College of Arts and Sciences
Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)
Natural Rights, American Revolution, Massachusetts, Political Theory
Dunkelberger, Joshua Paul, "The Foundation of Freedom: Natural Rights and State Power in Revolutionary Massachusetts" (2022). Doctoral Dissertations and Projects. 3525.
This research project is an attempt to explain the political mindset which drove the actions of the Massachusetts Patriots during the American Revolution. The British government’s attempts to assert increased control over the American colonies, beginning with the Sugar and Stamp Acts in 1764-1765, initiated a decade-long political struggle between Britain and America. During that struggle, all politically active Americans had to wrestle with questions of where their rights came from, the role of government in relation to those rights, and the constitutional limits of a government’s power over the governed. The question of the origin of rights was thus central to the quarrel between Britain and the American colonies. This study makes the case that the Massachusetts Patriots believed the freedoms of Americans came from their natural rights as men. Natural rights doctrines provided the ideological foundation for the Patriots’ resistance to the British government and explains why that resistance eventually turned into a revolution. According to the natural rights argument, the British government had not given Americans their rights in constitutions or charters, those political actions were instead designed as protections for the preexisting natural rights of the people. The Patriots were fond of the Massachusetts Charter and the British Constitution, but they did not believe that those documents were the source of their rights. When faced with the possibility of their rights being taken away, the Patriots made their defense by appealing to their foundational belief in a universal set of natural rights possessed by all men. To explain the political mindset of the Massachusetts Patriots, this study traces the historical roots of natural rights doctrines back to the Middle Ages and examines how that tradition became ingrained in the political mindset of Massachusetts’ inhabitants during the Colonial Period. The role of natural rights doctrines in shaping the resistance of the Massachusetts Patriots to increased British control over the American colonies and its role in their support of the political revolution which resulted is then explored in-depth.