Constitution Day: Distrust, Tyranny, and the Bill of Rights

Part 1 of 5 on understanding the Bill of Rights
September 16, 2018 Updated: September 20, 2018

In honor of U.S. Constitution Day, on Sept. 17, we present a five-part series on the Bill of Rights. It reveals how the first 10 amendments to the Constitution guarantee freedom of speech, religion, and the press, and, in so many other ways, limit the power of the federal government and secure the rights of individuals.

Thomas Jefferson said: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When people fear the government, there is tyranny.”

A recent Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans see big government as the most significant threat to the nation. (To compare, 21 percent said big business and only 5 percent said big labor.) That’s not a good sign for big government. Of course, the truth is that Americans—throughout history—have been distrustful of government. After all, this nation sprung out of a revolution that overthrew a king who most Americans saw as tyrannical.

The Bill of Rights, one of America’s foundational documents, was designed specifically to address this distrust by limiting the power of the federal government and thereby preventing a new tyranny. As such, the Bill of Rights is the single most powerful and successful assertion of individual rights and liberties ever written. It is one of history’s most important and influential documents and the world’s best road map for human rights and freedom from oppression.

To understand the Bill of Rights, look back to colonial days.  Back then, there was no national “American” identity. To the extent there was something bigger than the colony, it was England.  Of course, a great deal of resentment toward England developed even prior to the Revolutionary War. During the war, it only got worse. Nevertheless, after the colonists overthrew England, it became clear that they needed some type of union to facilitate trade and self-defense. They didn’t want to create a new King George, but rather a strong central government that might do the same kind of things that the British had done.

Richard Henry Lee, a statesman from Virginia, said, “The first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be, never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society.”

So, in that hot summer in Philadelphia, in 1787, as the founders were hammering out a new constitution with its separation of powers and checks and balances, they also discussed the need for a provision that would limit the authority of this new central government—a bill of rights.

John Adams refused to support the Constitution unless the Federalists could guarantee “that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States … from keeping their own arms; … or to subject the people to unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, papers or possessions.”

Others argued that if the Constitution contained enumerated rights, it might be construed as excluding those not named. Hamilton, for instance, in Federalist 84, said: “I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted.”

So, some people wanted a bill to limit the federal government, while others opposed such a bill not because they wanted a significant federal government, but because they, too, were afraid of a strong central government. The sovereignty of the states was a principle on which both sides of this debate agreed.

The Constitution was eventually drafted without a Bill of Rights. At that point, an interesting thing happened. When it was sent to the states for ratification, it rapidly became clear that the Constitution wouldn’t be approved without a list of enumerated rights. So, an agreement was reached. The Constitution would be ratified as written, but the first Congress would add a bill of rights.

James Madison, who had originally opposed having a bill of rights, undertook the task of preparing the document, and here, he showed his true genius. First of all, he had to identify the rights that would be included. Over 200 suggestions were sent in from the states, and he had to decide which to keep and which to eliminate.

Madison took the suggestions and distilled them to 20 amendments with a separate preamble. Some representatives opposed the proposal, arguing that any move to amend the new Constitution so soon after its implementation would create an appearance of instability in the government, but the House of Representatives ultimately approved a version with 17 amendments. This version went to the Senate, where it underwent more extensive revisions and emerged as a document containing 12 amendments. Congress approved this “final” bill of rights, as a joint resolution on Sept. 25, 1789.

The document sent to the colonies for ratification had 12 proposed amendments, but only 10 of those were ratified. Those 10 are now familiar to Americans as the Bill of Rights. Of the two that weren’t ratified, the first dealt with the size of electoral districts and was never ratified. A version of the second proposed amendment, which prohibits pay raises for Congress members until the next election, eventually was ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment. (It’s amusing when people speak of the special honor given to the First Amendment. After all, it was initially proposed as the third!)

The brilliance of the Bill of Rights is that it doesn’t actually grant rights to U.S. citizens. It assumes that the rights exist, and restricts the government from interfering. In a literal sense, the Bill of Rights isn’t a list of rights but a list of restrictions on governmental power, and it stems from the traditional American concern about the dangers of a strong central government.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten chair in law and government at The University of Mississippi. He is the author of several books, including “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” “Disinformation” (co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa), and “The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East” (co-edited with Jane Adolphe).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.