For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series. I recommend reading them all. Here’s the description:
The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.
This week I’ll be providing some commentary on the final issue of this series, Self-Government, the American Way, by Will Morrisey. Excerpts follow, with my comments:
After winning the independence they had declared in 1776, Americans had to prove that they could sustain self-government in peace. They’d governed themselves already, as colonists, but now the British government no longer protected them from the other European powers, and indeed remained a potential enemy of the new country. It’s easy for us today to wonder why American statesmen from Washington to Lincoln seemed obsessed with building and sustaining “the Union,” or why President Jefferson so readily bent his constitutional scruples to purchase Louisiana from Napoleon to extend it. But to Americans then, looking at maps of North America, seeing their republic surrounded by hostile empires and nations whose rulers viewed republicanism with fear and contempt, maintaining the Union meant survival—survival not just of their way of life but of their very lives.
It’s important to note that the formation of the American republic was an existential threat to kings, emperors, dictators and despots all over the world. Not only was there now a nation with government by the people, of the people, for the people, it was a nation whose governing documents included strict prohibitions against its interfering with the fundamental natural rights of its citizens.
To understand American self-government, one should begin with the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These rights stand at the center of republicanism considered as an activity of self-government. They limit the power of Congress, the branch of the federal government charged with legislating. They prevent Congress from legislating republicanism out of existence.
As I’ve pointed out before in discussing other articles in this series, the first five words of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights is key and cannot be emphasized enough:
Congress Shall Make No Law.
No law, as I’ve said, means no damn law. But during the Kung Flu crisis, that didn’t stop state governors and local pols and bureaucrats from trying all manner of power grabs; many of those were challenged in court, many were protested with vigor by the citizens, but court cases take time.
Freedom of speech and of the press must not be prohibited—they cannot even be abridged by Congress. Here, we must know what the founding generation meant by such a formula: freedom of political speech and publishing. Slander, libel, and obscenity were universally banned by state and local law, and could potentially be banned by federal law, too. Republican government requires discussion and deliberation by the sovereign people. How else could citizens make their sovereignty effective? This is why the Preamble to the Constitution begins with “We, the People of the United States.”
Now, today, here’s the question: Have we been successful, as citizens, in making our sovereignty effective?
I’d argue that today we can only say “somewhat.”
Congress routinely runs roughshod over the Bill of Rights. The several states, maybe even more so. During the earlier part of the Moo Goo Gai Panic, the Governor of New Jersey – the chief executive of one of the fifty states – replied to an interviewer that the Bill of Rights was “…above his pay grade.” What an idiotic reply! The Bill of Rights is not above anyone’s “pay grade,” it is a compendium of our natural rights with which no pol or bureaucrat at any level of government may legally interfere – a part of the Constitution which this stupid ass took an oath to support and defend!
The essay and the series concludes (emphasis added by me):
It remains for American citizens to live in the structure the Founders designed by respecting its features, a respect that can only be maintained by what one Founder called “a moral and religious people”—which is to say, a people who perpetuate the American effort at self-government in their private, civil, and political lives.
That last sentence, that’s the part that scares me. More and more, I fear, more Americans are lured away from the “American effort at self-government” by the siren song of Free Shit, and more and more, the Bill of Rights is forgotten.