“Man has not a single right which is the product of anything but might.
Not a single right is indestructible: a new might can at any time abolish it, hence, man possesses not a single permanent right.”
-Mark Twain, notebook
Twain become, at times, darker and more melancholy as he grew older. Highly critical of America’s role in the Spanish-American war at the turn of the 20th century, Twain saw American Might and its claims toward a righteous cause in the conflict as an imperialistic sham. He was disappointed in seeing the nation, as he and many others saw it, abandon its ideal of human rights and freedom while quashing those rights in the Philippines even as we professed to be fighting for their cause.
Does simply expressing the idea of inalienable rights make it in any way more real than before? Is Mark Twain’s dark assessment of human rights true, despite the nation’s creed, and the true source of any right we posses merely the product of sheer might?
And what of the might of ideas? There was little more than that as the rag-tag American army took on the power and might of the British empire in the American Revolution. It was truly a revolution of ideas.
The fact is, even as Thomas Jefferson sweated out the words of the Declaration of Independence that hot June in the summer 1776, his own slaves toiled in the heat of his Virginia plantation.
Can a right exist if only in the highest aspirations of humanity? A seed pushing against the domination of the current might that opposes it.
Though it was more than half a century later and over the course of a brutal war fought on horrific, blood-soaked battlefields, slavery was finally abolished. But leaving in its wake continued hatred and brutality, a struggle between the idea of human rights and our human nature to lash out in fear and suppress the very rights we profess to hold so dear. A struggle that continues to this day and in each one of us.
So what is the answer? From whence do our rights we claim as inherent derive?
There are no answers here, just an admonition: Mark Twain’s stark assessment shows that those who do enjoy any measure of freedom, human rights, and equality are thus called to vigilance in the preservation of those rights, and resistance to their usurpation, from any and all sources.