Essential Liberty-To secure these rights

02/05/2010 09:53

“To secure these rights”

“In order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the Constitution's] powers...” –Preamble to the Bill of Rights

Endeavoring to further define our Constitution's limits on government encroachment upon the innate Rights of the People, James Madison, its primary architect, introduced to the First Congress in 1789, a Bill of Rights – the first 10 Amendments to our Constitution, which was then ratified on December 15th, 1791.

The Bill of Rights was inspired by three remarkable documents: Two Treatises of Government, authored by John Locke in 1689 regarding protection of “property” (in the Latin context, proprius, or one's own “life, liberty and estate”); the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776 as part of that state's constitution; and, of course, our Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson.

There was great consternation regarding the enumeration of these rights, as such registration might be taken to suggest that they were subject to amendment rather than unalienable; granted by the state rather than “Endowed by [our] Creator.”

As Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 84, “Bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. ... For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”

On the other hand, George Mason was among 16 of the 55 Constitution Convention delegates who refused to sign because the document did not adequately address limitations on what the central government had “no power to do.” Indeed, he worked with Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams against its ratification for that reason.

As a result of Mason's insistence, the first session of Congress placed these 10 additional limitations upon the federal government for the reasons outlined by the Preamble to the Bill of Rights: “The Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution...”

Read in context, the Bill of Rights is both an affirmation of innate individual rights (as noted by Thomas Jefferson: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time”) and a clear delineation of constraints upon the central government.

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