Archive for Liberty

My Government I: The Construction of the Bill of Rights

Posted in civil rights, Constitution, First Amendment, My Government, politics, Second Amendment with tags , , , , on January 28, 2008 by Randy Streu

Some of you may recall a recent post here, called “What I Want In A Party,” in which I discussed what I percieve to be the role of government in these United States.  Over the next week or two, in between thoughts on interesting news tidbits and such, I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in a series titled “My Government.”

This, as you may well have surmised, is to be the first of those posts.

… liberty is not ‘granted’ by government.  Freedom cannot be given; it can only be limited, regulated or taken.  Liberty is granted by God.  It is the natural state.  Laws, in a democracy – or Democratic Republic, as more accurately describes the US — are intended to govern human decency; to establish a means of living with one another and forming a society.  Such laws are enacted with the limited purpose of providing a means of restitution for doing harm to another’s life, liberty or property.”
(from “What I Want In A Party, written January 11)

The Constitution of the United States is a beautifully written document.  In giving a thorough reading, we see that every single word used is deliberately placed.  This is to avoid the confusion that comes from using vague language. 

The most-often quoted passages from the Constitution are, of course, the first nine amendments: The Bill of Rights.  It’s interesting to note here that no Bill of Rights was included in the original Constitution.  The argument over this led Virginia delegate George Mason to withdraw his signature from the document.  The issue, according to USConstitution.net, was that the orginal drafters felt no Bill was necessary.  The Constitution, they said, did not grant the Federal Government the right to abridge or inhibit our natural rights — no “Bill of Rights” being therefore necessary.

This reasoning I find as compelling as the wording of what ultimately became the Bill of Rights itself.  The founding fathers had no desire to allow the Federal Government to restrict a single one of what they believed to be “inalienable” rights, and so deemed it pointless (or, perhaps, counterproductive) to create a list of rights the Federal Government couldn’t restrict.  This is telling, especially if we indeed wish to understand the intentions of the drafters of the document.

Ultimately, as we see, a Bill of Rights was decided on, after all.  So now, we look not only to the intentions of the writers, but to the words they finally chose to convey the ideas they reluctantly agreed to put on paper. 

First off, in examining the Bill of Rights, we see it is constructed mostly in the negative.  “Congress shall make no law…,”  “…shall not be infringed,” “…shall not be violated.”  In other words, this is not so much a “Bill of Rights,” but a list of limits on the power of Government.  With this language, the writers continue in the same vein as the rest of our Founding documents: that rights are not granted, but can only be limited.  The “Bill of Rights” isn’t a list of what you and I can do; it’s a list of what the Federal Government cannot.  It is a recognition of the facts that, A,  liberty is our natural state of being, and, B, government interference with this natural state must be limited as much as possible, while still maintaining civilization.

Fundamentally, the Bill of Rights, like the rest of the Constitution, is about the Federal government and its relationship to the individual citizen of the United States.  The language is specific to the Federal government, as opposed to the states; and the document ultimately calls for all rights not given to the Fed to revert back to the individual States, or to the citizens.  This is important because the powers granted to the Federal government are extremely limited.  The language of the document shows that the signers intended for the Federal government to have limited interference with the everyday private lives of individuals — not to grant rights, but to avoid trampling them.

I will take a closer look at the individual amendments in a later series.  But first, in future installments of “My Government,” I will discuss in more detail how this first basic concept of Liberty is translated in the Government’s responsibility to the citizens of the US, in economics, civil and national defense, and the protection of human life.

-Streu-

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