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In Part 1, we glimpsed what life would be like in a Bill of Rights Culture. It won’t be Utopia; no one should expect it to be. But it will be better than the present by far. We’ll have more freedom. More opportunity. Fewer taxes. Less stifling and silly and pointless bureaucratic regulation. More time to live and work and play the way Americans should.
I say that we need a Bill of Rights Culture to achieve this kind of America. But how could a Bill of Rights Culture work such a transformation on society?
It’s actually pretty simple. A Bill of Rights Culture is one in which governments have strictly limited delegated authority while individual people have a vast realm of rights.
Some of those rights are spelled out in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.
I maintain that if people simply understood the Bill of Rights and refused to quietly accept any violation of its provisions, we would all live in a freer country.
Beyond all the complexities of politics, all the millions of pages of bureaucratic rules and laws, all the billions of dollars in lobbying money and subsidies lies one simple solution. Put every, single thing government ever does to the “Bill of Rights test” and thousands of outrages and injustices will fall. If every law had to pass a Bill of Rights test it wouldn’t matter which party held Congress or the White House; our freedoms would be beyond the greedy reach of politicians.
How can the Bill of Rights do what I claim?
Some might accuse me of magical thinking. The Bill of Rights is nothing but a piece of paper with a few hundred words on it. How can a piece of paper possibly reform government, wipe away tyranny and terrorism, restore privacy, and do all the other things I claim?
Well, by itself, a piece of paper can obviously do nothing.
But widespread understanding of what’s on that paper – and the resulting refusal to settle for less – could swiftly cut through layers of confusion, complexity, and governmental inertia. By restoring the principles behind limited government, we would gradually limit government and make this country a better, freer place to live.
The more limits we place on government, the more empowered people are to live their own lives, build their own communities, and make reasonable decisions about their own lives.
The what and why of the Bill of Rights.
Here’s some background and insight into the Bill of Rights and why I believe that adherence to the bill could sweep away tyranny and give birth to freedom.
We must always return to the timeless fundamentals. Read the key words of the Bill of Rights’ preamble:
The Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.
In other words, the Bill of Rights does not (as some say) grant rights to the people. No, the Bill of Rights was written to protect rights we already have. The Bill of Rights puts strict limits on the power and scope of government to prevent government from interfering with our pre-existing rights. In other words, the Bill of Rights is a barrier erected to keep tyranny out of the country.
The Bill was added to the U.S. Constitution because state representatives feared that the Constitution, by itself, could be abused. Although the Constitution already spelled out only a limited array of powers that the federal government would have, many patriots saw the Constitution itself as a blueprint for big government. Many others simply feared that would-be tyrants could too easily override the Constitution’s limits to extend the power of the federal apparatus over both the states and the people.
So the states didn’t merely express a “desire” for a Bill of Rights, as the preamble politely says. Some states flatly refused to ratify the Constitution at all until they were assured that a Bill of Rights would be added.
Do you see how strongly the founders demanded the protection of their rightsLiberty was the principle for which so many had suffered and died. The founders would not lose it by agreeing to a Constitution without written protection of those rights that supported liberty.
As pointed out in Part 1, the founders’ worst fears are coming true today. Powerful central government swallows up the state and local governments. The bloated monster seems unstoppable without a dramatic change in our attitudes.
The federal government now recognizes virtually no legal limits on its scope of operations. It involves itself in everything from foreign adventures to what our children are taught and what we’re “allowed” to eat or drink. What it can’t achieve by law, it achieves by regulation (most of which is unconstitutional), or by sheer, brute force and intimidation.
Has the Bill of Rights failed?
Perhaps it has. Lacking strong citizen support, it has failed to curb the size and scope of central government. But even in its weakened, half-forgotten state it has still been the major factor in preserving what’s left of our our freedom of speech, self-defense rights, and rights to fair treatment in court.
But it isn’t the ideas of the Bill of Rights that have failed. The failure is ours. We as a people have largely failed to heed, understand, and protect those ideas.
Most of us are at least slightly familiar with the various rights listed in those first 10 amendments to the Constitution. They include (among others):
The rights to freedom of speech and a free press.
The right to peaceably assemble and petition the government when we have a complaint against it.
The right to practice our own religion and to be free of a state religion.
The right to own and use weapons.
The right to keep our possessions and paperwork free from arbitrary searches and seizures.
Various rights in criminal cases, such as the right to an attorney, the right not to incriminate ourselves, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, trial by jury, the right to question witnesses against us, the right not to be tried twice for the same offense, and several more important rights to ensure that we are not accused or imprisoned unjustly.
All that – and more -- is covered in the first eight amendments. Then come two that receive very little attention – but which may be the most important of all. We’ll quote them verbatim because they are central to creating a Bill of Rights Culture:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed
to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
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.
Taken together, these two amendments say – simply and clearly – that the federal government has only those specific and limited powers given to it in the Constitution. That means that individual people and the states are supposed to have much more power than the federal government does. The Ninth Amendment says, emphatically, that the rights listed here aren’t the only ones we have.
For instance, we’re always hearing people say, “The Constitution doesn’t guarantee any right to privacy.” Horsefeathers. Read the Ninth Amendment. A right to privacy is implicit. (And it’s also spelled out to some extent in the Fourth Amendment.)
If a question arises as to whether government or citizens have the greater authority in a Bill of Rights Culture – the rights of individual people would always prevail.
In a Bill of Rights Culture, that is what we would regain: the power to hold government action to the test. We the People would be self-governors – not the cowering subjects of an all-reaching state.
One final reminder about the Bill of Rights: These 10 amendments, as important as they are, do not give us anything. And we mean that in two senses.
First, as I already noted, the creators of the Bill of Rights believed that our rights were inborn – that by nature, such things as freedom of speech or the right to self defense belong to each of us as individuals. The Bill of Rights does not grant rights to us. It was erected as a “no trespassing” sign to government. It said, “These rights are already ours. Hands off!”
Second, as we’ve seen, a piece of paper and a collection of words, however noble, can’t give us anything. We must understand those words and the principles behind them. Then, because we value those principles of freedom so highly, we must say, “This is how I wish to live. I will respect the rights of other peaceable people even when I don’t like those people. I will expect the same level of respect from them. And we all have the right to demand that government respect our rights, keep out of our way, and remain within the limits that we grant it.”
Currently we’re far from achieving that free and happy state of mind or state of political respect. Getting there won’t be easy.
But here’s the insight we need. The job of regaining freedom will be much, much simpler and quicker if we do not have to battle every separate issue, chopping away at tree branches when the roots are what must be pulled. We really can return to a simple, understandable set of principles and base all our actions upon a solid rock: the Bill of Rights Test. Anything government does cannot violate the Bill of Rights. If it doesn’t pass this test, it fails. End of story.
In the future, I’ll be writing more thought pieces on the Bill of Rights culture. It’s important to look beyond the usual topics, such as free speech or the right to bear arms. A true Bill of Rights culture would improve everything from youth unemployment and inner-city gang warfare to today’s problems with Medicare and Social Security.
Over the coming years, I hope to see our children and our children’s children rising to embrace the principles of the Bill of Rights – and refusing to settle for anything less. The principles can work the magic.
Restoring freedom is hard. Doing nothing is worse. The question we must always ask ourselves is : Which do I prefer? The police state that’s now stealing my freedom -- or a Bill of Rights culture that I can help create tomorrow?
The Bill of Rights in 15 languages http://www.jpfo.org/your10rights/bortranslate.html
Contents of the Bill of Rights - Refresh yourself on the BoR.
JPFO’s "Freedom Pledge" - An adjunct to the Pledge of Allegiance.
"Gran’pa Jack’s “Common Sense” (on using the Bill of Rights) – A simple but surprisingly detailed cartoon booklet making rights understandable to anybody. http://shop.jpfo.org/cart.php?m=product_detail&p=29
Easy ways to celebrate Bill of Rights Day (December 15) http://www.jpfo.org/filegen-a-m/jpfobor.htm
Franklin D. Roosevelt made a Proclamation on BoR Day in 1941