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December 15 is the anniversary of the ratification of the highest law of the land -- the first ten amendments made to the United States Constitution -- commonly known as the Bill of Rights. This document, the spirit of liberty it represents, is arguably the only thing that makes American different from any other country in the history of the world.
However there are important facts about the Bill of Rights most people aren't aware of. To begin with, it is far from the first "bill of rights" in history. Look up the Bill of Rights online. You will find it lost among dozens of similar declarations made by the rulers of nations in which people have no rights, never did, and likely never will.
Nor is it the first to be violated by the authorities. There were, for example, several Magna Cartas, which the cornered King John signed grudgingly and violated as soon as he had sufficient power. He wasn't the first to believe that, if he made the law, he was above the law. Hence the Psalmist's warning, "Put not thy trust in princes." The Bill of Rights today is in the greatest danger it has faced since the War Between the States, when it was gleefully cast aside by the Lincoln Administration.
A second -- and probably the most important fact about the Bill of Rights, is that it creates no rights, nor does it grant rights of any kind to anybody. The Bill of Rights is not just a laundry list of things that the government generously allows the people to do, it is a list of things the government is absolutely forbidden to do, under any circumstances.
Perhaps it would have been better -- and certainly more accurate -- to call it the "Bill of Prohibitions" or the "Bill of Limitations". It may sound awkward, "Bill of Limitations", but if we'd been saying it every day for the past 222 years, it would come trippingly off the tongue.
A third important thing to know about the Bill of Rights is that, although it came last among our nation's founding documents, it is the basis on which everything else rests. The Articles of Confederation (America's second founding document, following the Declaration of Independence) were rejected because they failed to give enough power, and therefore money, to certain elites -- mainly bankers like Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton -- already forming up within the new country,
The elites called themselves "Federalists". The "Anti-federalists" -- Thomas Jefferson prominently among them -- insisted on a Bill of Rights, limits on government power over the individual, as an absolute condition on which their acceptance of the rest of the Constitution depended.
All political power in the United States ultimately derives from the Constitution. And since it is in the nature of amendments that they supercede and take precedence over everything that came before them, that makes the Bill of Rights the highest law of the land. To any extent that politicians and bureaucrats ignore or abuse the Bill of Rights, to that extent they undermine and nullify their own authority.
They need to be made aware of that.
Incidentally, those who worry that their Second Amendment rights may be taken way by treaties, with the United Nations, for example, should take comfort in the fact that, while treaties are given equivalence to the main body of the Constitution, as well as other laws by the very nature of amendments, nothing trumps the Bill of Rights.
But I digress.
This "auto-nullification " (to coin a term) may be why no penalty clause was ever written -- as it should have been -- into the Bill of Rights to deter renegade bureaucrats and politicians, Given the intelligence of the Founders, it certainly couldn't have been an accident (although it may reflect Hamiltonian skullduggery). But if that's the case, the subtlety of the thing has been lost on subsequent generations.
There are those, theoretically on the side of freedom, who hold that the Bill of Rights is "only a piece of paper" of no real value, because it can't enforce itself. However, no agreement of any kind is self-enforcing. Ordinary contracts occasionally have to be enforced by the law, figuratively, or even literally, at gunpoint (while we continue to look for better ways to do it). However when the contract is with the law itself, citizens may have to call upon the Second Amendment.
That's what it's there for.
Finally, there are some who insist that there are no absolutes in life, and that the whole world, or at least the world of morality, is made of Silly Putty. However if the Bill of Rights was not meant to be absolute, an idea that invariably finds favor among the intellectual palace guard -- pundits, politicians, and professors during periods of government lawlessness, why did the Founders even bother to write it?
I am content that the Bill of Rights means what the Founders meant it to mean, and that I can understand what they intended. They were a generation of plain-spoken men who wrote clearly and beautifully. It is my purpose in life -- and you ought to make it yours -- to see that the guarantees that they made us are stringently and energetically enforced.
(Get your own Bill of Rights Day Kit from the JPFO store)
Author and lecturer L. Neil Smith is Senior Editorial Consultant for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. A fifty-year veteran of the libertarian movement, he is the Author of 33 books including The Probability Broach, Ceres, Sweeter Than Wine, And Down With Power: libertarian Policy In A Time Of Crisis. He is also the Publisher of The Libertarian Enterprise, now in its 17th year online.
Visit the Neil Smith archive on JPFO.
© Copyright Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership 2013.