American colonists had imported these notions of rights into the new world, often adapting them to their own circumstances and clinging to them even more fiercely that their British forebears. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that when Great Britain began to encroach upon some of their most cherished rights, the colonists would rise up in arms.
Long before Americans became students of the natural rights of man they were already acutely protective of their inherited rights as Englishmen. Although American colonists relied on Enlightenment natural rights philosophies in order to justify their final separation from Great Britain, they had first made several appeals to the Crown complaining that Parliament was violating their birthright as English subjects. Today the introductory part of the Declaration of Independence is celebrated for its ringing affirmations of the rights of man. But few notice (or perhaps understand) its allegation that the King had assented to “abolishing the free System of English Laws” in Quebec, followed by a not-so-subtle hint that he intended to do the same thing in the American colonies. Nonetheless, the shift in focus that took place during this time – from those rights that were bequeathed to them from the motherland to the rights that were theirs by nature – had the effect of altering their perceptions of even those traditional rights they brought with them from England.