I wish that Trey Gowdy could have made more headway on his various investigations, but there’s no doubt that he’s a superb cross-examiner. Clear, organized, and extraordinarily gifted at getting his point across — and in this case, his point is that the government has created a regime that deprives Americans of a core constitutional right without due process. It’s such a gross government overreach that I don’t even feel a smidgen of sympathy for the apparatchik caught in Gowdy’s crosshairs during this examination:
I was struggling to explain to a Bernie supporter why his “compassionate” politics will not stop the risks to Americans from further socializing and therefore growing American government. In military terminology, a force multiplier is a single capability that, when added to an enterprise, dramatically increases the effect.
The problem with government is that, as it grows, no matter the original good intentions behind it, it invariably becomes a force multiplier for evil. Thus, once government power passes a certain point, government becomes the equivalent of a bull in a china shop, with its every motion causing massive damage. Incidentally, the china in that shop is always you — the individual.
I defy any one of you reading this to identify a huge government that has not eventually done great damage to its citizens. This is true whether the government was an imperial monarchy (Rome or China), a theocracy (Iran), a military dictatorship (every tin pot tyrant in Latin America), a socialist government (Greece), a communist government (USSR or China), or a demagogic cult of personality (a la, say, Mugabe in Zimbabwe).
Individuals can be stupid and even unbelievably cruel. Every day the media is filled with stories from around the world of people killing or harming each other, whether through carelessness or deliberate action. Reading these stories, we may long for a strong hand from above to create order. If you’re an environmentalist, you want government to beat down the polluters and the deniers. If you’re devoutly religious, you want leadership that stops blasphemy, premarital sex, abortion, and pornography. If you’re a feminist, you want to bring to heel men who demean women. People with strong ideals believe that they are being good when they seek an equally strong government that will enforce those beliefs.
There’s actually nothing wrong with voters within a small community enacting regulations that allow government to enforce their beliefs. Small governments are close to and responsive to the voters, making them ideal laboratories of democracy. For example, Colorado is a perfect test case for marijuana legalization. Local voters asked for it, it’s being implemented, and an interested America can see whether legalizing pot is a good thing or a bad thing. Because the experiment’s scale is finite, the ensuing damage is limited, those who hate the law’s effects can move elsewhere without leaving their country, and a local law is more easily reversed than something enacted and enforced at a national level.
Likewise, if California voters elect legislators who think that green cars will save the world, and therefore give enormous subsidies to rich people for buying electric cars at a discount . . . well, go for it. Smart, wealthy Californians will buy the subsidized car and then head for a low-tax state. Those who can’t afford the cars and resent the subsidies can also move. Meanwhile, the rest of America can marvel at a state with the highest poverty rate in America that subsidizes rich people’s toys.
When things happen at a national level, where governments are increasingly removed from their representatives (not to mention entirely removed from ideologically-driven Supreme Court justices) they rapidly become anti-democratic. This is most obvious when it comes to money because anything that involves the federal government involves money — incredibly vast sums of money. Where there’s money, there’s corruption. That’s how it came about that, during a painful recession, taxpayers across America find themselves funding Solyndra and related entities — not because doing so was good business, but because the government put its thumb on the scale. When those companies failed, there was nowhere for ripped-off Americans to go, short of emigrating.
Government’s most powerful effect as a force multiplier doesn’t involve money, it involves death. Progressives like to point out that America has a very high murder rate. They believe that government could compassionately end murder if it would confiscate guns, fund more abortions in poverty-stricken regions (eliminating potential criminals), and otherwise attack root causes. Following this line of thinking, Progressives reason that the bigger the government, the more quickly it can bring about murder’s end.
In fact, the opposite is true. Data shows that individuals are surprisingly bad at mass killings, including individuals equipped with the Progressives’ bête noire — the gun. For example, the worst individual mass murderer with a gun was Anders Behring Breivik who, on July 22, 2011, shot and killed 69 people in Norway – mostly teenagers. This rampage came after he’d already set off a bomb, killing 8 people.
Even when individuals band together in armed groups they’re still surprisingly ineffective at killing. The bloody Mumbai terror attack in 2008 is killed 154 people. The 2015 Paris massacre claimed 139 lives.
Even if mass murderers abandon their guns and think really big, they’re still operating in the low four-digits when it comes to mass murder. In 1999, Gameel al-Batouti, a pilot, hollered “Allahu Akbar” as he piloted a plane full of passengers into the Atlantic Ocean, killing 217 people. Even the 19 al Qaeda members who used box cutters to hijack four planes, crashing them into three buildings and a field, couldn’t break 3,000, taking “only” 2,996 innocent lives.
At this point, smart readers have probably noticed the huge flaw in my argument about how inefficient individuals or small bands of people are when it comes to killing. I’ve focused on specific crimes and ignored the aggregate number of people dead in American throughout its history thanks to violent individuals. The clever Progressive would argue that, if we had a really powerful (but compassionate) government, most crime would stop, thereby saving lives.
Sadly, it turns out that’s not true. Instead, the opposite is true. The reality is that, even if individual Americans were super-efficient killing machines for our country’s entire 233 year history, we’d still be rank amateurs compared to Big Government’s force multiplier effect when it comes to murder.
Let me explain by having you join me in playing around with numbers: We’ll begin by adding up America’s annual murder statistics from 1960 through 2012. During those 52 years, Americans murdered 914,191 of their fellow citizens. (This period, which encompasses the implementation of and fall-out from the Democrat’s Great Society experiment, saw the largest number of murders in America’s history.)
Now let’s pretend, solely for the sake of argument, that this high murder rate is not an outlier. Instead, we’ll pretend that it’s the American way of life for 900,000 people to get murdered every 50 years. Thus, we’ll pretend that from 1783-1833 there were 900,000 murders in America, and we’ll also pretend that from 1833 to 1883 another 900,000 people got murdered, and so on for every 50 year block of time through to the present. If we play this game for America’s entire 233 year history, there would have been about 4,000,000 murders in America by 2016.
That imaginary, inflated number — 4,000,000 murders! — sounds scarily high. Couldn’t a compassionate government have saved those lives? Probably not. The reality is that, compared to what governments — the force multipliers of evil — can do, that massively inflated number is nothing! There is no killing power greater than government, which has a concentration of men and weapons that even the most blood thirsty murderer can only dream of. Look at the numbers for just the 20th and 21st centuries:
Turkey: In 1915, the Turkish government ordered and carried out the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
Soviet Union: In the 1920s through mid-1930s, the Soviet government under Stalin declared war on the independent Ukrainian farmers known as Kulaks. Through government engineered starvation, deportation, and execution, the Soviets are estimated to have killed approximately 7 million Kulaks.
The Kulaks were just one group who died off in a specific mass killing. In fact, nobody really knows how many of its citizens the Soviet Union killed, whether using starvation, outright execution, or penal colonies. Estimates range from 7 million to 20 million people dying due to the Soviet government’s policies and purges.
China in the 1960s through 1970s: When it comes to a government killing its own citizens, the Soviets were pikers compared to the Chinese. Current estimates for those who died during the Great Leap Forward due to government engineered famine, executions, and slave labor, range from between 23 million to 46 million Chinese. Some estimates (outliers, admittedly) posit even 50 million or more Chinese dying to appease Chairman Mao’s statist vision.
Nazi Germany, from 1933-1945: You knew I’d get to the Nazis, of course. Not satisfied with purging their own country of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and handicapped people, the Nazis conquered Europe from France to Poland to Denmark and embarked upon a purge in those countries too.
With their pick of helpless victims, the Nazis killed 6 million Jews; 250,000 gypsies; 220,000 homosexuals, and, through slave labor, executions, and starvation, as many as 10 million Slavic people. (The number of handicapped people killed is unknown.) To the deliberate murders of unarmed combatants, the Nazis added the deaths of another 19,315,000 Europeans who weren’t targeted because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability but who were, instead, just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Cambodia: Following the Cambodian Civil War, Pol Pot rose to power in Cambodia. Once in power, in the years between 1975 and 1979, his government killed between 1.7 and 2.2 million of its own citizens, out of a population of around 8 million people. Were the U.S. to have a Pol Pot moment today, that would be the equivalent of having the federal government kill 66 million to 85 million people in four years.
North Korea: Nobody knows how many North Koreans have died since the murderous Kim regime came into power. One estimate is that 1,293,000 North Koreans have died at their government’s hands. That number, of course, is entirely separate from the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans residing in concentration camps throughout that hellish little nation.
The above are the government-engineered mass murders that spring most readily to my mind. I’ve obviously left out many murderous regimes that properly belong on the list, everything from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, to Cuba, to just about every tin-pot dictatorship in Africa and Latin America. If you would like the full body of statistics for government-engineered mass murders in the 20th and 21st centuries, I recommend R. J. Rummel’sStatistics of Democide, which examines 214 regimes. I’ve picked my way through some of this opus and, even though Rummel’s writing is scholarly not scintillating, I was able to catch the depressing gist: governments kill and, given the chance, they kill often, in staggering numbers.
Let me restate my premise once more: Government is a force multiplier of evil. No matter the initial intentions that led to the build-up of a powerful government (compassion, efficiency, “fairness,” economic strength), eventually government is going to start taking sides and, as surely as night follows day, it will bring the full weight of its police and military power against the side it didn’t take.
A compassionate government will talk itself into euthanizing people who, because they are very old or sick, use up more than their fair share of medical care. This has already happened under England’s National Health Service, which kills off old, sick people, and whose “ethicists” advocate even more killings (out of “compassion” of course).
A compassionate government dedicated to efficiency will convince itself that individuals or organizations that stand in the way of efficiency must be controlled and, if they won’t be controlled, must be destroyed. After all, without mandated efficiency, people will suffer.
A compassionate government dedicated to “fairness” (usually thought of in economic terms), will quickly conclude that it’s entirely unfair that one distinct group or another is wealthier or healthier than the rest. That group must be brought to heel and, failing that, destroyed.
A compassionate government dedicated to national purity will naturally have to kill the impure within its borders and, once that’s done, it would be even more compassionate to extend that purity throughout the world.
Even the most murderous theocracies will argue that compassion guides them. Their tortures, executions, and Holy Wars are meant to bring people closer to God, which is the highest form of human existence. Isn’t that a nice, compassionate thing to do?
The only bulwark against the force multiplier of government evil is limited government. That’s why America’s Founding Fathers, who had just rebelled against the most powerful government in the world, did everything they could to bolster individual rights (i.e., what we now call “civil rights”).
As the Declaration of Independence states unambiguously, each person has unalienable rights — the ultimate civil liberties, if you will — that do not come from government. Our individual rights exist independent of government. Government’s job is not to create these rights, but to safeguard them. Government cannot hand them out, nor can it take them away. They just are. And if government fails to provide the proper safeguards or, worse, itself threatens these unalienable rights, it is not the rights that are illegitimate, it is the government.
Very soon after the American Revolution ended, our Founders recognized that the federal government needed some guidance if it was to maintain its legitimacy and provide a stable structure for its citizens without destroying their rights. To that end, in 1791, the Founders enacted the Bill of Rights (i.e., the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution). They are short and sweet, and are notable for the way in which, rather than extending government power, they severely restrict its power over citizens.
It took eight amendments to drive home the explicit rights inherent in individuals, rights that government must keep inviolate. But to reiterate just how severely constrained the United States’ federal governments’ power is vis a vis the citizens within its borders, the Founders made two further points: While the amendments are to be understood to control the federal government, they cannot be read to mean that American citizens have only those rights enumerated in the first eight amendments (9th Amendment). Instead, those ostensibly stated affirmative “rights” are actually limitations on the government. All else remains to a free people.
And if the 9th Amendment isn’t sufficiently clear, the 10th Amendment says that, unless the Constitution explicitly reserves an affirmative right for the federal government, or prohibits it to a state, all other rights — the universe of rights, whether or not articulated — belong to the states or the people within those states.
This is small government writ large. Civil rights mean small government, with the federal government limited primarily (although not entirely) to protecting citizens from itself. The Bill of Rights is meant to put a brake on government’s inevitable end-point as a force multiplier of evil.
In this election, looking at either side of the political divide (Democrat or Republican), there is only one candidate who has repeatedly, throughout his life and career, professed fealty to the Constitution. That candidate is Ted Cruz. Even if you don’t like him, even if you think he’s arrogant, even if his God talk scares you, his loud constitutional fealty means that he has boxed himself into a corner. He cannot utilize the force multiplier effect to bring about whatever nefarious goals you might fear he has. Jonah Goldberg sums it up nicely:
Cruz’s “brand” hinges almost entirely on his fidelity to the Constitution. Mimicking Barack Obama’s disdain for the Constitution simply wouldn’t be an option for Cruz, and that means he’d have to work with Congress to get his conservative agenda passed.
What matters now is that Cruz is a talented and committed conservative. He is also Republicans’ best chance for keeping their presidential nomination from going to someone with low character and worse principles.
There are many candidates this year who promise to use the government to make things better. That is an oxymoronic promise. Except in very limited areas (national security, public health, preserving open trade between states and nations), the bigger the government gets, the worse it becomes.
To those voters contemplating which candidate to support in the upcoming primaries, I bet of you to ignore anger, ignore pretty speeches, ignore alleged compassion, ignore history-making feminism, and ignore any other “trend of the minute” concerns or promises. Instead, vote for the only candidate who has predicated his entire career and candidacy on limiting government power, thereby limiting government’s force multiplier effect of evil.
(And one more thing: Before you vote, please read Garry Kasparov’s illuminating opinion piece about the evils of socialism and the wonders of American-style, free-market capitalism. It’s not just a challenge to Bernie’s promises. It’s an encomium to an America predicated on individual liberty and a free-market economy.)
Republican voters have a very stark choice facing them: Do they vote for the candidate who promises to resurrect American greatness through the power of his will, or do they vote for the candidate who promises to resurrect American greatness by recognizing the Constitution’s centrality in American governance? Maybe I’m being foolishly reductionist, but the answer to that question seems to lie within the question itself: You cannot “resurrect” America unless you first resurrect the Constitution to its rightful place in American politics.
I don’t doubt that Trump will fulfill his promises to undo some of the damage Obama has done, both at home and abroad. And I fully understand the appeal of a candidate who seems likely to carry out an agenda with which a voter agrees.
The problem is that Trump’s free-wheeling stump promises, well-known history, and uber-alpha personality make it clear that he’ll carry out his promises the same way Obama did it: Through executive ukases, crony capitalism, and smearing his political opponents. There’s no room in Trump’s rhetoric for the Constitution. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the only allusion Trump has made during the primary season to the Constitution is to express support for the Second Amendment (and believe me, I appreciate that).
While it’s tempting to go for the quick and easy fix Trump promises, doing so betrays the Constitution and, in doing so, undercuts everything that makes America exceptional. The men who wrote the Constitution were trying to create a government free of Obama’s executive legislation, crony capitalism, and power plays through personal attacks — political sins that were all rife in British government in the 18th century. The Founders rightly understood that these malevolent government practices concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a small group of people, while denying liberty to each individual.
Had the Founder’s wished to, they could have gone the socialist root, which was already bubbling up through the Enlightenment, only to flower in the French Revolution. They understood that this approach to government had nothing to do with individual liberty. The only thing that a socialist government does is to transfer power from a monarchy to an all-powerful government body that purports to represent the people’s collective. Individuals in a socialist society have as little freedom and as few rights as individuals in any tyrannical system, whether its communist, monarchist, theocratic, or oligarchic.
That is, the Founders understood that switching rulers always leaves the way open for another tyranny. The only way to prevent tyranny is to change the government’s fundamental structure. That’s where the Constitution comes in, with its truly revolutionary approach to allocating power between the people and their government.
To keep government weak and individual liberties strong, the Founders created a government with divided powers so that no one branch could become too powerful, especially because they assumed that each branch would zealously guard its power from any encroachment by the other two branches. The Founders would have been horrified to see Americans, whom they envisioned as a collection of individuals, rather than a people’s collective, willingly vote for an executive who wants to aggregate power. They would have been even more horrified to see a Congress, whether because of laziness, cronyism, or fear, lie supine in the face of executive overreach.
Both the age of Obama and Trump’s astonishing rise to prominence show that too many Americans don’t understand that the Constitution’s entire thrust is towards individual liberty, not government power. The Constitution does not impose its obligations on “We, the People;” instead, it imposes them on the federal government itself.
Unlike laws, which are limitations that governments impose upon people, the Constitution is a contract by which the People impose limitations on the government. To that end, the main body of the Constitution defines a functioning limited government. It is structured to ensure that, when it functions properly, no single branch can function alone.
Once having structured a government that was theoretically immune to dictatorship, the Founders were then able to turn their attention to protecting the People’s unalienable under that government. They understood that, if the government can “giveth” something and then “taketh” it away again, that something is not a right; it is, instead, a mere privilege.
Rights belong to the People independent of government. The Constitution’s first ten amendments describe rights that are fundamental to the individual and, therefore, transcend government. The Founders stated them explicitly because they understood that even the most beneficent, well-intentioned government, once it got the bit between its teeth, could not be relied upon to protect these rights. It was therefore necessary to err on the side of caution by defining each individual’s inherent rights and warning federal government away from touching them.
Even more importantly, the Founders vested the most important power of all — the power of the purse — in the House of Representatives, which is the branch of government closely connected to each individual American. House members serve for much shorter terms than Supreme Court justices (life terms), executives (minimum 4 year terms) and Senators (minimum 6 year terms). In addition to a Representative’s short term of office, which means the people can quickly punish or reward legislative conduct, the House of Representatives mirrors population dynamics. The Senate is fixed at two representatives per state, there’s only one president, and there are nine Supreme Court justices. The House, by contrast, is reconfigured every ten years to represent accurately the number of people in various population centers and deserts throughout the U.S. All of this means that, if the People are not pleased with the government, they can quickly, and in proportion to their numbers, make their displeasure known through the House.
The Founders also envisioned each branch zealously guarding its power from any encroachment by the other two branches. They would have been horrified if they could have seen the current relationship between Congress and the White House. Since 2010, even though the majority in Congress was elected by citizens who disapproved of the executive branch’s overreach, a toxic blend of crony capitalism, corrupt collegiality, laziness, and craven fear has seen Congress willingly cede its power to the executive branch. Sadly, as Obama’s election showed and Trump’s candidacy promises, the People are just as ready as their Congress people to hand their rights over to a demagogue.
We’ve now had seven years to see what happens when people elect a charismatic leader who promises to carry out his agenda no matter what signals the People send when they vote for their Representatives and even their Senators. When the People made clear through Congressional elections that they did not like Obama’s agenda, Obama simply went it alone. He went it alone on border security, he went it alone on treaties, and he went it alone on Obamacare. Each time Obama did so, he not only damaged our national security and our economy, he damaged the liberty-focused constitutional underpinning that makes up American exceptionalism.
The fact that the next president can use that same presidential pen to rescind Obama’s overreaching executive orders does not remedy the situation. To begin with, Obama’s extra-constitutional acts have already caused profound damage that may take years or decades to remedy. Even worse, unless we elect as president someone whose first and last loyalty is to the Constitution rather than to the government, Obama will have set a precedent for executive overreach that, unchecked, will see political power in America devolve solely onto one person: the president. Another word for that kind of president is “dictator.”
We already know that Hillary and Bernie have no intention of allowing their administrations to be subject to constitutional limits. Whatever Obama did, they promise to do too, only more so. It’s also entirely reasonable to believe that Donald Trump doesn’t intend to limit himself either. He repeatedly makes clear that he’ll get things done through the power of his personality, through his manipulations, and through his will. The Constitution doesn’t fit into the repertoire of a man whose entire career has been based upon making a deal in whatever way he can. Trump may well do everything he’s promised, but at what cost to America?
As best as I can tell, Ted Cruz is the only candidate who has true reverence for the Constitution, seeing it as the sublime document that it is. He recognizes that it is the first and, so far, only document in the history of human kind that vests power, not in a monarchy, or an aristocracy, or an oligarchy, or a people’s collective, or a theocracy, but in each individual. The Constitution’s obsessive focus on the individual is why it is a bulwark against tyranny and why we must elect a president who understands that.
Ted Cruz will most certainly exercise his executive authority to void Barack Obama’s extra-constitutional legislative activities. After that, though, he’s been explicit about the fact that he will return power to the People through their representative legislative body, and that he will nominate to the Supreme Court justices who understand that the Constitution is meant primarily to create a limited government that preserves individual liberties.
A vote for Ted Cruz is not a vote for this agenda or that agenda. It is a vote for America itself. No matter how much you agree with Trump’s stated goals, please think twice about voting for a person who will be nothing more than a populist, vaguely conservative Obama. Ted Cruz has an admirably conservative agenda — strong national security, strong military, strong borders, free market capitalism not crony capitalism, freedom of worship, Second Amendment rights, friend to Israel, enemy to jihadist Islam — but he’ll implement it through the Constitution, not without it. Voting for Ted Cruz means that we’ll get the values we seek in a conservative president without destroying American exceptionalism and individual liberties.
Often, when a movie or a novel wants to use a truly vapid slogan for a pretend political campaign, the writers will fall back on the phrase “Now more than ever.” It’s so broad and vague as to be utterly meaningless. Yet it’s precisely what popped into my mind today when I thought about the pressing need for educating the public, both young and old, about the wonders of the United States Constitution.
The first thing that reminded me how important our Constitution is came from a New York Times video about the mob slaughter of a 27-year-old Afghani woman named Farkhunda Malikzada. Despite surprisingly brave police efforts, a howling mob beat Farkhunda to death for burning a Koran and then, in a bow to the modern world in which these savages live, used smart phones to video the attack:
Afghanistan, a Muslim country, has nothing close to our Constitution. There is no freedom of speech (which our Supreme Court long ago said included burning symbolically significant items, provided the burner isn’t destroying someone else’s property); no freedom of religion (in Islamic countries, apostasy means death and members of other faiths are killed, enslaved, exiled, or subject to second class treatment); and no due process. Mobs exist everywhere, of course, but the ethos in America is (or used to be) freedom of speech and religion, as well as due process.
As spelled out to the credulous public, Trump’s proposal was to ban all Muslims forever. That’s a bad idea. It’s unreasonably xenophobic, and it prevents America from welcoming Muslims who are not religious zealots and who look favorably upon an open, pluralist society that respects the separation of church and state.
In fact, though, that’s not what Trump proposed. What he proposed, inarticulately on day one and more articulately on day two, is that the US pause all Muslim immigration. This pause will give Congress time to study the problem of jihadists and extremists coming in with ordinary Muslim folks, and to craft legislation that will provide maximum protection for Americans.
Phrased that way, a pause is not a bad idea. After all, when you live in America, and especially when you’re a citizen, you have distinct constitutional rights, one of which is the right to have your government protect you from foreign enemies who wish to become domestic.
Of course, if you are a citizen of another nation living outside of America’s borders, you have no constitutional rights whatsoever, including the right of automatic entry. The endless debate over Latin American illegals (and yes, people can be illegal if their status is such that they shouldn’t be here at all) has muddied the waters, at least in weak liberal minds.
Anyway, based upon people’s short attention spans and the misleading headlines, people on both the Left and the Right instantly began shouting out an opinion about whether an American president has the constitutional power to ban Muslims. Let me keep the answer to that one short: Yes, the president has that power. Democrat presidents have done it before, and there’s no reason a vaguely Republican businessman can’t do it again if he’s in the White House.
But why go that far? That is, why implicate the constitution at all? As Obama has shown us with his south of the border shenanigans, the president in his management capacity can simply issue signing or executive orders opening and closing the borders at his whim.
I had the great pleasure today of attending a phenomenal talk by Prof. David Bobb, president of the Bill of Rights Institute. BRI uses original source documents to help teachers ans students understand America’s founding document and to see how it’s still relevant today. Its ultimate goal is to bring to an end our nation’s intellectual disengagement from the Constitution and to lead young people to “think the vote,” which is mindful, informed approach to elections, rather than to “rock the vote,” a mindless, drone-like approach to important issues that profoundly affect America’s young people.
Prof. Bobb could not be a better spokesman for his organization. To begin with, his bio is impressive:
David earned his Ph.D. in political science from Boston College, where he was the recipient of fellowships from the Pew, Earhart, and Bradley Foundation, as well as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
David joined the Bill of Rights Institute in December 2013. Previously he was the founding director of two national centers for Hillsdale College, the Washington, D.C.-based Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, and the Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence, a civic education program. From 2001 to 2013 he also was lecturer in politics at Hillsdale College, where he taught courses in American politics and public policy.
David is the author of Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue (Thomas Nelson, 2013) and a contributing editor to The U.S. Constitution: A Reader (Hillsdale College Press, 2012). He has written articles and reviews for the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Washington Times, Boston Herald, and the Claremont Review of Books, among other publications. He has spoken widely to audiences in twenty-five states on topics including education reform, civic engagement, and the American Constitution.
In other words, Prof. Bobb knows his stuff and he is a natural communicator and teacher. His speaking style, something that always matters to me, is the essence of clarity. No fudging, no obfuscation, no blathering. Frankly, it was a challenge to take notes, because Prof. Bobb had no spare words or sentences in his speech. Every sentence was interesting and to the point. Since I don’t do shorthand, of necessity I had to condense some ideas and I know that I missed others. This means that, to the extent there are any errors in this post, they are definitely mine, not Prof. Bobb’s. With that warning, here goes:
If I were a more detail-oriented person, I would undoubtedly have noticed long ago that, on our one dollar bill, under the pyramid, there is a Latin inscription stating “novus ordo seclorum“:
And if I were a more curious person, I would have gone online to translate that phrase. For those who, like me, don’t remember their Latin and or who aren’t too curious about our dollar bill, the phrase means “New Order Of The Ages.” It is the Founders’ announcement to the world and to posterity that they were embarking upon a grand governmental experiment, one that had never been tried before. In the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton noted that Americans were about to take a step no other people had taken before:
It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.
Back in the day, then, the Founders, with a great deal of trepidation, were about to embark upon a planned government, one that would vest the maximum amount of power in the people and that, at the governmental level, would guard against the possibility of tyranny. After all, only a few years before, they had declared themselves free to part ways with England because, in their eyes, George III had become a tyrant by taking upon himself the powers of the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. They understood that human frailty is such that no one person should ever hold that much power over others.
The unique aspect of the new Constitution was the notion — the product of one hundred years of Enlightenment thinking (powered by an increasingly humanist Christianity) — that each person comes into the world with certain rights vested in him (or her). These are not gifts from the government that the government can then take a way. Instead, when a government infringes on these inherent rights, it’s the people who have the power to destroy the government and initiate a better one — and our Constitution was intended to define that better government.
The most exceptional thing about the Constitution — which is a contract between government and the American people — is the notion of separation of powers. England, of course, led the way with that idea, wresting from the King certain powers reserved for Parliament. This was a notion that was first institutionalized in the Magna Carta; was then tested under Charles I (who lost his head for picking “King power,” rather than “People power” when asked the question “who’s in charge here?”); and was re-tested under George III, who kept his head but lost America because he too thought that he could vest in himself the full powers of government.
The Articles of Confederation, the governing document that preceded the Constitution, did not have a tripartite approach to power. It created an executive office, but had no judiciary or legislature and, significantly, it did not give the executive office the power to tax. The office had, on the one hand, too much power and, on the other hand, no way to put all that power into effect. The Constitution would do better.
At this point in his talk, in light of the upcoming 2016 election, Prof. Bobb narrowed his his focus to the executive office. He noted that, although Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the intellectual powerhouses behind the Constitution, devoutly believed in diffuse power as a bulwark against tyranny, they also understood that, to the extent they vested power in a specific institution, that power had to be meaningful. To that end, they didn’t try to create a weak executive by splitting that power among different individuals or groups.
It was Hamilton who envisioned as president an individual who, while hedged about with constitutional safeguards, could act with “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch.” After all, in times of national emergency, one can’t have a committee laboriously working its way to a tame and untimely bureaucratic response.
While the president could be active, decisive, and secretive, he still had to have limitations — and control over these limitations had to be placed in an organization equally invested in protecting and advancing its power. Or, as James Madison said, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The Constitution decided that three entities, each jealously protecting its power, would ensure that no single part of that trio would be able to aggregate too much power, the inevitable path to tyranny.
At the Constitutional Convention, George Washington sat quietly in the room as the Founders hashed out the separation and balance of powers. They all knew that Washington would be president under this new Constitution, and they all trusted that this man of extraordinary rectitude and hard-won humility would not abuse that power. But they also understood that they were writing a Constitution, not for one man, but for the ages, and that there was no guarantee that another Washington would emerge any time soon — or ever.
For every power that the Founders granted the new executive, they included an important countervailing limitation. They wanted ambitious people, so there were no term limits, but the president had to make his case to the people every four years. They wanted visionaries, but if the visions veered into unconstitutional territory, the president could be impeached (a better end than that which Charles I experienced). They gave the president a veto over legislation, but granted Congress the power to gather together most of its force to defeat that veto. They made the president the Commander in Chief, but denied him the authority to declare war.
Significantly, the Founder explicitly denied the president “spiritual jurisdiction” over the American people. Unlike their former monarch, the King of England, there was to be no national church in America. Government was to stay out of affairs of faith. (Bookworm here, speaking on her own behalf and not trying to paraphrase Prof. Bobb: Let me add that Americans have always recognized some limits on religious practice in our borders. Historically, the most aggressive fight to limit religion was the all-out-attack on Mormon polygamy. Currently, of course, the big fight is to determine how far the government can push traditional religions by demanding that they pay for abortions or marry same-sex couples. Now, back to my attempt to summarize Prof. Bobb’s speech.)
Significantly, the goal was to make a president who was responsible to the people, but not responsible for them. His job was to mind the government and the People’s job was to mind themselves, secure in a stable framework with maximum individual freedoms.
Having summarized the Founders’ goals and the steps they took to institutionalize these goals, Prof. Bobb then looked at the situation today, which he characterizes as the inverse of the Founders’ plan. Nowadays, at townhalls across America, after a President has heard a citizen’s sad story, he’ll almost invariably say something along the lines of “I’ll help you. I’ll get my people to be in touch with you and fix your problem.” In other words, rather than being a statesman responsible for the nation and subservient to the Constitution (the Founders’ goal), the president has come to define and even supplant the Constitution.
Indeed, when polled, American students routinely say that the man (or woman) occupying the Oval Office is of greater significance than the Constitution. To them, the “will of the President” is the most powerful, significant aspect of American government. This faith in a single human, rather than in the limited office, is not the rational, reasonable approach to government that the Founders desired.
If you want to know who to blame for this situation, you only have to look back a single century to President Woodrow Wilson, one-time dean of Princeton University. While in this role, Wilson wrote disparagingly of the restrictions the Constitution placed on the president. As he saw it, natural rights and law, and the separation of powers, all of which gave a say to the unwashed masses, were bunk.
(It occurs to me, Bookworm, that Wilson’s view was the result of immigration and emancipation. A committed racist, a eugenicist, and a xenophobe, the thought of all these “inferior” people having a say in government must have appalled him. Had he lived one hundred years earlier, in a time of limited suffrage, he probably would have been less dismissive of the Constitution.
Were Wilson alive today, he would still be completely at home on any American college campus. He believed that an educated elite knew better what would benefit the masses than those masses knew themselves. Wilson believed, as professors and journalists across America believe, that this cadre of intellectuals and fellow-traveling elites shouldn’t be bound by an antiquated document giving inherent rights to those with dirty or melanin-rich skin. If you want a good rundown of what a disgusting, fascist, racist guy Wilson was, check out Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change. And now back to Prof. Bobb.)
The three Republican presidents who followed Wilson (Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover) managed to restrain their ambition and, as is especially true for Coolidge, none tried to expand executive power. Franklin D. Roosevelt, though, was cut from exactly the same cloth as Wilson. Having used his government power aggressively in ways that prolonged the Depression, Roosevelt used WWII as the opportunity to create a “Second Bill of Rights,” one based not on rights inherent in all people but, instead, on government handouts. Thus, in January 1944, at the start of his fourth term as President (a little taste of tyranny there, right?), Roosevelt laid out his Second Bill of Rights (emphasis mine):
It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
- The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
- The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
- The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
- The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
- The right of every family to a decent home;
- The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
- The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
- The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.
Every president since Roosevelt has actively encouraged or passively accepted the above “add-ons” to the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution.
The original purpose behind the Bill of Rights Institute was to peel away 100 years of Constitutional “add-ons” and to enable teachers to understand our actual Founding documents and to appreciate why those principles are timeless and do not need reinterpretation. As Prof. Bobb said, most teachers love America, but they are unable to understand fully what makes this country lovable and therefore they are unable to pass that love on to their students. Students, of course, need substance, not platitudes to realize what makes America unique and why this uniqueness is a blessing, not a Howard Zinn-esque curse.
Currently 50,000 American history teachers subscribe to BRI’s mailing list. (Bookworm here: I have my doubts about Marin teachers’ participation in the list, but maybe I’m unduly cynical.) BRI sends emails to these teachers directing them to source documents (all of which are accessible through the BRI website) and giving them questions about current issues that they can ask students to debate in light of the intersection between those source documents and these current issues. For example, immediately after the grand jury decision in Ferguson, BRI had an email on its way to America’s history teachers offering source documents and topical questions.
Prof. Bobb said correctly that high school students are routinely shortchanged because we deny them these debates. (As I, Bookworm, often say, we teach our kids the “how” of learning, packing them with data like geese being stuffed for nice pate livers, but we routinely forget to challenge them with the “why” questions: Why does the information we’re feeding you matter?) Prof. Bobb and BRI want to give the kids those “why” questions and to let them use those “why” questions, in the context of our Constitution as written to piece together their world into a coherent whole.
BRI’s work is especially important at this junction in history. This may be our last chance to reach young Americans. When young people in the 18-24 year old age cohort were polled, only 1% said that they were worried about losing their Constitutional rights. Mostly, in light of the relentless headlines about events in Ferguson or Baltimore, young people have lost confidence in our justice system. Even more importantly, they believe that the justice system is irrelevant to them. No wonder 40% of America’s young people are willing to ditch the Constitution. (Bookworm here: It seems appropriate to link here to my post about the way in which people have also lost faith in free market capitalism, despite the fact that the system currently failing in America isn’t free market capitalism at all, but is more akin to fascism-lite.)
For decades, our classrooms have been controlled by Howard Zinn version of history, one that says that the Founders were “evil” rich, white men who were concerned only with guns and greed. Prof. Bobb made the completely unnerving statement that for years, every year, Zinn’s books and their spinoffs are more popular than they were the year before.
With this relentless anti-Americanism — and anti-Constitutionalism — rife in our system, young people don’t believe that our system can offer hope. Hope lies only in the president, who is viewed as a “savior” but too easily becomes a demagogue. (Bookworm here again: You all remember back to 2008 with its newspaper riffs about “magic negroes” and the endless photographs of a haloed Obama.) Moreover, despite government’s obvious failures, young people look to all government — local, state, and federal — for money, which they believe, if it rains down on them, will somehow remedy their personal ills.
Prof. Bobb sees the election of 2016 as one that pivots on constitutional issues and hopes that the crowded Republican field debates those issues in a meaningful way, without the candidates cancelling each other out. Before Prof. Bobb started his talk, he and I discussed the fact that several of the candidates bring interesting constitutional questions to the table: Ted Cruz wants to abolish the IRS and have a purely constitutional government; Rand Paul advocates a form of libertarianism that waivers between hardcore conservativism and, funnily enough, extreme Leftism; Ben Carson discusses the intersection between individual-responsibility and government handouts; while Carly Fiorina is attacking the crony capitalism that is morphing into fascism-lite. Both Carson and Mike Huckabee have suggested that a president is not obligated to implement Supreme Court rulings that are blatantly unconstitutional (unlike President Obama, says Bookworm, who feels he’s not obligated to implement Supreme Court rulings he doesn’t like).
As all of us have noticed, the current president has aggregated greater power than ever before, but it’s not entirely his fault. Congress, whether under Democrat or Republican control, meekly rolls over and allows him to go forward with blatantly unconstitutional initiatives. Prof. Bobb says that, whenever Senators put proposed bills in the hopper, they’re supposed to attach a piece of paper explaining the Constitutional authorization for the bill. Too often, their reasons are nonsensical (e.g., “right and proper clause”) or, even worse, they completely abdicate any responsibility — “let the Supreme Court decide.” The ambition that Madison believed would keep the tension between the three parts of government, preventing tyranny, is gone, as lazy legislators can’t be bothered to look beyond their little club.
Because politics, like nature, abhor a vacuum, Congress’s abdication is creating a perfect space within which an all-powerful administration has room to grow. Without any input from “We, the People,” federal agencies are implementing Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights and, willy-nilly, superseding the original Bill of Rights.
We should all worry about this trend, and we should all act to educate our children, grandchildren, and friends. So, check out the Bill of Rights Institute’s web page, where you can find source documents and useful texts, all aimed at informing the citizenry about their unique rights — rights that, once can, can probably never again be recovered.
(I sent Prof. Bobb a link to this post. I hope he checks it out and corrects the mistakes I’m sure I’ve made. If his busy schedule precludes doing so, let me reiterate — all mistakes are solely my responsibility.)
I always enjoy Bill Whittle’s videos. He has a knack for describing social and political issues with tremendous clarity. I’m convinced that ordinary Progressives (not the True Believers, but the knee-jerk voters), would change their views if they would make themselves watch a steady diet of Bill Whittle and Prager University videos.
This latest Bill Whittle video, however, is something special — which is why I emailed it to all of my local conservative friends and family. In it, Whittle describes not just a particular bad act, but a particular mindset that goes to the heart of the contract between America and her government (a contract more commonly known as the Constitution).
As you watch the video, keep in mind that, while it’s directed at Hillary Clinton and the Democrat establishment from Obama on down, it’s also an indictment of Republican politicians who are complicit in this lawlessness in so many ways. They too engage in it, profit from it, ignore it, strike deals with it, etc.
At least in the old days, members of the nobility could convince themselves that their blue blood meant being above the law. Nowadays, though, American politicians truly seem to believe that getting elected is carte blanche for white-collar crime and political malfeasance. And while it’s true that Republicans are less likely to commit these crimes (in part because Democrats are more likely to prosecute them in politically inspired witch hunts), the fact is that they all do it.
Well, we got the filing done today and it was a very big deal. I actually didn’t think it would be so big. I came in as a pinch hitter a couple of weeks ago, so I only knew the facts of the case that I’d been told. Once I started writing, though, everyone kept thinking of more relevant facts. The law was two pages (easy) and the facts were fifteen pages (plus over 100 pages of exhibits). About two hours before the whole megillah had to get finalized and go to court, I started making “point of diminishing returns” decisions. I knew that my client wanted “X” quote or “Y” document included, but there simply wasn’t time — especially because the X’s and Y’s were cumulative. That is, they simply reinforced points that we’d already made and supported. My philosophy, always, is better a brief that’s somewhat imperfect than a missed drop-dead deadline. I can deal with imperfections; I cannot (nor can any decent lawyer) deal with a missed filing date.
Yesterday was a fourteen-hour day and today an eight-hour day. I’m a little tired and am only now beginning to catch up on the news. It’s not that exciting.
Leftists are still calling baying for Republican senatorial blood after these “traitors” dared to make known the contents of the Declaration of Independence.
Hillary is still a crook, and a fairly inept one, who’s routinely saved only because she gets a pass from our incredibly corrupt media And I mean corrupt, not as in “taking bribes” corrupt, but as in “so ideologically tainted they will pervert truth to achieve their goals” corrupt.
Obama’s still complaining “why am I always the last one to hear about all the terrible thing’s that happen on my watch?”
The earth is still in the grip of a climate change so overpowering that it accounts not only for all the predicted events that didn’t happen, but also for all the un-predicted events that did happen. There is no God, but there is Gaia.
Oh, and something nice happened today: I snuck away from working on the pleading this morning just long enough to take myself to the physical therapist. This is my third session with him and I’m having less pain and more mobility than I’ve had in years.
The guy has magic hands. Really. No kidding. And — get this — he’s a libertarian/conservative who hates moral relativism, political correctness, victim status, and living life according to the dictates of your own navel. He even hates Obamacare! The hour spent with him is therapy for the body and happiness for the mind.
Unfortunately, he’s ferociously (and deservedly) expensive. Next session will be my last for at least a while. Still, I will have gotten more out of four sessions with him than out of all the other joint treatments I’ve gotten over the years. In other words, it was worth every penny — and that is how the free market works.
Now, having been in legal-land for the past 72 hours, I need to go through my inbox, pay bills, do laundry, and generally accomplish ordinary life tasks. I hope to be back tomorrow at my regularly scheduled times.
The Navy’s most recent commercial is excellent (h/t Charles Martel):
Watching it, I could only hope that, in Obama’s America, our hyper-politicized, dysfunctionally PC Pentagon not only means it, but still has the will and ability to make it a reality. After all, we live in a time when one has to pause and seriously consider Roger Simon’s semi-facetious proposal that the White House is a sleeper cell, rather than just laughing merrily at the joke.
I believe that Obama’s decision not to show up in Paris is a harbinger of his “lame duck” years. He’s always had an affinity for Islam and a disdain for Western culture. Now that he’s a lame duck, he doesn’t care anymore who knows this about him. Indeed, we’re going to see that there are a lot of things Obama doesn’t care for. He’ll quickly make it obvious that he doesn’t care about the Constitution (something he’ll reveal in a blatant way he’s previously avoided); vox populi (his voice will be the only one that counts); and a sane, workable defense against jihadist Islam.
In other words, this is going to be the most peculiar lame duck period in American history. Past lame duck presidents have been quietly ineffectual. They’ve been the past, while the political machine and the people are already looking to the future. Obama, however, once untethered from the Constitution and from any concerns about the voice of the American people, isn’t really going to be a lame duck at all. He’s got a whole new future planned for us and there’s nary a lame duck in sight.
Fasten your seat belts, friends, because we’re in for President Rabid Dog over the next two long and dangerous years.
I keep meaning to write something profound about what happened to our country yesterday, only to discover that other, much better writers and thinkers already got there before I did. I’ll just summarize by saying that Obama behaved illegally, unconstitutionally, and undemocratically. Having said that, of course, the really important question becomes: What next?
Let’s see if I can start this round-up by passing on some ideas.
Predictably, those of my Progressive friends on Facebook who are at all politically aware, are kvelling about Obama’s executive order on amnesty. “Best president ever!” “I totally agree with what he did.” “He did the right thing.” My Facebook page is filling up with those statements. To those Progressive friends, I have the following, initially sarcastic, response:
I have to admit that I’m impressed with what President Obama did, mostly because he’s bucking a famed constitutional scholar’s take on precisely this issue:
Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., is claiming that, for 238 years, everyone has been misreading the Declaration of Independence. According to her, a floating period, missing from some drafts but not from others, establishes that the Founding Fathers believed that it was the government’s, not the individual’s, responsibility to make sure we get our self-evident rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.
That errant spot of ink, she believes, makes a difference, contributing to what she calls a “routine but serious misunderstanding” of the document.
The period creates the impression that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. But as intended by Thomas Jefferson, she argues, what comes next is just as important: the essential role of governments — “instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — in securing those rights.
“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights,” Ms. Allen said. “You lose that connection when the period gets added.”
So, according to Allen, the Founders weren’t committed to individual liberties. Instead, they were statists who wanted to vest power in the government, not the individual.
Let me just say as a predicate that the Founder’s own behavior when the established the Constitution and the Bill of Rights puts the lie to Allen’s contention. Had they been the statists she believes, they never would have established a limited government in the first place, one made even more limited when the Bill of Rights vested in the people specific powers that should have made the government, at all times, subordinate to the people.
But if Allen wants to play little games, by all means, let’s play little games.
The best way, of course, to determine the author’s intent, is to ask the author. Thomas Jefferson may have been dead 189 years, but he’s left us a document in which he compares his original draft of the Declaration (his preferred version), with the one that Congress eventually enacted. This document is Jefferson’s 1821 autobiography, in which he carefully spells out how the Declaration came into being.
Here is the pertinent material from Jefferson’s autobiography:
Congress proceeded the same day to consider the declaration of Independance [sic] which had been reported & lain on the table the Friday preceding, and on Monday referred to a commee of the whole. The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others. The debates having taken up the greater parts of the 2d 3d & 4th days of July were, in the evening of the last, closed the declaration was reported by the commee, agreed to by the house and signed by every member present except Mr. Dickinson. As the sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but what they reject also, I will state the form of the declaration as originally reported. The parts struck out by Congress shall be distinguished by a black line drawn under them; & those inserted by them shall be placed in the margin or in a concurrent column.
[Editors note: text in boldface was removed for the final version of the Declaration, and text in italics was added].
A Declaration by the Representatives of the
United States of America, in General
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate & equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and [certain] inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, & to institute new government, laying it’s foundation on such principles, & organizing it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness. Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses & usurpations begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government, & to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; & such is now the necessity which constrains them to expunge [alter] their former systems of government. The history of the present king of Great Britain is a history of unremitting [repeated] injuries & usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest but all have [all having] in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.
So, parsing the sentence, what does the colon mean?
Traditionally, aside from following the salutation in a business letter, colons have four primary usages. Wikipedia has as good a summary as any:
The colon introduces the logical consequence, or effect, of a fact stated before.
- There was only one possible explanation: the train had never arrived.
In this sense the colon introduces a description; in particular, it makes explicit the elements of a set.
- I have three sisters: Daphne, Rose, and Suzanne.
The colon introduces an appositive independent clause. In other words, the sentence after the colon is in apposition (grammatically parallel) to the one before the colon. Please note that this could also be simply considered an explanation of why Bob could not speak, and written without the capital He after the colon. Both would be technically correct.
- Bob could not speak: He was drunk.
- Bob could not speak: he was drunk.
Like a dash or quotation mark, a segmental colon introduces speech. The segmental function was once a common means of indicating an unmarked quotation on the same line. The following example is from the grammar bookThe King’s English:
- Benjamin Franklin proclaimed the virtue of frugality: A penny saved is a penny earned.
- Slut: Doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains.
- Doctor: Because you’re always open!
So let’s break down that all important clause as Thomas Jefferson himself wanted it to be, with a colon.
The colon could mean a syntactical-deductive, meaning that the words following “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” are the logical consequences of that phrase:
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 among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The logical consequence of these unalienable rights is that, in order to ensure that they are given proper deference is the men create governments, the sole authority of which comes from men willingly subordinating themselves to a government entrusted to ensure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This means that, if the government ceases to serve this function, it is a failed government, which the people can abolish.
The colon could mean a syntactical-descriptive, meaning that the words following “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” expand upon and explicitly define the preceding clause. This grammatical usage, however, which is most closely aligned to Allen’s interpretation, actually reduces the sentence to nonsense:
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 among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness: What we mean by “unalienable rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” is that creating and destroying governments is the essence of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, or perhaps we mean that governments are the essence of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The colon could be introducing an appositive, independent clause, which an artsy way of tying somewhat independent thoughts together using grammatical parallelism. This makes for hideous, awkward writing, but again makes clear that government is subordinate to man, meant to sustain him, not control him:
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 among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness: Self-evident too is that government’s are endowed by man to ensure those unalienable rights and that government’s are destroyed by man when they fail to ensure those unalienable rights.
What the colon cannot do is serve as a segmental purpose, with the material following the colon being a quotation voiced by the material preceding the colon — unless we want to pretend that Jefferson was quoting the Creator:
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 among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness: [The Creator said] “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….”
The one thing that’s clear to me is that, no matter how one parses it, one can never escape the fact that the material following the period, dash, or colon is manifestly subordinate to the material preceding that period, dash, or colon. The best way to understand that is through one of my beloved outlines:
I. SELF-EVIDENT TRUTHS
A. All men are created equal
B. The Creator endows all men with certain unalienable Rights, which include, but are not limited to:
3. The pursuit of Happiness
II. ROLE OF GOVERNMENT
A. Men create governments
B. Limitations on these man-created governments:
1. They exist to preserve self-evident truths
2. They have no power independent of that which men vest in them.
3. If they fail to protect self-evident truths (and presumably, if they seek to destroy those truths), men can
a. Alter the government
b. Abolish the existing government and create a new one that exists to serve man
Again, the above is just grammatical game-playing. The Constitution, which establishes a very limited representative government, with power doled out amongst three branches, so as to prevent the tyranny of any single branch; and the Bill of Rights, which establishes vast zones of human behavior that government cannot touch, establish unequivocally that Jefferson’s “colon” was intended to protect individuals, not to make them subordinate to the government.