Today marks a truly remarkable, transformative event in American history.
Dec. 15 marks Bill of Rights Day – the day in 1791 when our Founding Fathers ratified the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
That’s big – so big that you could argue it’s a major world event, not merely confined to America. The comprehensive defense of individual rights laid out in this founding document was unprecedented.
Bill of Rights Day should be a huge holiday. In highlighting the freedoms that makes the United States the greatest nation on Earth, the spirit of this day combines the patriotism of Independence Day and the appreciative solemnity of Thanksgiving.
Take time to read or re-read the Bill of Rights today. If you don’t have a copy handy – and we recommend you should – we’ve paraphrased the amendments here:
• Congress can’t make any law about a person’s religion; keep you from practicing that religion; or restrict what you say or publish. You can gather peacefully to ask the government to change something.
• You can own and carry weapons.
• Soldiers can’t live in your house, except if Congress approves it in time of war.
• You, your house or your possessions can’t be searched unless a judge determines a specific probable cause.
• You can’t be tried for a serious crime unless a jury says there’s enough evidence for a trial. If you’re found innocent, the government can’t retry you. You don’t have to say anything at your trial. You can’t be punished unless a jury convicts you. The government can’t take your possessions unless it fairly compensates you.
• If you’re arrested, you get a public trial quickly or they can’t unfairly detain you in jail. You get a jury of your peers, and an explanation of what you’re accused of and the people accusing you. You get a lawyer to help defend you.
• You also have the right to a jury in a civil case.
• You’re spared from excessive bail or fines, and from cruel and unusual punishment.
• You have other rights, even if they’re not spelled out in the Constitution.
• Any power not specifically given to Congress are reserved for the states or the people.
The Bill of Rights is an itemized list of the limits on the federal government’s power. It is the armor you wear into battle when you’re fighting for your rights as a citizen.
Sadly, too many people are letting that armor rust from lack of use.
In 2011, Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 Americans to take the official U.S. citizenship test. Forty-four percent of respondents couldn’t correctly identify the Bill of Rights.
So if you don’t feel as safe and protected these days, it’s not because the Bill has failed us. Too many of us have failed the Bill.
Exercising rights is like exercising your body. If you stop exercising, your muscles atrophy and get weaker. The same goes for freedom. If you’re willing to let the federal government unfairly impinge on your lives, you weaken the freedoms laid out in this magnificent document called the Bill of Rights.
What would the Founding Fathers think of today’s America? Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, speculated on that in 2008 when writing about the debate that culminated in the Bill of Rights:
“Keep in mind that virtually all the leading figures in this great debate were libertarians by today’s standards. They believed in liberty and limited government. Even the least libertarian among them would be horrified if he could see how later generations have ballooned the size and intrusiveness of the federal establishment.”
The story goes that Benjamin Franklin was asked what kind of U.S. government came out of the Constitutional Convention. “A republic,” he famously replied, “if you can keep it.”
Are we keeping it? Or is civic lassitude letting it slip away?