This is the 216th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights – the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States. This should be one of the most honored civic days on the American calendar. Unfortunately, most Americans never notice the occasion -in the same way that many people seem not to notice how the government is increasingly violating their constitutional rights.
If a citizen does not know his rights, then, for all practical purposes in his disputes with government officials, he does not have them. A 1991 poll commissioned by the American Bar Association found that only 33 percent of Americans surveyed knew what the Bill of Rights was. A Gallup poll found that 70 percent of respondents did not know what the First Amendment was or what it dealt with. Given this level of ignorance, it is surprising that politicians have not usurped even more power.
At the least, people could celebrate the anniversary of the Bill of Rights’ ratification by sitting and quietly reading the original Bill of Rights. Since the text itself is less than 500 words, it should not take most high school graduates more than half an hour to read. Perhaps some docile Americans will be snapped awake to learn the Founding Fathers formally recognized peole’s right not to be subjected to “unreasonable searches and seizures.”
The essence of the Bill of the Rights was to place limits on the power of government and to enshrine the rights of individuals. Recognizing the anniversary of the Bill of Rights could encourage a whole different attitude on the relation of the citizen to the state – in contrast to the annual Washington celebration of the anniversary of the FDR’s signing of the Social Security Act, which should be marked annually by rattling of tens of millions of tin cups.
A 1937 Senate report aptly declared that “the Constitution . . . is the people’s charter of the powers granted those who govern them.” The Bill of Rights recognized the rights of American citizens—it did not bestow those rights on a conquered populace. Americans of the Revolutionary Era would only permit a national government to come into existence if the leaders of that government would solemnly pledge to limit their power in perpetuity. The Bill of Rights has never provided perfect protection, but it is an invaluable standard by which to judge the legitimacy of any law or government policy.
Americans need to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers in order to understand the abuses of contemporary governments – and to learn how to put government back in its place.