Editor’s note: In a letter to supporters earlier this month, Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed wrote the following paragraphs.
As 2007 comes to a close, we will each observe the holidays
according to our personal wishes — a precious right won for us by past and
present patriots. All of us at the Mackinac Center hope you and yours will enjoy a blessed and bountiful holiday season while remembering the real reasons for it.
I wouldn’t want the year to end, though, without noting
"the holiday that isn’t." It’s not recognized officially and few Americans
really know of it. I had to be reminded of it by a friend from Arizona. It’s
December 15. It was on that date in 1791 that the fledgling United States of
America formally adopted what we know as the Bill of Rights, the first 10
amendments to the Constitution.
A "Bill of Rights Day" is not on the calendar, but a free
people don’t have to wait for Congress to declare a holiday to celebrate one. On
December 15, take a moment to reread the Bill of Rights and reflect on its
importance. Call it to the attention of friends and family. These 10 amendments,
without which the Constitution itself would probably not have been accepted,
guarantee freedom of religion, speech, the press,
peaceful assembly and petition; the rights of the people to keep and bear arms,
and to hold private property; rights to fair treatment for people accused of
crimes, protection from unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination;
and rights to a speedy and impartial jury trial and representation by counsel.
In this modern and supposedly enlightened age, not many
people among the world’s 6.6 billion can honestly say they enjoy many of these
rights to their fullest — or at all. Even here, we have to work hard to educate
fellow citizens of the liberties the Bill of Rights is meant to protect. There
are plenty in our midst who would sacrifice one or more liberties for the
temporary and dubious security of a government program. No wonder Benjamin
Franklin said the Constitution gave us "a republic, madam, if you can keep it."
The Mackinac Center addresses policy issues from government
budgets to environmental protection to education, but sound policy is ultimately
rooted in respect for the lives, property and freedoms of responsible citizens.
That’s why when I wish you "Happy Holidays," I am thinking of December 15 as
well as the ones we normally celebrate.
Following up on that letter, Director of
Communications Michael Jahr sat down for a brief interview with Reed to explore
further the history and significance of the Constitution’s first 10 amendments.
Below the interview we reprint the Bill of Rights itself:
Jahr: In the grand scheme of American liberty, how
important is the Bill of Rights?
Reed: It’s fundamental and foundational, and about
as bedrock as it gets. In fewer than 500 words, many of our most cherished
liberties are expressed as rights and unequivocally protected. It’s a roster of
instructions to government to keep out of where it doesn’t belong. It bears the
heavy imprint of a giant of republican government, James Madison.
Jahr: How did it come about in the first place? Why
did such critical protections end up as amendments instead of as core elements
of the primary document?
Reed: Recall that the Second Continental Congress,
originally convened in 1775 at the outbreak of hostilities with the mother
country, adopted the Articles of Confederation as the new nation’s first formal
national government. Many Americans came to believe by the late 1780s, however,
that the Articles were weak and inadequate. The Constitutional Convention of
1787 produced a draft Constitution to replace them, subject to ratification by
A great debate ensued and people lined up in one camp or
the other — the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists. The former favored the
Constitution and in most cases, at least at first, without any amendments. The
latter either opposed it altogether or conditioned their approval on adoption of
stronger protections for individual liberties.
Keep in mind that virtually all of the leading figures in
this great debate were libertarians by today’s standards. They all believed in
liberty and limited government. Even the least libertarian among them would be
horrified if he could see how later generations have ballooned the size and
intrusiveness of the federal establishment. It never occurred to the most ardent
Federalist that government should rob Peter to pay Paul for his health care, art
work, alternative energy, prescription drugs, hurricane relief or his notions of
regime change in Somalia.
So even without the Bill of Rights, the Constitution
represented a huge advance for civilization. But during the ratification debate,
enough citizens were wary of any centralization of power that they wanted to go
further. I think they instinctively understood something that Thomas Jefferson
once so aptly expressed, "The natural tendency of
things, it seems, is for government to grow and for liberty to retreat." When
the Massachusetts Legislature made it clear it would not ratify the Constitution
unless language was added to strengthen individual rights, it triggered a
movement among the states to do just that.
Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution" because he was its primary
author and, along with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, part of the trio that
wrote the Federalist Papers in its defense. What did he think of amending it?
changed his mind on that question. At first, he was of the view that enumerating
some rights in the form of amendments would open the door to government
violations of any that were not listed. He eventually met that very
objection by devising what became the Ninth Amendment: "The enumeration
in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or
disparage others retained by the people." Madison became one of the most
eloquent defenders of the Bill of Rights and it is unlikely the Constitution
would have been ratified without him or them.
In 1789, New Jersey was the first state to adopt the 10
amendments and when Virginia did so on Dec. 15, 1791, they became part of the
supreme law of the land.
Jahr: Do you think Americans today fully appreciate
the Bill of Rights and the liberties it was intended to ensure?
Reed: No, sadly. Almost everybody would say they
endorse them but the way they act and vote shows otherwise. The prohibition
against the establishment of religion has been misconstrued to authorize
government hostility to religion itself. The right of self-defense through the
possessions of arms is always in jeopardy, though the U.S. Supreme Court will
hopefully clarify that for the best in an expected landmark ruling in 2008.
Property rights are under assault by every level of government through such
devices as eminent domain, regulatory takings and civil asset forfeiture. I
think the spirit, if not the letter, of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments is
sundered every day of the week and the best evidence of that is the mere
presence of a monumental Leviathan in Washington, D.C. It squanders so much of
the people’s wealth and dictates so many aspects of daily life that it makes
King George’s rule seem positively benign by comparison. On and on it goes. Too
many Americans expect far too much from government and they treat politicians
like we work for them instead of the other way around.
Fortunately, not every American is willing to give up his
birthright for a bowl of lentil stew as Esau did in Genesis 25. A growing
movement of people and organizations is working to educate people about
liberties, both the lost ones and the ones we still have that need to be shored
up. The Mackinac Center is part of that movement and indeed one of its leaders.
With regard to the Bill of Rights in particular, the
Bill of Rights Institute is producing instructional materials and sponsoring
seminars about America’s foundational documents.
Jahr: Aside from visiting the Web site of the
Institute you just mentioned, what would you recommend a person read if he or
she wanted to know more about the Bill of Rights and important constitutional
Reed: Here are some good ones: "We the People" by
Forrest McDonald; "Fighting for Liberty and Virtue" by Marvin Olasky; "Simple
Rules for a Complex World" by Richard Epstein; "Restoring
the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty" by Randy Barnett; and "Origins of the Bill of Rights" by Leonard
Levy. More sweeping in their coverage of American history but incorporating
excellent perspectives on the issues of the 1780s are "A History of the American
People" by Paul Johnson and "A Patriot’s History of the United States" by Larry
Schweikart and Michael Patrick Allen.
One final suggestion, especially for those who have a
special interest in issues involving the Second Amendment. My friend Bob Levy
Cato Institute is a key figure in the D.C. gun ban case that the Supreme
Court will rule on before next summer. He’s a top legal and constitutional
scholar. I recommend these two articles by him: "Thanks
to the Second Amendment" and "The
D.C. Gun Ban: Supreme Court Preview."
Reed: Happy Bill of Rights Day!
The Bill of
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,
the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the
consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and
no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or
affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the
persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime,
unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising
in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time
of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to
be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal
case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or
property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for
public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy
and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the
crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously
ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the
accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory
process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of
counsel for his defense.
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty
dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a
jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than
according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel
and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be
construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor
prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to