Copyright © 2003 Henrietta W. Hay
Bill of Rights Day
December 12, 2003
"Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New York on
Wednesday, the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty
"The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their
adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent
misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and
restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of
public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent
ends of its institution."
So reads a portion of the preamble to the Bill of Rights.
During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, a
number of the delegates repeatedly charged that the Constitution as
drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh
in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights
before and during the Revolution. They demanded a "bill of rights" that
would spell out the rights of individual citizens. Most states had
ratified the Constitution on the condition that such a bill be added.
Of the 12 amendments proposed in 1789, 10 were ratified by the states
and they became our Bill of Rights.
They spell out citizen's rights which government is categorically
forbidden to remove, abridge or infringe. They are distinctly American
and probably the most important words in the Constitution. But from the
beginning, we have had to fight to keep them.
In 1941 President Roosevelt named December 15 Bill of Rights Day. The
timing is ironic, since the next year 120,000 people of Japanese
descent were forcibly interned by Executive Order. More than two-thirds
of those interned were citizens of the United States, and none had ever
shown any disloyalty. The Executive Order was rescinded by President
Roosevelt in 1944.
And then came John Ashcroft, appointed Attorney General by President
Bush. He pushed the Patriot Act through Congress in 45 days. It has
342 pages and although most members of Congress admitted they had read
a few paragraphs, they passed it on October 26, 2001 and the President
signed it the same day.
It threatens the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments,
including among many other things, freedom of speech and religion,
freedom from search and seizure, the right to due process of the law and
the right to privacy within one's own home.
Nat Hentoff says that, "Actually, ever since John Ashcroft pushed the U.
S. Patriot Act through an overwhelmingly supine Congress soon after
September 11, he has subverted more elements of the Bill of Rights than
any attorney general in American History."
Across the country citizens have been forming Bill of Rights defense
committees. As of December 3, three states and 219 cities, towns, and
counties have passed resolutions, ordinances or ballot initiatives
protecting the civil liberties of their 27,773,518 residents. Hundreds
more are in progress. Arcata, Californa was the first city in the
nation to pass an ordinance that outlaws voluntary compliance with the
There is little humor to be found in this situation, but the Washington
Spectator found a bit. According to the Spectator, the Patriot Act's
linguistically contrived full title as created by John Ashcroft was,
"The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools
Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act." The Bill of Rights
Defense Committee held a contest to determine a new name. The winner
was "Useless State-sponsored Action Purporting to Attack Terror While
Really Initiating an Oligarchic Takeover Act."
The Bill of Rights is in serious jeopardy today in the name of "safety."
Benjamin Franklin was wise beyond his time. He wrote in 1759 "They that
can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety
deserve neither liberty or safety."
It is vital on the Bill of Rights Day next week to give serious thought
to preserving those words which we all treasure and which allow us to
live in freedom.