember it!

    • Gary permalink
      November 4, 2010 12:22 am

      I feel really smart in picking up the difference between UN and INalienable. It grates on me to hear UN, even by brilliant scholars such as Mark Levin in his book. It’s almost as awful as when folks use objective or subjective pronouns in the wrong context.

      After reading all of these comments, I just hope that TJ comes to me in the middle of the night, pats me on the head, and says “Hey, you’re a good kid”

    • Gary permalink
      November 4, 2010 12:24 am

      “…conservatives…” WTF???

  5. washburn permalink
    July 4, 2010 5:50 pm

    Ren Decatur, while you get the gist of Deism, it is a little more flexible than that (like Christianity is for many practitioners). Some Deists do indeed believe in prayer as a meditation. Jefferson did occasionally sign letters as “A Christian,” but his idea of being a Christian was following the teachings of Jesus (which many Christians of his time and ours fail to do). He did admire Jesus as a moral philosopher, but he (like Franklin) did not believe in the divinity of Christ or in any of the miracles in the Bible. That is why the Jefferson Bible removes all mention of the supernatural and focuses on the teachings. One thing that is required to be a true Christian is the belief that Jesus was the son of God. Neither Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, nor Thomas Paine believed that. Jefferson’s presidency was vehemently opposed by the church because they did not believe him to be a true Christian. Numerous letters to newspapers of the time bear this out.

    • Ren Decatur permalink
      July 9, 2010 5:07 pm

      I appreciate your response to my posting, Mr. Washburn, but I must disagree with several of your statements. You seem to embrace the current (and perhaps formerly popular) notion that Jefferson was not a Christian who believed in the divinity of Christ. Several (if not numerous) of his personal corresondence completely contradict that notion. Newspapers of the day are no more reliable then than they are now, as for divulging truths. I suggest that you continue your research in this area if you are inclined toward the truth. Thanks.

  6. History student permalink
    August 20, 2010 7:16 pm

    Jefferson as diest?

    I have always been told that TJ, BF and TP were all deists and all the research I have done in college point that way. In TJ’s case it may have been his real beliefs and his letters written for a political purpose or the news accounts written by his political opponents (objectivity as a journalist 20th century invention). In short we don’t know what was in the man’s heart. I am only aware of TJ going to church 3 times as an adult (wedding, daughter’s wedding and once stuck on the road with Madison who insisted on attending local services). He did sit down and transcribe a copy of the Christian bible omitting all supernatural events. Did he believe in God as today’s Christians? Don’t know. I will ask him in the hereafter b/c since I share beliefs I will end up in the same place ;-)

  7. Carole permalink
    January 28, 2012 12:56 am

    Perhaps Jefferson the Deist met Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, in his later years and became a true believer. Or, perhaps he believed Jesus to be the Son of God and then later rejected Him as Son of God.
    Either way, the Words written in the Declaration of Independence were inspired by his belief that our rights are given by our Creator. This would mean that no one, other than the Creator can take them from us.


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