Monday is ‘Bill of Rights Day.’ Should we wear mourning?

America’s great national holiday is July 4 — celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

But how long did that confederation of sovereign states formed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to fight the Revolution really last?

Only the brightest of today’s young scholars are likely to recall that it passed away on June 21, 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the new United States Constitution.

With Mr. Jefferson safely off in Paris, Alex Hamilton and the gang moved heaven and earth to convince a skeptical public that the stronger new central government they proposed would never grow powerful enough to take away any of their hard-won freedoms — like, say, the freedom to keep what we earn, to carry with us wherever we go firearms more powerful than those possessed by the government, to grow and consume whatever plants we please, or to move from place to place without ever having to show any “government-issued ID.”

No, no, the new central government’s powers would be sharply limited to those expressly spelled out in the new founding document — funding a Navy, granting patents and copyrights, coining metal money. Not much more.

Fast forward 210 years. As a recipe for limited government, this Constitution now matches the creature it’s supposed to describe about as well as a Chihuahua’s carry-on “Pet Kennel” would fit a loping Irish wolfhound.

The prima facie proof of this failure now stares at us from every acre of the former marshland north of the Potomac, a granite necropolis and memorial park to our deceased freedoms at least a hundred times larger in manpower and frenzied ambition to control our lives than Mr. Jefferson could ever have imagined.

Is there any remaining hope, today, for our fragile liberties?

What hope remains is thanks to the fact that Rhode Island and North Carolina (bless them) outright refused to ratify the new Constitution until a Bill of Rights was added — while Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia and New York all ratified only on the condition that some such set of amendments be quickly appended.

And so, on the day we should probably celebrate as our (start ital)second(end ital) great national holiday, on Dec. 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to ratify those solemnly promised first 10 amendments — Mr. Madison’s “Bill of Rights” — though a better name might be the “Bill of Prohibitions” on government conduct.

This Dec. 15, as usual, the anniversary will pass largely unnoticed. But the Bill of Rights is still important, not only because it’s still in force as the highest law of the land, but because it reminds us that ours was and is supposed to be a government of (start ital)limited powers.(end ital)

In fact, the main concern of those drafting the first eight Amendments was that someone, someday, might take these to be our (start ital)only(end ital) rights guaranteed against government trespass.

That’s why — in an attempt to placate such vociferous (and correct — which is why their warnings are no longer taught in our government schools) anti-federalists as Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee, Mr. Madison and friends dutifully added the brief but vital 9th and 10 amendments, specifying that “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

Anything our ancestors were free to do in 1788 — without seeking any government “license” or “permit” — we’re supposed to remain free to do today.

Think about it.

Modern fans of totalitarianism, coached by the slyest of lawyers and unionized government schoolmarms, will argue that the preamble to the Constitution advises us the purpose of the document is to “promote the general welfare,” whereupon they will contend this plainly means Congress is allowed to enact any law and do any thing which a temporary majority of the two houses shall determine tends to “promote the general welfare.”

But that’s not true. If it were true — if the Constitution means “Congress can do anything that a majority thinks is for the general welfare,” then why doesn’t the document just end there? Why does the Constitution go on for page after page, itemizing the specific, limited powers of the central government?

And that’s leaving aside the meaning of the word “general.” Seizing some part of our paychecks to hand over to the poor may or may not benefit the poor folks’ “welfare” (actually, it mires them in multi-generational poverty by teaching their children no respect for work or property, while it’s the government middlemen who end up parking $60,000 SUVs in front of their million-dollar mansions.)

But even in theory, such programs promote only someone’s (start ital)specific(end ital) “welfare.” If they leave us involuntary “donors” poorer, then the “welfare” being promoted can hardly be said to be “general” — especially since money seized by government is no longer available for private investment, gradually strangling the economy as a whole.

But the best and most authoritative answer to this cynical justification for unlimited, Bonapartist tyranny was provided in the final year of his life by no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson himself, in the “Declaration and Protest of Virginia, 1825. ME 17:444”:

“We … disavow and declare to be most false and unfounded, the doctrine that the compact, in authorizing its federal branch to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States, has given them thereby a power to do whatever they may think or pretend would promote the general welfare, which construction would make that, of itself, a complete government, without limitation of powers; but that the plain sense and obvious meaning were, that they might levy the taxes necessary to provide for the general welfare by the various acts of power therein specified and delegated to them, and by no others.”

It’s not really THAT hard to read, even for someone handicapped by a modern government-school education.

If you can’t find written down in the Constitution any specific, articulated power to proscribe or regulate our commerce in cocaine, marijuana, opium, or modern, military-style machine guns and grenade launchers, or our absolute freedom, not subject to any “permitting” process, to carry such effective medicines and self-defense weapons with us when we travel about the country by any means we may choose, or any American’s right to launch and operate an airline which advertises “pot smokers and armed passengers welcome, leave your photo ID at home” — if you can’t find written down in the Constitution any specifically articulated federal power to dictate how many miles per gallon our cars must achieve, or how big our toilet tanks may be, or whether a land owner may kill any weeds and bugs or birds he or she pleases on his or her own property, or what kind of filaments we must use in our lightbulbs, or what our state speed limits may be or whether motorcyclists have to wear helmets — then the central government HAS no such powers, all such rights despite the failure to list them in the first eight amendment being still “retained by the people” (sayeth the Ninth Amendment), and/or “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people” (guarantee-eth the Tenth Amendment.)

That’s what it says in our Constitution, which Barack Obama will swear on a Bible (presumably) on Jan. 20 to “preserve and protect,” whereupon — like pretty much every president since Grover Cleveland and Rutherford B. Hayes (with the possible exceptions of Hoover and Harding; see Ivan Eland’s fine new book “Recarving Rushmore”) — he will smile and proceed to ignore all those limits on central government power, probably within the first hour.

I believe it was columnist Joe Sobran who once said that a government under the U.S. Constitution would not be ideal — it would just be a whole lot better than the one we’ve got now.

2 Comments to “Monday is ‘Bill of Rights Day.’ Should we wear mourning?”

  1. MamaLiberty Says:

    Only individuals can be “sovereign,” and only individuals have rights. State governments have no more legitimate function than the federal sort, and are every bit as much subject to the same corruption.

    There will be no real individual liberty until the very idea of the involuntary “state” is eliminated, and the only “government” is via voluntary cooperation. Self government and self defense make free people, nothing else.

  2. Shooterman Says:

    Just now reading this provocative post Mr Suprynowicz, but with Bill of Rights day coming up in 2009, a comment is in order, I believe.

    I would humbly suggest, that George Mason of Gunston Hall actually was the father of the Bill of Rights. The federal Bill of Rights was taken almost verbatim from the Virginia Bill of Rights that was published before the federal one.

    I tender this from Honorable R Carter Pittman, written circa 1950.

    To MamaLiberty, I would simply say this. Man is a sovereign creature, answerable to God, but the states are sovereign as well.

    King George signed no peace treaty with any one man or any group of sovereign men, but thirteen peace treaties with the thirteen sovereign colonies, which then became thirteen sovereign states.

    The States, in compact, by way of writing and ratifying the Constitution, created the Federal Government. In doing so, they gave a portion of their sovereignty to the federal government, but retained all other sovereignty unto themselves.