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In 1787, the Constitution of the United States called into existence the federal government. What was significant, however, was that it was a government whose powers were expressly limited by the people.
Throughout history, government officials had exercised omnipotent power over their citizenry. Of course, there had been some exceptions, such as Magna Carta in 1215, when the great barons of England had extracted, at the point of a sword, an admission from King John that his powers were limited. But by and large, it was commonly accepted all over the world that people’s lives and fortunes were unconditionally subject to the commands of their government officials.
Thus, the U.S. Constitution was a terribly shocking document, especially to rulers all over the world. Because here were a people who were placing themselves in the role of master and placing government in the role of servant. In other words, in one fell swoop, the American people had inverted the historical relationship between citizen and government.
But there was a logic behind their actions. Think back to the Declaration of Independence. Expressing the commonly held sentiments of the people in that document, Thomas Jefferson had said that man has been endowed by his Creator with certain unalienable rights and that governments are instituted to protect those rights.
That was why the people of the United States called into existence a federal government — to protect rights that preexisted the government they were calling into existence.
Notice that they could have called into existence a government that had omnipotent powers over the citizenry. They didn’t do that. After all, that was the nature of the government they had recently rebelled against.
Instead, they created a government whose powers were limited to those enumerated in a document. It was the first time in history that people had had the audacity to limit the powers of their own governmental officials.
For example, Article 1, Section 8, sets forth the powers of Congress. Whether you believe that all of these enumerated powers are proper or not, one fact is indisputable: that the powers of Congress were indeed limited. In other words, if the powers of Congress were unlimited, there would have been no reason to enumerate specific powers. By listing the specific powers, the Founders made it clear that the federal government’s powers over the people were not omnipotent.
To clarify matters even more, the Founders enumerated specific restrictions on the powers of both the federal and state governments. See, for example, Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, and notice the number of times that the words “no” and “not” are used.
It is important to note, then, that the Constitution in no way grants rights to the people, as U.S. government officials often claim. Remember, rights preexist government. The Constitution, by its very nature, is a limitation and restriction on governmental power, not the giving of rights to the people.
There were many Americans who objected to the Constitution because it didn’t provide for even more express restrictions on the power of the federal government to interfere with the rights of the people. For example, there was no express prohibition against the government’s regulation of religion, speech, press, and assembly. There was nothing guaranteeing the right to own weapons. What would protect people from arbitrary confiscations of their property? What about due process of law and unreasonable searches and seizures?
The proponents of the Constitution responded that there was no need for express prohibitions on such governmental powers. Since the Constitution expressly enumerates the powers of the federal government, they argued, if a power is not enumerated, it cannot be exercised. Since the power to regulate speech, for example, was not among those listed, government officials would not be permitted to regulate speech.
The Bill of Rights
But the American people living in 1787 did not trust government officials, not even those who were democratically elected, including the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams. (If you couldn’t trust those men with political power, whom could you trust?) As a condition of approving the establishing of the federal government, the American people demanded the passage of the so-called Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Actually a much more appropriate name would have been the Bill of Prohibitions. Why? Because the Bill of Rights does not grant rights at all. Remember: rights don’t come from government; they preexist government. The Bill of Rights is actually an enumeration of restrictions on governmental power.
For example, the First Amendment doesn’t say, “People have the right to practice religion or not, as they see fit.” Instead it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the right to worship or not preexists government, and the American people were simply confirming that their newly established government did not have the power to interfere with this fundamental, inherent right of man.
Once again, the first ten amendments are riddled with the words “no” and “not,” reflecting people’s clear understanding that the Constitution was not a grant of rights but rather restrictions on the powers of their government.
Those who opposed the passage of the Bill of Rights argued that since the Constitution called into existence a government whose powers were expressly limited to those in the Constitution, not only was it unnecessary to list restrictions on the power of government to interfere with specified rights, it was actually dangerous to do so. The danger was that by specifying restrictions on some fundamental, preexisting rights (e.g., religious and intellectual liberty), government officials might later claim that they could interfere with rights that that were not specified.
The argument partially failed and partially succeeded. It failed to stop the passage of the first eight amendments, but it ensured the passage of the Ninth Amendment: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
The most unusual society in history
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution integrated the most radical, revolutionary ideas on liberty that the world has ever known. For the first time in history, people had assumed the role of master and relegated government to a role of subservience. Recalling the dictum in the Declaration that whenever government becomes destructive of the rights of the people, it shall be the right of the people to alter or abolish it, the Constitution also provided a means by which people could alter or even abolish their own government.
The Constitution was the most unusual political experiment in history. Equally important, all these limitations on the powers of government officials also had unforeseen consequences on American society, consequences that shocked governments and citizens all over the world.
After all, keep in mind that throughout history, governments had used their omnipotent powers over their citizenry to regulate their lives and activities and to plunder their money and property. A government had now come into existence that didn’t have such powers because the citizenry had not permitted it.
Imagine the consternation all over the world when people discovered that in America, there was little or no taxation, economic regulation, or government welfare for the poor. In fact, the only people who were “taken care of” were the slaves!
You can praise. You can condemn. But what you can’t deny is: By implementing the most unusual political experiment in history, the result was the most unusual society in history.
Ironically, as people around the world heard about this strange society, they began fleeing the lands of government regulation and welfare and coming to the land where there were no guarantees. And most of those people were poor! Yes, the poor were voting with their feet, fleeing the mercantilist, regulated welfare states of Europe and elsewhere to come to the land of unbridled, dog-eat- dog capitalism.
And it was the poor who benefited the most from this unusual society. Families went from rags to riches in one, two, or three generations. Real wage rates for the average working person skyrocketed, especially after the Civil War. When people were free to open businesses without restriction and to accumulate wealth without the threat of confiscation, the ever-rising accumulation of capital benefited everyone. For the first time in history, both adults and children had a real chance not only to survive but actually to prosper.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of the ideas that were expressed in 1776 and then put into practice in 1787. For the first time ever, people expressly limited the powers of their own government officials. For most Americans, the result was a life of the greatest amount of individual freedom that mankind had ever experienced. And with liberty came the fruits of economic prosperity.
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