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Know your (Bill of) Rights. July 4, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today with a short refresher course on the Bill of Rights and some fun facts about the Constitution. Brushing up on our basic rights as Americans seems fitting on Independence Day, and of course, I can never resist some good history trivia!

Let’s start with the Bill of Rights, which is comprised of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution. How many of them do you remember? If your record isn’t too good, it may be because you’re trying to recall the actual wording of each Amendment or all the component parts. They’re a lot easier when you use Poor Richard’s E-Z Version instead! Hopefully, you’ll never have any of these rights infringed. But it’s useful to know them just in case. Let’s take a look:

Amendment I. Prohibits establishment of a state religion, and assures Americans of five fundamental freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of (peaceable) assembly, and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Whew! That one’s the biggie.

Amendment II. The right to keep and bear arms. 

Despite all the hoopla over the Second Amendment, as the Supreme Court recently confirmed, there’s really no ambiguity on this one at all. That’s because, when the Amendment was written, most families needed firearms to survive: to hunt for meat; to protect yourself, your family, and your property from wild animals, thieves and desperadoes, and various warring factions; to slaughter your livestock. Unless you lived in a city, life without a gun was a death sentence, and the Founders—as well as everyone alive at the time—knew that. This Amendment reassured the citizenry that a tyrannical government was not about to deprive them of their means of livelihood and defense.

Having said that, just because that situation existed back in the day doesn’t mean it exists now, or justifies the sale of semiautomatic weapons or other weapons of war to those outside the military and police force. It’s always an option for Congress to propose and pass another Amendment restricting the sale of ouzis, machine guns and the like!

Amendment III. No turning of private homes into free bed and board for soldiers without the homeowner’s consent, unless in time of war, and then only as prescribed by law.

This one probably seems far-fetched, but remember, the newborn America had just endured just that at the hands of the British.

Amendment IV. Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. 

As timely now as when it was written.

Amendment V. Right to trial by Grand Jury for capital offenses; right not to witness against one’s self; right not to be put at jeopardy of life or limb twice for the same offense; right to due process; right to just compensation for property taken for public use.

It’s that right not to have to witness against one’s self part that people mean when they talk about “taking the Fifth.” Thing is, we seem to have come to believe that a person can’t be tried twice for the same offense, when the Amendment clearly states that the only limitation is that a person can’t be “put at jeopardy of life or limb” twice for the same offense. Seems to me that leaves the door open to throw the bastards into jail if evidence comes to light later that proves they’re guilty.

Amendment VI. Right to a fast, fair, public trial by jury.

‘Nuff said.

Amendment VII. Right of suits over $20 to be tried by jury and not subsequently reexamined by a different court.

Twenty dollars was probably close to a year’s wages for an unskilled laborer in 1791, the time this Amendment was set into law. Thank goodness today’s legal fees prevent most people from taking their $20 grievances to court!

Amendment VIII. Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, including excessive bail and fines.

Clearly the excesses of the Inquisition and the persecution and torture of Protestants, Catholics, Freemasons, Jews, and pretty much any powerless group by Henry VIII, his daughter, Bloody Mary, Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads, not to mention the torment of Protestant sects in much of Europe at the time of the Reformation, weighed heavily on the Founding Fathers. Many of the Colonies had been founded as refuges from religious persecution, though some notoriously imposed it themselves, as in the case of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Nonetheless, in this case, the Founders wisely kept the good and forbade the bad. Every American has the right to live free of the fear of government-imposed torture.

Amendment IX. Just because a right isn’t mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights doesn’t mean it isn’t a right.

To me, this is THE most important of all the rights in the Bill of Rights. The Founders never intended the Constitution and Bill of Rights to define the rights of the people, to say that anything not specifically mentioned wasn’t a right. Instead, they wanted to spell out a group of basic rights they felt were threatened in their time (by the British or for whatever reason), and to guarantee those rights in writing. But they had no intention of limiting Americans’ rights to a few set out in a document, and they made that very clear in the Ninth Amendment. The exact wording is: “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Keep it in mind.

Amendment X. Any rights not specifically granted to the central government by the Constitution shall be retained by the respective States and/or by the people.

This one was intended to limit the power of “big government.” The battle over strong central government versus States’ Rights is as old as America. It pitted the likes of Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John Jay (big government guys) against James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry (States’ Righters). The debate sparked the Civil War and continues to this day. Too bad our hero and blog mentor, the great Ben Franklin, wasn’t able to contribute his words of wisdom to this issue! But, though he was around to sign the Constitution itself, he died in 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights was added.

Okay, everybody got their rights down now? Then let’s move on to some Constitutional trivia.

* At the time the Constitution was written the U.S. population was 4 million. Philadelphia, the Nation’s capital, was its largest city, with a population of 40,000.

* Constitution Day commemorates the signing of the Constitution into law on September 17, 1787.

* It took exactly 100 days to write the Constitution.

* James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution, but it was that marvelous but overlooked Founding Father, Gouverneur Morris, who actually wrote it. Madison would be more fairly credited as the Founder who gave us the Bill of Rights, which is arguably the more important of the two documents.

* The word “democracy” never appears in the Constitution. The Founders considered themselves to be founding a Republic such as the Romans had before the Caesars and the Roman Empire.

* The Constitutional Convention, where the Constitution was developed, written, and signed, took place at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. This was also the site where the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776.

* One now-humorous issue that arose during the Constitutional Convention was how to address the President. John Adams proposed “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of Their Liberties.” The outraged Congress and appalled George Washington insisted on a simple “President of the United States” instead. But political foes of the short, fat Adams referred to him from that day forward as “His Rotundity.”

Finally, in honor of this day that commemorates the cry for freedom that created America, let me quote the portion of the Declaration of Independence that explains the Founders’ vision of the purpose of government. It is as far removed from today’s massive, impersonal government, with its professional politicians and complete disregard for citizens’ input and approval, as it is possible to be.

Most of us know the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What you may not know is that the Founders envisioned government as being established for the sole reason of establishing these three essentials for its citizens.

Today, when we look at a cancerous, massive body of indebted and thus inherently (even if unintentionally) corrupt professional politicians who serve the interests of corporations at the cost of our health, our planet, and our freedoms, folks who could not give less of a damn about anyone’s individual freedom save their own, it is virtually impossible to believe that the Founders could really have held this vision for us all. Yet they did. Let us read again the moving words through which they conveyed their vision for America the Free:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Oh, wow. A government designed solely to ensure the life (safety), liberty, and happiness of its citizens, and otherwise to get out of people’s way? Surely that is, indeed, the American Dream.

Have a wonderful Fourth!




Constitution Day September 17, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here to remind you that today, September 17, is Constitution Day. On September 17, 1787, eleven years after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and other patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, James Madison, and Robert Morris signed the Constitution into law. It begins:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Constitution goes on to delineate the powers of the Congress, the President, the judicial branch, and the states. It’s a comparatively concise document, and you can read it in its entirety in about five minutes online at websites such as http://www.usconstitution.net/. And on the same website, you can read the amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, those individual rights championed by James Madison and others that insure our individual liberty and safety as U.S. citizens.

Though certain amendments, such as the right to bear arms, freedom of speech, religion, and assembly, not to mention the passage and repeal of Prohibition, have gained considerably more attention than other amendments, I’d like to bring two to your attention:

Amendment 9, ratified 12/15/1791: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment 10, also ratified 12/15/1791: 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.

What these amendments collectively make clear is that the Constitution was not designed to delineate the rights of the people, but the function of the branches of government and the role of the individual states versus the central government. As they clearly state, just because an individual right is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution or Bill of Rights does not invalidate it; rather, unless it is specifically invalidated in one of these documents, it is presumed to be in effect.

Talk about empowering! These days, we too often look to the government as a sort of super-nanny, telling us when we have permission to breathe or speak or cross the road unsupervised. But these amendments tell us the Founders had very different ideas, that we Americans were free to live our own lives and make our own way unless we violated a comparatively few overarching laws. That we were being viewed as adults agreeing to a collective government by consent, not children being told what we could and couldn’t do.

Really? Absolutely. Go to the website, read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and see for yourself. It is not, ultimately, our tripartate government, but the guaranteed rights of the individual, that sets America apart and makes us great.

Happy Constitution Day!


An encounter with history May 12, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have just returned from a whirlwind weekend in Washington, D.C. visiting family and friends. We had a great time, and would like nothing better than to hibernate for about a week now just to process everything we saw, but the garden and (gulp) deadlines make that a non-option. Before we plunge back into daily life, though, I want to share with you two of the amazing things we saw.

Our friend Ben is a Smithsonian junkie. I’ll be the first to admit it. The National Galleries, the Museum of Natural History, the Hirshhorn, the Sackler, the Freer—ah, yes, our friend Ben is ready to settle in and enjoy a lengthy season of exploration, much to the dismay of, well, pretty much everyone. Silence and our good friend Susan had agreed to indulge our friend Ben yet again this weekend, and Susan dutifully drove us all over toward the Mall (as the two long rows of museum buildings and the broad strip of ground that runs between them is called, ironically indeed in this age of strip malls with their tedious low-end chain stores). But as always, parking proved to be an issue, and by the time Susan captured an empty space, we found ourselves in front of the National Archives building.

National Archives, what’s that? Another of the many government buildings crowded thickly in the District’s downtown? How nice. Can we move on now? Our friend Ben had climbed out of the car and was basically waiting for Susan and Silence to assemble themselves when my eye fell on a large banner on the Archives building, announcing that you could see the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights inside. Our friend Ben’s head started swimming. I faintly heard a voice, belonging, I belatedly realized, to Silence (always at least one step ahead of our friend Ben), asking Susan if in fact the famous documents were in the National Archives building and, if so, could we see them?

Now, our friend Ben is admittedly not the brightest bulb on the string, but I’d never heard of the National Archives. If you had asked me, I’d have said that the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights, if they were on display at all, would have been under glass in our nation’s Capitol building, where our illustrious Senators and Representatives could view them daily to remind themselves of what the bleep they were doing there to begin with. Not so, my friends, my fellow citizens, my colleagues worldwide.

If you have a hankering, like Silence and our friend Ben, to see the originals of the famous documents that shaped the nascent United States out of a bunch of disparate British colonies, they’re on display in the National Archives building and are free for all to see. Who’d’a thunk?!! We rushed across the street and lined up to see the very foundations of America.

And yes, there they were. The thrill of seeing the signatures of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, and others was beyond description for a Colonial- and Federal-era enthusiast like our friend Ben. Knowing as I do that another of my favorite Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris, actually composed and wrote the Constitution (despite a publicity grab by Madison enthusiasts to designate him “Father of the Constitution”), and seeing the actual writing on the document, which was his, sent chills down my spine. Yes! Yes!!! Go Gouverneur!!!!!

Believe it or not, there were thrills and shocks aplenty in the short time our friend Ben, Silence, and Susan had to check out the National Archives before they closed. On the plus side, they had one of the four copies of the British Magna Carta, dating to 1295, on display. The Magna Carta is crucial to the British, of course, but it’s also of vital significance to Americans, since without it, our country could never have become what it was and is. To look at the near-microscopic but unbelievably, elegantly precise writing of the Magna Carta was to almost experience a time-warp: How could anyone create such minute, perfect, exquisite writing at all, much less with a quill pen? Ah, ah, impossible!

Other thrills included the many documents beside the “big three” that shaped American history: the Articles of Confederation, our first stab at a constitution; the Emancipation Proclamation; JFK’s inaugural address; and thousands more. The National Archives is truly a national treasure. 

And the shock? Oh, dear, it was the condition of the Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our freedom. The document those brave men, John Hancock and the others, signed so brazenly, had become almost invisible in time. Men who risked their very lives to sign the document (as our hero, Ben Franklin, so wonderfully pointed out to laggards, “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately”) would not be able to decipher it today, so faint has the ink become. Oh, no, no, our great document! Can no one save it?!

Mercifully, offsetting the horror of the almost-invisible Declaration of Independence was the fine, decisive script of Gouverneur Morris on the Constitution. It was marvellous! Our friend Ben will doubtless post on Gouverneur Morris at some point—he, with Franklin, Hamilton, and (of course) Washington—are the Revolutionaries who capture both my imagination and my admiration. And here’s a tidbit for you Thomas Jefferson fans—unlike the ornate script of other Founders, the writing of Jefferson in his notebooks detailing the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition struck our friend Ben as astonishingly modern. Hmmm. Our friend Ben leaves each of you to make of that what you will.

At any rate, seeing these seminal documents of my country, seeing them unexpectedly as I did, was an incredible experience for our friend Ben (and for Silence, too). If you enjoy American history, please don’t wait like our friend Ben to see the National Archives display. Go as soon as you can! Make it a vacation destination. You’ll be so glad you did!

As if that weren’t enough of a historical high, our friend Ben and Silence had to drive past Gettysburg to return from Washington to our Pennsylvania home. So of course we stopped at the Gettysburg Battlefield to look out over the decisive battlefield of the Civil War. (Who on earth decided to call that bloody horror “civil,” anyway?!) We even got to see some reenactors firing off a cannon (ouch!!! cover your ears), and of course we went to the visitors’ center to check out the displays. The whole thing was pretty awesome, and Silence managed to snag a cookbook containing Robert E. Lee family recipes. (Our friend Ben is related to both Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, and would have preferred a Lincoln family cookbook, but no luck.) Anyway, I’m sure you’ll hear from Silence if she decides to try any of the Lee family recipes.

For now, we’re wiped out from our exciting weekend, but we enthusiastically enourage you to see the treasures at the National Archives building if you’re in Washington, and of course to stop in Gettysburg if you’re in that part of Pennsylvania. Talk about an encounter with history! Our friend Ben is still reeling.