On this very day in 1791—December 15—a young United States of America formally adopted the first ten amendments to its Constitution that we call the Bill of Rights.
BY LAWRENCE W. REED
Americans over the age of 60 will likely remember the hilarious TV game show that ran for 25 years (1965-1980) called Hollywood Squares. On the show, host Peter Marshall (still living at age 95) once directed this question to comedian Paul Lynde: “Pride, anger, covetousness, lust, gluttony, envy and sloth are collectively known as what?”
Sustained laughter ensued when Lynde replied, “The Bill of Rights.” (The correct answer, of course, is the Seven Deadly Sins.)
It was on this very day in 1791—December 15—that a young United States of America formally adopted the first ten amendments to its Constitution that we call the Bill of Rights. Those amendments were fundamental and foundational, as bedrock as it gets, without which adoption of the Constitution itself might not have occurred. In fewer than 500 words, many of our most cherished liberties are expressed as rights to be protected. It’s a roster of instructions to government to keep out of where it doesn’t belong.
Not long ago, the late and famous trial attorney F. Lee Bailey (1933-2021) posed a poignant question to which he provided a disturbing answer: “Can any of you seriously say the Bill of Rights could get through Congress today? It wouldn’t even get out of committee!”
Bailey was likely right, which makes it even more urgent that Americans renew a learned passion for the Bill of Rights. Toward that end, I offer here a sample of thoughts in its defense:
- The concept that the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections against arbitrary government are inoperative when they become inconvenient or when expediency dictates otherwise is a very dangerous doctrine and if allowed to flourish would destroy the benefit of a written Constitution and undermine the basis of our government. – Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black
- Show me that age and country where the rights and liberties of the people were placed on the sole chance of their rulers being good men, without a consequent loss of liberty? – Patrick Henry
- The Bill of Rights wasn’t enacted to give us any rights. It was enacted so the Government could not take away from us any rights that we already had. – Kenneth G. Eade, author
- The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections. – Robert H. Jackson, Supreme Court Justice
- Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected. If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us…In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.” – Carl Sagan, astronomer
- “There are two ways to choke off free expression. We’ve already discussed one of them: clamp down on free speech and declare some topics off-limits. That strategy is straightforward enough. The other, more insidious way to limit free expression is to try to change the very language people use” – Dennis Prager, author
- “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom of Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed and constitute a force superior to any bands of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States.” – Noah Webster
- “The constitutions of most of our States assert, that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves, … or they may act by representatives, freely and equally chosen; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed; that they are entitled to freedom of person, freedom of religion, freedom of property, and freedom of the press.” – Thomas Jefferson
- “In 1942, there were 110,000 Japanese American citizens in good standing, law-abiding people who were thrown into internment camps simply because their parents were born in the wrong country. That’s all they did wrong. They had no right to a lawyer, no right to a fair trial, no right to a jury of their peers no right to due process of any kind. The only right they had: “Right this way” into the internment camps! Just when these American citizens needed their rights the most, their government took them away! And rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away. They’re just privileges.” – George Carlin
- “The first article of the Bill of Rights provides that Congress shall make no law respecting freedom of worship or abridging freedom of opinion. There are some among us who seem to feel that this provision goes too far, even for the purpose of preventing tyranny over the mind of man. Of course, there are dangers in religious freedom and freedom of opinion. But to deny these rights is worse than dangerous, it is absolutely fatal to liberty. The external threat to liberty should not drive us into suppressing liberty at home. Those who want the Government to regulate matters of the mind and spirit are like men who are so afraid of being murdered that they commit suicide to avoid assassination.” – Harry Truman
- “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that “Right is of no sex.” – Frederick Douglass
- “The Bill of Rights is the United States. The United States is the Bill of Rights. Compromise the Bill of Rights and you dissolve the very foundation upon which the Union stands… Nowhere in the Bill of Rights are the words ‘unless inconvenient’ to be found.” – A. E. Samaan, historian
Lawrence W. Reed Lawrence W. Reed is President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Ambassador for Global Liberty at the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also author of Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.