A red-letter day for liberty

On March 4th in 1789, one of the most significant events in the history of liberty occurred. The first Congress of the United States met in New York City to give effect to the US Constitution and to propose the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Largely crafted by James Madison, the amendments add guarantees of personal freedoms and rights, limits on government powers, and specify that all powers not given to Congress by the Constitution are to be held by the states or the people. They were done largely to meet reservations by anti-federalists.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, free speech and a free press, and the right to peaceful demonstration.

The Second upholds the right to bear arms.

The Third bans soldiers being quartered in private homes.

The Fourth rules out unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Fifth protects against double jeopardy and self-incrimination, the one often claimed by gangsters. It also guarantees due process and compensation for any property seized.

The Sixth establishes the right to a speedy and public trial, to trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of criminal charges, to confront witnesses, to compel witnesses to appear in court, and to the assistance of counsel.

The Seventh guarantees jury trials in Federal cases involving over 20 dollars.

The Eighth prohibits excessive bail and fines, and "cruel and unusual punishments."

The Ninth states that there are basic rights that lie outside the Constitution.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, or to the people.

This is the one that is sometimes abused by withholding Federal funds from states that refuse to comply with Federal rules. This device was used to make them set universal 55mph speed limits until these were modified under President Reagan before their abolition in 1995, and is used to enforce a national minimum 21-year drinking age.

Taken together, the Bill of Rights amendments give written guarantees that US citizens can appeal to in court, and can be taken to the Supreme Court itself for interpretation. They have many times been used to strike down Federal or state laws that are judged to be in violation of them. They thus provide a model of written fundamental laws that protect the liberty of citizens from arbitrary abuse. They also protect individuals from new laws that would restrict hem, even if these enjoy widespread popular support. They put liberty ahead of democracy, which is where it should be.