Wednesday, November 06, 2013

An Enlightened People limits government- the Bill of Rights

Just finished reading The Young Jefferson by Claude G. Bowers. What struck me was that an enlightened people limits government not trusts it.  Jefferson, when it comes to political ideology defines "enlightened." As a lawyer, what rings the loud gong bell for me is his wisdom in ensuring the "Bill of Rights" which is for practical reasons, the only safeguard we have today against encroachment and police tyranny (namely the 4th amendment). There are several political lessons to be learned in this story. After Independence, and it was his hand that so beautifully coined the magic phrases that defined a movement (his and Tom Paine's Common Sense) Thomas Jefferson found himself in France as our diplomat to our chief ally. His main and constant thorns were trying to calm down the debtors (international as well as French) who were owed money that funded our Revolution because the weak Articles of Confederation rendered our government powerless in levying taxes, responding timely with one voice to treaty and diplomatic issues and handling our own debt (which left our colonies divided on issues against eachother). A new but limp and powerless  country was no answer. James Madison, Jefferson's protégé while Jefferson was in France, ran with the baton of convincing all the colonies to call for a constitutional convention to enact governing statutes that made practical unifying with one effective voice all the colonies. Our great statesmen were so happy to have achieved the goal of replacing the Articles of Confederation with a Constitution that empowered our government that after achieving this goal they quit, indeed they had achieved the removal of embarassments for our overseas diplomats and the world was happy to see a government in place that made the US accountable, responsible and powerful enough to follow through on obligations to others as well as itself. If the story would have stopped here, imagine a behemoth government like the Soviet Union or China where the all powerful government would squash dissent, freedom of speech, dissenters or minority views because this would have been us. When Madison sent Jefferson a copy of the Constitution in France, Jefferson immediately voiced his rejection. An all powerful government with no direct restraints on its encroachments on its people was dangerous. Imagine if all we had was a framework that created a government of checks and balances of an executive, legislative and judicial branch and a nothing more. When we think of the Constitution we think of the Bill of Rights: our freedom of speech, of religion, to gather, our protection against unreasonable search and seizure, etc. We think of the ability to pursue life, liberty and happiness without  government interference. But a government of "checks and balances" protects the people you might say- wrong. I spend my career reminding judges (the judicial branch) there is a 4th amendment, that police can't just stop you for no reason and even then so often judges ignore our rights (no secret that in today's MADD DWI hysteria, bad stops are rubberstamped). Without the Bill of Rights, we the people would be at the whim of the controllers. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Here are some of the passages that inspired me. In short , we are to be eternally grateful that Jefferson only acquiesced to the Constitution in approval as long as a Bill of Rights were forthcoming which, despite a seriously hotly contested battle, is exactly what occurred. We the people are in large part free to be happy because of the brilliance of Mr. Thomas Jefferson. God bless  his soul.

To a friend who wrote that the Constitution did not need a Bill of Rights because the Constitution provided for checks and balances between state (subordinate) and the federal government- "a security which exists in no other instance": he replied "The jealousy of the subordinate governments is a precious reliance. But observe that those governments are only agents. They must have principles furnished them whereon to found their opposition. The declaration of rights will be the text by which they will try all the acts of the federal government. In this way it is necessary for the federal government also; as by the same texts they may try the opposition of the subordinate governments."

To an accusation that a Bill of Rights would be inefficient: "..though it is not absolutely efficacious under all circumstances, it is of great potency always, and rarely inefficacious. A brace the more will often keep up the building which would have fallen with that brace the less. There is a remarkable difference in the inconveniences which attend a Declaration of Rights, and those that attend the want of it.  The inconveniences of the Declaration are that it may cramp the government in its useful exertions. But the evils of this are short-lived, trivial, and reparable. The inconveniences of a want of Declaration are permanent, afflicting, and irreparable."

Jefferson wrote to Frances Hopkinson (signer of the Declaration of Independence and federal judge in Pa.): "What I disapproved of from the first moment was the want of a Bill of Rights to guard liberty against the legislature as well as the executive branch of the government; that is to say, to secure the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom from monopolies, freedom from unlawful imprisonment, freedom from a permanent military, and a trial by jury in all cases determinable b the laws of the land."

Jefferson, know that those of us blessed with the sacred license to practice law to ensure others' right to happiness and protection, will do our best to keep the Bill of Rights alive. I know you would be happy. For only a free people can be happy.

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