After all, it’s just outdated pieces of paper with little relevance today, right?
Imagine living in a world where there was never freedom of speech, freedom of the press, there was one State religion or none at all, where random searches of your home or person could happen at any time, where you were banned from owning weapons, where your land and home could be seized at the whim of politicians, and you had no right to a trial by jury. Imagine that rights were meaningless words to be interpreted by whomever was in power and you lived as a virtual slave at the grace of an aristocracy.
That’s the world the American Colonists lived in during the latter half of the 18th century. For the first half of the century, each of the thirteen colonies had charters with specific rights and responsibilities which the Crown and Parliament respected, for the most part. For all intents and purposes, Americans had been left alone for a very long time with the freedom to run their own affairs, so long as they behaved within the confines of the law. As proud British subjects, they did. However, after what we refer to as the French Indian War (what much of the rest of the world calls ‘The 7 Years War’), everything changed. Americans were expected to pay what Parliament and the King thought was their fair share. Though it was truly the first world war, much of it centered around lands in what would become the United States and it had cost Great Britain a tremendous amount of money to win. What led to the American War for Independence was a shift in British policy designed to force the American Colonies to pay England back when the Colonial charters enabled them to refuse to do so. From the Townsend Acts to the Boston Tea Party to the first attempt at gun confiscation at Lexington and Concord, Americans fought back, at first legally and later militarily.
But before shots were fired, when American Colonists referred to the British Constitution and their rights as Englishmen, they weren’t talking about a single document because it didn’t exist in the way we think of constitutions. They were talking about collections of judicial rulings, accepted interpretations of such documents as the Magna Carta, and the English Bill of Rights, and the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith. Collectively, these ideas were referred to as ‘the Constitution’. Unknown to Americans though, their understanding of what these documents said had become entirely different from what the King and Parliament understood them to mean. After having been left alone for so long, Americans assembled the wide range of legal precedence into a coherent and logical political view that would lead to the longest-standing, freest nation in history. When they quoted these ideas as arguments in defense against British tyranny, the British courts simply reinterpreted these supposed “rights” away to suit the Crown’s wishes. As a result, American colonists quickly learned that in the eyes of Great Britain, they had no rights at all.
The solution? About a third of them took on the greatest military in the world, gambled everything, and decided that dying free was better than living as subjects without rights. The very first thing they did was to address the nebulous quality of this collection of writings, case law and philosophy that comprised the British Constitution by creating a single document that spelled out exactly what their new national government could and couldn’t do. The result was the first American constitution: the Articles of Confederation. And by all accounts, it was a dismal failure that greatly hindered the newly founded Republic’s quest for sovereignty.
Eight years later, when the fighting had finally stopped, Americans had won our independence at Yorktown. One of the first tasks that needed to be addressed was fixing the Articles of Confederation. But rather than doing that, Congress shut the doors, closed the curtains and threw it away completely, instead adopting James Madison’s constitution as the foundation for what would eventually become our current U.S. Constitution.
From this experience of having rights dissolved through legal interpretation, our Bill of Rights was adopted as a compromise to further ensure that our own government would not become the enemy of individual and States’ rights that the English government had.
So why should we care about the U.S. Constitution? Because it is the contract between the U.S. Citizenry and our employees, the Federal Government. Just as in our private lives we have contracts with employees, employers, landlords, tenants, internet service providers, etc.; our Constitution spells out the terms. However, there is one very important difference: The purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to limit government power, not the rights of the citizenry.
If a specific power is not granted in it to the Federal Government, it is not a Federal Power. We know this not only from the words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights themselves, but also from the writings and speeches of our founders. Though our Constitution lays out precisely what powers and responsibilities the Federal Government has, it makes clear that when the interests of government come in conflict with the rights of individuals, (except in rare instances such as war or national infrastructure) government must yield. It accomplishes this through the establishment of a series of checks and balances including our tricameral system separating the executive, judicial and legislative branches, the power of juries (particularly grand juries), impeachment, a free press, and the right to keep and bear arms, among others. And just like in personal life, when one party is in breach of contract, the contract becomes null and void, as stated so eloquently by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
Our founders understood that government is a necessary evil which naturally attracts exactly the wrong kinds of people, and should therefore be kept small and local. They also understood that the Constitution would need to be changed occasionally to suit the times and most importantly, the will of the citizenry. So, they included in it specific means of doing so: Constitutional Convention. However, in order to shield the rights of the people from the citizenry’s short-term passions and tyranny of the majority (which they understood has always been a major threat to democracies historically) they intentionally made it difficult. This fact, more so than any other, has frustrated and infuriated would-be tyrants since our beginnings.
Once again, Americans’ rights are being interpreted away. Like Great Britain 200 years ago, they have discovered a strategy to circumvent it which enables them to slowly erode our rights and force compliance with their will. This time the threat is not from some outside force, as was the case in the 18th century, but through domestic subversion by individuals and organizations who fundamentally disagree with our founding principles. They willingly take their oaths of office “to support and defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic” and then promptly begin the process of systematically dismantling it. The fact that we have not amended our Constitution for almost 50 years lends great power to their ability to garner public support for their strategy of using courts, unelected bureaucrats and executive action to make decrees that are entirely contradictory to what it clearly written in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Consider this quote from Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Twitter in October of 2015:
“If Congress refuses to act to end this epidemic of gun violence, I’ll take administrative action to do so.”
The other strategy taken from the pages of history and used by would-be tyrants is the refusal to uphold the rule of law. Each President takes an oath of office, as proscribed in the U.S. Constitution that says:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
However, the current administration has demonstrated time and time again its willingness to intentionally choose which laws to enforce and which to ignore. Its actions have been struck down by the Supreme Court more so than any other administration in modern history. We have seen an increased willingness among politicians in both parties to lie, cheat, steal and silence dissent through any means possible in order to achieve their personal lust for power and wealth.
Unfortunately, much of the American public knows nothing of history, our Constitution, Bill of Rights or the importance of the rule of law. Unless or until this changes, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights will become exactly what their enemies describe them to be: just outdated pieces of paper with little relevance today.