Keeping the Government Off Our Backs
By John W. Whitehead
“The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”—Thomas Jefferson
What does the Fourth of July mean to modern-day Americans?
Is it merely an occasion for distracting ourselves from the drudgery of our daily lives with the panacea of patriotic parades, dazzling fireworks, backyard barbecues and blockbuster sales? If that is all this Independence Day stands for, then we have broken faith with those for whom this anniversary meant so much.
Clearly, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the birthday of our independence and political freedom, marked a new beginning for our nation. It signaled a shift in the balance of power from one in which the people served an elite ruling class to one in which government was instituted to serve the people. In this way, the government’s role would not be to create or define the people’s inherent rights but rather to guarantee their protection.
As the Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Declaration embodied all the passion, outrage and noble ideals of the day, and it could easily have ended there. But the Founders understood that in order for the newly born nation to survive, it would need more than revolutionary sentiment. It would need a government that existed to serve the people, not itself, and a contract to guarantee basic liberties and bind the union together.
Thus was the U.S. Constitution born in the summer of 1787. It sprang forth out of the experiences of a revolutionary generation, still wary of the strong arm of government. And from that wariness came the Bill of Rights. Indeed, the first ten amendments to our Constitution are intended as a blueprint to keep the government in its place and off our backs.
Even so, it would take another four years before a consensus could be reached on adding a Bill of Rights, which would guarantee what James Madison, the father of the Constitution, called “the great rights of mankind.”
While the Founders believed deeply in these “great rights” and shared a common distrust of government, the question of whether to include a Bill of Rights became a raging debate. Some, like Alexander Hamilton, believed that the rights of the people were already inherently protected and feared that a Bill of Rights might later be interpreted as a list of the only rights belonging to the people.
Others, however, like Thomas Jefferson, insisted that the Constitution did not go far enough in protecting basic liberties. They argued that unless specific rights were guaranteed under the Constitution, the government could become despotic and violate basic freedoms. Ultimately, the fear of government triumphed, and on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights became a vital part of our Constitution.
Unfortunately, the colonists had come to value the rights laid out in the first ten amendments the hard way. Punished for speaking out against the King, they learned to value their freedom of speech and press. Denied the right to gather in protest and defend themselves, they learned to value the right to freely assemble and bear arms. Forced to endure “warrantless” searches in which British customs officials armed with “writs of assistance” would enter and ransack people’s homes without cause for suspicion, they became fiercely protective of their privacy. Thus, the document—and the rights—that we often take for granted today was forged in response to Great Britain’s oppressive regime.
Regrettably, the lessons learned at the hands of the British crown have been relegated to school history books. Few Americans know their rights. Even fewer have read the Constitution. More than 200 years later, as our government pursues its so-called war on terrorism, many Americans have come to believe that security is more important than freedom. But if we do not tread more carefully, we may soon forfeit all that the Founders bequeathed us.
Freedom is an inherent right, but there is also a responsibility—even a duty—to maintain it. And although the scent of gunpowder that permeated the air during the tumultuous days of the American Revolution has long since faded, the struggle to safeguard our freedoms is far from over.