It wasn’t just the Boston Tea Party that set off the American Revolution and eventually led to the establishment of our constitutional republic. It was a string of abuses by the British government, whereby “natural” freedoms were embedded as The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. That declaration of rights, however, is no guarantee. They could just as easily be a guide to The Dictator’s Handbook.
The Bill of Rights within the U.S. Constitution is grounded in English common law whose origins date back to the thirteenth century. Memorialized in the 1215 Magna Carta, meaning “Great Charter,” the King of England was forced by a group of barons to cede some of his absolute power. Following decades of turmoil, it came to be generally accepted that the English king had to operate according to the law. While the ability to check the king’s power was limited to a group of land-holding barons and other elites, the seeds of human liberty had found a soil in which to grow.
By the seventeenth century, the English idea of liberty included the right to due process; those accused of wrongdoing were to be judged by one’s peers according to the law, and before being punished.
ABUSES LEADING TO DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, REVOLUTION, AND CONSTITUTION
English common law was carried to the New World as individual colonial governments were framed with a belief in limited and representative government. Increasingly, these colonial governments adopted the Enlightenment idea that the purpose of government was to protect the rights of the people.
By 1750, in regard to free white men, many of the general principles of human liberty that we hold dear today were honored by British and colonial governments.
By the 1760s, however, a growing number of colonists argued that this relationship between the people and their government was breaking down. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the British government imposed taxes upon the colonists without their consent, cut off colonial trade, did away with the right to a jury trial, ousted duly elected colonial representatives, introduced standing armies to impose British will, took the homes of colonists to house British troops, and ignored petitions and other appeals to redress these grievances. (See the 1776 Declaration of Independence wherein roughly two-thirds of the document is comprised of a long list of these and other abuses committed by King George III and the British Parliament.)
Once independence was won and a Constitutional Convention replaced America’s first constitution (the Articles of Confederation), debate continued regarding the addition of a bill of rights in order to further protect citizens from the very abuses of power they had endured while tied to Britain.
In 1791, the first ten amendments were added to the Constitution and are known collectively as the Bill of Rights. Not surprisingly, the protected rights speak directly to the British government’s abuses that led to revolution in the first place.
The First Amendment guarantees the free flow of ideas which are essential to liberty. Since most people in the eighteenth century founded much of their thinking on the values embraced through their religious faith, this amendment also prohibits Congress from promoting one religion over another. There have been some limits placed on these rights, especially when their exercise clashes with the rights of others.
The Second Amendment protects the “right to bear arms.” The degree to what limits can be placed upon this right has been hotly debated in recent decades.
The Third Amendment limits the military’s power to quarter troops in private homes to “only in war time” and, further, only as “prescribed by law.” This amendment is a direct reaction to British behavior in Boston before the Revolution.
Also following the abusive behavior of the British prior to the Revolution, the Fourth through Eighth Amendments all deal with the treatment of those investigated by, judged by, and ultimately punished by the criminal justice system.
The final two amendments in the Bill of Rights tie up some of the loose ends in regard to the rights of the people and the power of the government: The Ninth Amendment ensures that listing the Bill of Rights does not deny the existence of other rights. The Tenth Amendment provides that any power “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it,” belongs to the states or the people.
MORE VISION THAN REALITY
It is a common misconception that the Bill of Rights grants rights to citizens.
This is just not so and the reason illustrates more clearly the relationship that the people of the United States have with their government. To wit, government exists to protect rights that we already have by virtue of our humanity. In other words, these rights, many of which are enumerated in the Bill of Rights, are “natural” to the human condition. As proscribed in the 1776 Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This grand statement of the naturalness of human liberty requires a rather large asterisk. It didn’t account for slavery and the exclusion of women, non-white males, and those without property. Its pronouncement set America on a course to determine whether such an idealistic notion of humanity could ever someday be realized. This is the reason that America is often referred to as an “experiment” because the adopters of the Declaration were fully aware that these high words were more vision than reality.
Indeed, many of the protections enshrined in the Bill of Rights serve as a reminder of the manner in which authoritarian governments undermine liberty; including the authoritarian aspects of American society.
THE DICTATOR’S HANDBOOK
If one were to write a Dictator’s Handbook, it would be wise to begin with the Bill of Rights as a guide. Dictators deny free speech and control the press (Amendment 1). Dictators limit the ability of citizens to assemble publicly in order to share ideas of common concern (1). Dictators manage religious faith and sometimes claim divine authority (1). Dictators disarm the people (2); search and seize property (3/4); deny the due process of law (5/6/7); and punish rivals and discontents at will (8).
This is no hypothetical proposition and certainly not a suggestion of only one way to become a dictator; it is the way to become a dictator.
Having just rid themselves of a tyrannical government, the Founders were acutely aware that any government had the potential to abuse the rights of its people. The Bill of Rights, therefore, is written to limit the law-making power of the “Congress” who “shall make no law” interfering with free speech, a free press, and so on.
Of course, our history is filled with instances of government entities abusing the rights of citizens.
The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution as a whole for that matter, provide the remedies to address these abuses—elections, freedom of expression, due process, judicial review and, when all else fails, the right to bear arms. Regarding the final remedy, I refer you to the American Civil War wherein the Confederacy claimed the revolution they engaged in was principled after the American Revolution. In other words, sometimes these matters are settled on the battlefield.
Indeed, a founding principle of this country is that if a government engages in “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” it becomes the “right” and “duty” of the people to “throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
While this statement was presented in 1776 to justify Colonial rebellion against Great Britain, it is also clear commentary that any and all governments that fail to protect the rights of the people should be replaced.