Our Modern Rights Tradition Has Much Older Roots Than Many Realize
Andrew Latham & Laurel Kriesel-Bigler
The conventional account of the evolution of the modern rights tradition traces the birth of that tradition back to John Locke (1632–1704), the Glorious Revolution (1688), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), and the framers of the U.S. Constitution (1787–1789). According to this account, political and philosophical developments occurring first in early modern England and later in colonial America gave rise to a radically new understanding of rights.
The pre-modern understanding of rights—as articulated in the Magna Carta, for example—was that they were conditional claims made by people occupying particular social roles (vassals, for example) vis-à-vis people occupying different, and usually higher, social roles (lords, to continue the example). This understanding was radically reworked in the modern era, or so the conventional account would have it, by quintessentially modern thinkers like Locke, who redefined rights as unconditional and inalienable claims to such things as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness made by all persons against all other persons and especially the state.
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Andrew Latham is a Professor of Political Science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades (2011), The Holy Lance (2015), a novel dealing with the Third Crusade, and Medieval Sovereignty (2022).
Laurel Kriesel-Bigler is Prof. Latham's research assistant.
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