Guest Commentary: The Bill of Rights has special meaning in our government

The Bill of Rigths is shown in this picture provided by the National Archive and Records Administration

What is the Bill of Rights? Are these “rights” simply the first 10 of a longer list of other amendments? Or, do they harbor something more transcending? It is well known that the Bill of Rights is broadly considered a list of “rights.” But what does that mean? Can they, or should they, ever be subject to change or even outright elimination?

While the Federalists championed the ratification of the Constitution, it was the Anti-Federalists who championed the Bill of Rights. As one can imagine, the difference in size and scope of government between these two factions was considerable and the object of heated contention.

The Federalists believed that having a strong centralized government was necessary in a world fraught with various geopolitical dangers. The Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, believed in a decentralized government structure. They found that too much power to too few people always slides toward despotism.

With such a disparity in scope the founders tried to forge a government that addressed the concerns of both factions. Both passionately embraced one foundational agreement: Corruption, greed and evil are innate in the human condition.

Aside from the wealth of tyrannical examples throughout history, it comes as no surprise that the American Revolution was still fresh in their minds when the American government was designed. The Constitution explains “how” America was to be, while the Declaration of Independence serves to explain “why” it came to be. Of the 27 grievances listed in the Declaration, the overall theme rested on the necessity of individual sovereignty. The failure of the British government to respect colonial representation and basic human rights (such as a fair judicial process) justified a revolution. The Declaration states: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The Declaration emboldened a new historical benchmark of acceptable governance that was similar to those set forth in the Magna Carta. Now, the Declaration set the bar that if such a governing body transgresses a people’s “certain unalienable Rights,” then that government may be justifiably disbanded. When the Constitution was created, the Federalists designed it with controls, such as “checks and balances” and “separation of powers”. They knew that if it failed to protect these rights, or if it “becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and institute a new Government...”

James Madison initially rejected the notion that any “list” of rights would be necessary, finding them a redundancy. But Thomas Jefferson disagreed. In a letter to Madison, he wrote “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against any government on earth, general or particular, and what no government should refuse, or rest on inference.” Jefferson persuaded Madison, and the Bill of Rights became ratified Dec. 15, 1791.

What is often overlooked is the rights aren’t technically amendment. They didn’t really change or amend anything. Rather, they fall under a broader definitional umbrella as addendum. The Bill of Rights echoes the Declaration in terms of securing individual freedom and sovereignty from despotism. In other words, it stipulates what governments are prohibited from betraying.

A phrase quoted above by Jefferson bears repeating. The authority of the Bill of Rights was to be “against any government on earth, general or particular.” This means that the Bill of Rights is  above governmental authority. This, then, even includes the Supreme Court. The court functions as a third branch of government. If government has the power to change or eliminate rights, what is the point to honoring ownership of rights at all? This is where recognition to the Declaration’s “course of human events” becomes appropriate. The rights are both timeless and innate in human existence. Endowed to us by God as “unalienable” or, in other words, inseparable.

Reason dictates that if the Supreme Court has no authority to transgress the Bill of Rights, nor would any other governing entity regardless of federal, state or local jurisdictions. For if any of such levels can, then how could such Rights be said to be “unalienable”? We have all heard the expression “what can be given can be taken away.” Regardless if one believes in a God or not, what is understood as given by God, can only be taken away by God, not man. Therefore, governing powers have no authority to take away or transgress the Bill of Rights because it was not they who bestowed them, but rather, they brought them to light.

Garrett deBlieck is a resident of Unadilla.

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