Anniversary Post: Bill of Rights

James MadisonOn this day in 1789, the US Congress passed what would become known as the Bill of Rights. It would take another two years for them to be ratified. What I find constantly amazing about them is how simple minded people are about them. It is hard to speak of myself in the present tense, but when I was an ignorant libertarian, I had the Tenth Amendment all wrong. And there is now a name for such people: Tenthers — although I like to think that I thought a bit more deeply than these people do.

The Tenth Amendment says, “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.” Tenthers normally cram the word “expressly” right before “delegated.” If that were what the Constitution said, then it would indeed put ridiculous limits on the federal government. But it doesn’t say that for a very good reason: that was what the Articles of Confederation said, “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” And it created a wholly ungovernable country!

The truth is that the Tenthers are mostly a bunch of pretenders. They generally are all for the federal government running roughshod over state and local rights. It’s just a question of what the issue is. Is it drug law? Then its okay! Is it same sex marriage? Then it’s a violation of the Constitution! And we are not just talking about loons here. There was quite a bit of discussion of the issue at the last Republican debate. It’s silly and dangerous.

But I don’t want we liberals to get off easy here. In general, I have a very big problem with the way that both conservatives and liberals talk about the Second Amendment. When I hear conservatives talking about how the Second Amendment is all about stopping government tyranny, I just want to gouge my eyes out. That was not the intent. In fact, it makes no sense: if you were living under a tyrant, she wouldn’t abide by the people’s rights. The whole point of the Constitution is to create a federal government strong enough to protect your rights!

At the same time, the liberal view that the Second Amendment is all about militias and nothing more is not true. We as liberals — more than anyone else — must understand that the Constitution is a living document. We can’t be locked into what a bunch of rich men thought two centuries ago. Over time, the Bill of Rights has been interpreted and we have learned new things about it. And for well over a century, the Second Amendment has been interpreted as a right to individual gun ownership. So it really doesn’t mean anything to whip out a pocket Constitution and read, “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.”

This is a good day to go and read the Bill of Rights. The truth is that most people who talk about the Constitution and Bill of Rights have never actually read it. It’s something that they think they just “know” — as though Americans are born with it just like HP laptops are “born” with McAfee Antivirus software. But we aren’t. And so the Constitution becomes something like magical text that proves that each of us is right about all of our prejudices.

18 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Bill of Rights

  1. I like to use the 4th to needle my right wing anti-choice colleagues about abortion. They generally do not find my teasing amusing.

    • Yeah, conservatives only really like the 2nd and the 10th. And the only reason they like the 10th is because they mis-remember it as it was written in the Articles of Confederation. The 4th is obviously out because it is anti-authoritarian. I’m fond of noting that the things that those freedom loving conservatives want to spend more money on are the things that governments have traditionally used to oppress their people: police, military, spying agencies. Greater public library funding is not a threat freedom.

      • Public libraries are a huge threat to freedom, because private enterprise can do what they do and infinitely better. So the Founders said, so must it be true. Except Ben Franklin, who started our first public library. And found Tom Paine lurking in an English bookstore and encouraged him to come to America. But, aside from that, libraries are socialism!

        • Is that true of Paine and Franklin? I don’t know much about Paine’s early life. I should read a biography.

          I know the libertarian response to my argument, “Public libraries are great! But they depend upon money being coerced in the form of taxes, which are slavery, blah, blah, blah.” And on the issue of the military, well, they only believe in a small one. But what if a big authoritarian government nearby starts a military buildup? Well, we would have to have a larger military. And so on until the libertarian “utopia” is just as bloated and authoritarian as the other government that at least has the benefit of not pretending.

          • It IS true! When you read a bio of Paine, you’ll like him even more. Jailbreaks, runs from the law, exciting stuff!

            What’s so neat about the guy is that, unlike our modern cowards who want to say provocative things and get courage points for whining whenever they’re called out for being bigots, Paine wasn’t trying to get in trouble. He seems to have sincerely believed that if he explained himself clearly enough, he could criticize governments and churches and everyone would see the good sense of his views. So of course he was always in trouble.

            Franklin was Paine’s main patron at first. He kinda abandoned Paine when he ended up in French jail, but then so did Jefferson (even though both Franklin & Jefferson probably agreed with most of what Paine got into trouble saying.)

            My favorite Paine/founder story? Paine would hang out at Mt. Vernon and set fire to natural gas bubbling in the river with George. Just some guys, drinking and setting s**t on fire, because that’s fun to do.

            • Interesting. I will definitely pick up a book. Although Jefferson did come through for Paine at the end of his life, getting him back in the country when most people thought Paine was Satan because of The Age of Reason.

      • They do use the claim that since it is written in the Constitution it is okay to have a military. They ignore the rest of the sentences. And I have actually have had one say he was okay with giving up the Air Force since it is not listed in the constitution. -.-

        • People who constantly talk about the Constitution are very much like people who constantly talk about the Bible. Very little thought has been given, and they usually haven’t read it. What they know is what has been dished out by others in their tribe.

          • Even if they do read it, they often do not understand it because it was written pretty subtly thanks to the Committee of Style and Arrangement that made it all pretty like. They packed a lot of meaning into a few elegant phrases much like how in high school English class, my teacher spent a half hour going over all the different meanings you could tease out of the sentence “Call me Ishmael.” Then when you add in the Amendments, their brains turn into total mush.

            • Ah, I would love to have a bunch of people to discuss Moby Dick with. I’m so desperate to talk about Don Quixote, I’m thinking of starting a reading group. We really need to spend a year on it!

              I think the 10th Amendment is really interesting because it is so clear. You have almost exactly the same sentence in the Articles, but for the Constitution they took out “expressly.” So the idea that they just happen to overlook that is ridiculous. Taking out that word seems to have been one of the prime reasons for having the Constitution. But it’s all people just believing what they want to believe. And I’m certainly not above that. But still, it’s amazing to listen to people ranting authoritatively about stuff they have no clue about. Not that I’m an expert. But I do learn and correct myself over time. (Sometimes very publicly and embarrassingly.)

              • I have not read either book. Having to come up with the nine hundred or so (I may be exaggerating) interpretations of that first line of Moby Dick, I lost interest in reading anything else from Melville. And I never did get around to reading Don Quixote. Maybe I should.

                • Over time, I’ve turned off to some extent on Melville. It’s often hard to know what he’s talking about at the same time that he over-describes it. Still, I love his eccentricities. I like his interest in technique enough to just cram it into his novels. But he was also a drunk, and I think that made him less clear than he could have been. Cervantes, on the other hand, is a delight to read whenever he’s not being serious. When he was young, he saw himself as a serious poet. And in general, his poetry sucks. But he was a genuinely funny writer. But obviously, I am biased. I really do think people should read Don Quixote, not because it is good for them, but because it is fun. That’s especially true in the second novel, where the “real” Don Quixote goes out into a world where people know who he is because of the success of the first novel. People claim that Cervantes wrote the first modern novel. I say he also wrote the first postmodern novel.

                  • People need to remember to keep fun in their lives. Life is not all doom and gloom.

                    I like how he had the main character react to people knowing about the main character. Of course this means that Jim Butcher just ripped of Don Quixote since his main character has learned of the impact he has had on other people’s lives.

                    • That’s one of the things I find so amazing about Don Quixote. Everyone does! I am working on Yet Another Wonderful Novel (YAWN) that is half an update of the novel. But I don’t know anything about Jim Butcher other than a picture I just looked at where he is carrying a sword and a poodle, which is very cool.

                • Elizabeth — I remember very much liking the short story “Bartleby The Scrivener.” It’s the first modern-office comedy (or tragedy) I can think of. Very prescient!

                  • I saw the live version with Crispin Hellion Glover in it. It was one of those movies you watch and watch waiting for something to happen and then nothing does except someone goes crazy.

                    • I wouldn’t think it would make a very interesting drama, although I can see Glover in the part. The story is mostly about how difficult it is for a kind person to deal with an insane person. I have personal experience with that. It’s really hard to be accommodating when they are destroying your life. For an interesting take on it, check out the film, Man Facing Southeast.

                  • I like the short story too. But it is twice as long as it needs to be. I do like that it presents office work in the middle of the 19th century as the incredibly tedious work that I’m sure it was.

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