Est. May 2008

23 September, 2012

Bill of Privileges?

The other day, I went through the drive-thru at a local fast-food place for a diet soda.  On the window of the little portal was a sign:

Our hot coffee, hot tea, and hot chocolate are served very hot.’

We all know why, right?  Because somebody boiled her crotch with her hot coffee.

And it got me to thinking about some of the other ‘dumb’ warning signs we see; signs like, ‘Don’t stick your hand into the impeller blades of the snow-thrower’ and ’wear shoes when you use this lawn-mower’ and the like.  We’ve got these signs not specifically because people are stupid, or particularly because companies which produce these types of things don’t like to be sued: we’ve got these signs because somebody, somewhere along the line, did exactly what the sign warns them not to do.

That got me to thinking about our country’s original Bill of Rights (that’s the first ten that the Founders added as amendments to the constitution before 1780).  When you read them, you’re tempted to look at them the same way I look at those ‘dumb’ signs – well, no kidding those are rights.  It almost seems foolish that the Founders would have imagined they had to be codified in writing, since everybody knows those are rights.  Right?  I mean, it’s pretty obvious when you look at the few we keep hearing about in the news: a right to free speech, a right to personal possession of firearms, the right to trial by jury, and so on.  It might get a little fuzzier when we get to things like not quartering soldiers in your home during war and peace without permission and restricting the federal government to only specific powers, leaving the others to the determination of the States.  And it’s in that fuzziness that we see why it was important to enumerate and codify ‘rights’.

But compare the Bill of Rights with the Declaration of Independence.  You’ll see that everything written in the amendments had been broken in some way by King George.  But in King George’s eyes, he’d broken nothing.  Why?  Because King George saw those things as privileges bestowed by the king upon his subjects; as privileges, they could be revoked at any time, for any reason.

Look through history and you’ll see the same thing.  Very few monarchies had a listing of rights-of-the-people that looked anything like those of the United States; certainly, kings provided some rights to the people, but never before had there been so many rights all at once.  And that’s why the Founders had to put them in writing: nobody had ever before imagined that the people should, would, or could have such broad-scope rights.

Our Founders understood this; that’s why they adopted the kind of government they did (a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy).  The Bill of Rights was an addition to the Constitution precisely because those rights had never before been considered rights by rulers – in fact, kings likely would have seen them as a List of Privileges, not rights.  And our Founders were having none of that.

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