December 15: Bill of Rights Day

Bill of Rights document

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.

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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 the states.

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.

Jahr: 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?

Reed: He 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 principles?

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 from the 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."

Jahr: Thanks!

Reed: Happy Bill of Rights Day!


The Bill of Rights

Amendment I

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.

Amendment II

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.

Amendment III

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 law.

Amendment IV

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.

Amendment V

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.

Amendment VI

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.

Amendment VII

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.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

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 the people.