After fighting a war to win liberty from a tyrannical government, Anti-Federalists — a faction of our Founding Fathers led primarily by Patrick Henry distrustful of a strong national government — pushed for amendments to the Constitution to identify fundamental natural rights and civil liberties. Such a Bill of Rights, they believed, was necessary because of the known propensity of governments generally to usurp powers not delegated to it.
Yet some, such as James Madison, initially fought such a move, based on the principle that there is no need to say what a government cannot do, because that could imply it can do everything else.
In the final analysis, however, Madison took the lead in the Congress in support of the first ten amendments to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights, because not to do so likely would have doomed the entire process. He therefore, but reluctantly, drafted 12 proposals to settle concerns of Anti-Federalists; 10 were initially ratified.
The political and legal battles pitting individual liberties against growing government power have been waged ever since; even to the 112th Congress set to convene within days. Historically and currently, government has notched far more victories on its belt than has the citizenry. Clearly, one reason for the continued growth of government power – and the necessarily corresponding reduction in individual liberty – has been the growing public misunderstanding of the intended role of government and the distressing ignorance of our Constitution itself.
According to a survey conducted earlier this month for the Bill of Rights Institute by Harris Interactive, for example, nearly half of the American people – some 42 percent — believe that the communist phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is part of one of the more important documents in American history. Through ignorance and forgotten history, Karl Marx has morphed into James Madison in the mind of the American people.
Other aspects of the survey are equally disconcerting, though not necessarily surprising. Fifty-five percent do not realize that education is not a First Amendment right; despite no such guarantee anywhere in either the Bill of Rights or the body of the original Constitution.
Only 20 percent can identify the Tenth Amendment as the part of the Bill of Rights that reserves powers not expressly authorized in the Constitution to the states or the people themselves. And a stunning 60 percent could not recognize the powers of the government deriving from the consent of the governed as a unique American principle.
As the lack of understanding of fundamental rights fades away, so too will the Rule of Law. Rights will be treated as permissions granted by the government, and the pendulum will continue to swing toward statism.
In this coming New Year, perhaps we can all resolve to do more to raise awareness to the documents that protect the liberties we have so fortunately lived under. But I’m not sure I would urge holding one’s breath waiting for such enlightenment to take place.
- by Bob Barr, The Barr Code