The Amendment Story

People of my generation will be very familiar with this brilliancy from the writers of the Simpsons:

It would benefit the sitters-in of Congress to take a look, perhaps – no doubt they can lounge back on their pillows, watching on their smartphones while munching all the goodies provided them. For those few of us already here, however, it might help to take a look at the actual Bill of Rights all over again, to see why these principles are too important to trample over in a rush.

At this point, we’ll get an important retort out of the way – “Where were you when this was about the Patriot Act, huh?” The short answer is, I wasn’t blogging yet; I didn’t open Hive 1.0 until late September of 2004. (Post One, for what it’s worth.) The longer answer is, I was in favor of it at the time, though I opposed the Department of Homeland Security and TSA – feeling that those were needless duplications of functions better-handled by the Department of Defense – but as it turns out, the warnings about it look like they’re coming true. I also note, ruefully, that the very people so convinced then of the dangers of such surveillance and infringement are precisely the same people guilty of expanding those abuses; perhaps they knew they wouldn’t be able to control themselves if given such power? And perhaps that explains why they think no legal gun owner can be likewise trusted to his own defense?

To sum up – either you were wrong about PATRIOT, in which case you shouldn’t support this nonsense, or you were right about it, in which case this is exactly what you were warning us about. Now back to our story, below the fold…

After the Articles of Confederation proved ineffectual, it was back to the drawing board for Madison, Hamilton, and company. Not only did they and the other Framers come up with a brilliant charter for the federal government, they advocated for and defended its necessity with The Federalist Papers. Their thoughts on the matter succeeded in swaying the required number of state legislatures to adopt it, and it became the foundation of the government.

Along the way, though, there were fears among the several States that a too-strong central government would undermine and eventually trample the rights and freedoms so dearly and recently defended in the Revolution, and those peoples would have no recourse to stop them. They wanted certain things spelled out explicitly.

James Madison disagreed – the Constitution specifically outlined the boundaries of federal power, so he thought that the rights of the people were already safeguarded, and that listing any of them would lead to people trying to infringe on the unlisted ones. History has shown him to be a shrewd judge of human character, especially among elected officials, but he also realized that the Constitution itself might be scuttled otherwise, so he set about making sure that the Bill of Rights was strong and met all objections. In the 240 years since, of course, we’ve come up with all sorts of new objections, and usually in the aftermath of some atrocity.

In those cases, we would do well to remember The Merchant of Venice – not “the quality of mercy” speech from Act 4, Scene 1; nor the O Henry twist that upends the schemes of Shylock later on (though we’ll get to it later). There’s a spot between those that is quite relevant to us now, starting with line 214:


… And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority:
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.


It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established:
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state: it cannot be.

I’ve embedded the famed speech from A Man for All Seasons more than once (such as here): where Sir Thomas More talks about not cutting down the law even to get at the devil, because then you’ll have nowhere to hide from him. Robert Bolt wrote his play long after Shakespeare, of course, but it was of events within living memory of people who were still alive in the Bard’s time, as recent history to him as World War Two is to us. Portia’s retort to Bassanio, like More’s to Roper, highlights the vital need – one that seems to have still been recognized twenty years ago in popular culture – you can’t just toss the law aside. Neither can you, by law, ignore the inherent rights of a person, a point More made later during his trial when he referenced Magna Carta.

If you’ll indulge me a few moments, I’d like to go over the original ten Amendments here, in brief. You can always get into more of the nitty-gritty elsewhere; I just want to do this in brief, like a song or a story – not as brief and brilliant as above, I’m afraid, but in a way that helped me to see how the Bill of Rights is no mere haphazard list. (Ten SHOCKING additions to our Constitution – you WON’T BELIEVE number six!)

The links below will take you to these mini-essays, one by one. Keep in mind the whole time that these rights are not conferred by the Constitution or any other document or law, but are inherent to us as persons, as the Declaration of Independence states:

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 to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

This is important. One of my Twitter buddies wrote to me just today (and I’m sorry to single you out thus, but it’s fresh on my mind):

My two-part reply to him should make it plain why I disagree with that thought on general principles. Our rights must not be up for a vote – if they rely solely on “social consensus” then we don’t have rights, but preferences indulged by our fellows and subject to vanish if their moods change. That we no longer think this way as a society, deferring instead to the force of law to tell us what is right and wrong, conflating “inherent right” with “permitted behavior,” is a short road to disaster. Time and again we see the outrage mob turn on one of their own, via social media and professional pressure. Can you imagine giving such as those the power to throw dissenters into jail or confiscate their homes and goods?

As our civic institutions have one by one been undermined or destroyed – the family, the church, civic institutions, etc – the one overarching restraint, the government, has been tabbed to replace these. (That the force of government authority itself was often the tool used to thus undermine and destroy the civic institutions, is rarely remarked.) This is a serious compromise to our freedoms, and as the current debate shows, this puts the whole concept of Rights of Mankind in peril.

So it is with these Rights. Recall again – listing them here was never intended to create the impression that the government was their source. Every one of these Amendments, as you will see, lays restrictions on the state, not on us.


Tagged: , ,

9 thoughts on “The Amendment Story

  1. […] (INDEX) (NEXT) […]

  2. […] (INDEX) (PREV) […]

  3. Pieces of Eighth | Blog of the Nightfly June 23, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  4. […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  5. Watch your Six | Blog of the Nightfly June 23, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  6. […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  7. […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  8. […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

  9. Just a Second | Blog of the Nightfly June 23, 2016 at 6:24 pm

    […] (INDEX) (PREV) (NEXT) […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: