On 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.