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Bill of Rights Milestone

January 9, 1998

By James Bovard

(Originally appeared in The Washington Times on 12/21/97)

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December 15 was the 206th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights -- the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the U.S. This should be one of the most honored civic days on the American calendar. Unfortunately, most Americans never noticed the occasion -- in the same way that many people seem not to notice how the government is increasingly violating their constitutional rights.

However, there is a grassroots movement across the country seeking to wake Americans up to this anniversary and its meaning by consecrating December 15 as the official Bill of Rights day. Governments across the country in recent weeks have passed resolutions or issued proclamations proclaiming "Bill of Rights Day."

  • he City Commission of Valley City, North Dakota, passed a resolution proclaiming, "The rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights deserve perennial celebrations; the sacrifices made to protect the Bill of Rights deserve eternal remembrance."
  • The mayor of Houston, Texas, proclaimed, "The Bill of Rights recognizes, affirms, and protects fundamental human and civil rights for which persons of all races have struggled for thousands of years."
  • The Cobb County, Georgia Board of Commissioners issued a proclamation encouraging "all residents to reflect upon the meaning and importance of the Bill of Rights, and pay respects to the memory of those who sacrificed to create and protect the freedoms this document represents."
  • Morgan County, Indiana proclaimed December 15 as Bill of Rights Day and ordered the Bill of Rights to be posted in county buildings for the occasion. Even a spokesman for the Indiana Civil Liberties Union agreed that the Bill of Rights "probably should be displayed."

If a citizen does not know his rights, then, for all practical purposes in his disputes with government officials, he does not have them. A 1991 poll commissioned by the American Bar Association found that only 33% of Americans surveyed knew what the Bill of Rights was. A Gallup poll found that 70 percent of respondents did not know what the First Amendment was or what it dealt with. Given this level of ignorance, it is surprising that politicians have not usurped even more power.

At the least, people could celebrate the anniversary of the Bill of Rights' ratification by sitting and quietly reading the original Bill of Rights. Since the text itself is less than 500 words, it should not take most high school graduates more than half an hour to read. Perhaps some docile Americans will be snapped awake to learn that the Founding Fathers gave them a right against being subjected to "unreasonable searches and seizures."

The essence of the Bill of the Rights was to place limits on the power of government and to enshrine the rights of individuals. Recognizing the anniversary of the Bill of Rights could encourage a whole different attitude on the relation of the citizen to the State -- in contrast to the annual Washington celebration of the anniversary of the FDR's signing of the Social Security Act, which should be marked annually by rattling of tens of millions of tin cups.

The push to make December 15 Bill of Rights Day is being led by an organization called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO). Aaron Zelman, JPFO's chief, urges the creation of the holiday as a recognition as "all the bill of rights for all the people." Zelman declared that the resolutions on the Bill of Rights Day signaled "zero tolerance for the freedom-haters and rights-destroyers" in this society. JPFO members across the nation have taken the lead in urging their local governments to enact resolutions. Zelman stresses that the movement to celebrate the Bill of Rights anniversary must arise from the citizens themselves and smaller governments -- since it was they who the Bill of Rights intended to protect against the depredations of the federal government.

Celebrating the Bill of Rights day is a superb idea -- as long as not a single government employee gets another paid holiday in the bargain. Americans need to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers in order to understand the abuses of contemporary governments -- and to learn how to put government back in its place.


James Bovard is the author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty" (St. Martin's Press, April, 1994), and is an adjunct analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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