In the city of Philadelphia, 223 years ago in 1787, the Constitutional Convention adopted the Constitution of the United States of America, the supreme law of the land. Wikipedia describes it as “the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.”
The Preamble to the Constitution set out the goals and purposes of the fledgling government:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
After signing, the Constitution was ratified by each U.S. state in the name of “The People”, and the government began operations on March 4, 1791, as set forth in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (i.e., the first ten amendments).
What is important to note in reflecting on these founding events is that there was reluctance to sign the document without that crucial group of ten amendments (twelve were already proposed; the second constrained Congress from raising its own salary; any raises were to take effect only in the next congress. That amendment was finally ratified more than 200 years later, in 1992).
Based on these concerns, James Madison noted that “I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed [the Constitution], disliked it because it did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power: nor ought we to consider them safe, while a great number of our fellow citizens think these securities necessary” (cited in Wikipedia article above as footnote 33; emphasis added).
What is important to note is that none of our personal freedoms and rights are actually “Constitutional rights” rights given by the Constitution: our rights as citizens are inherent in nature, protected by the Bill of Rights, from encroachment by the federal (and, subsequent to the 14th Amendment, the state) government.
Today we find ourselves in a situation when many are unaware of the text of those crucial ten amendments, a time when many who hear the text of certain amendments reject them as too radical. Yet these are the thoughts of the founders, those who had lived under a monarchy and decided to invent a better way (though based on centuries of English law [including the 1689 English Bill of Rights], the principles of the Enlightenment, and the Virginia Declaraion of Rights drafted by George Mason in 1776).
What is happening now? The Obama administration has followed in the footsteps of its recent predecessors, asserting executive privilege when requesting secrecy, not just from the public, but from the other branches of government as well, for reasons of national security, accepting such concepts as assassination of citizens and extraordinary rendition (i.e., sending prisoners to countries with torture standards lower than our own, so that our government can ostensibly keep its hands clean while enabling other countries to extract the desired information with little or no oversight or restraint).
To quote Janine R. Wedel’s article “Shadow Elite: Warrantless Wiretap Case & Obama: Abuse of Executive Power?” in the April 2008 Huffington Post, reproduced on the High Road for Human Rights Web site.
In a broader way, Obama’s willingness to test the limits of executive authority, mirroring the defense strategy of the last White House in the warrantless wiretap case, underscores a fundamental truth about power. Once it’s deployed, it’s like toothpaste out of a tube: it’s not likely to find its way back in on its own volition. And with increasing executive power a worldwide trend, this trajectory looks even more ominous. That’s why vigilance is needed on any new assertions of executive authority, even under a President who insists that he will deploy his power more judiciously than the last.
So, in honor of Constitution Day 2010, I urge my fellow citizens to join Get FISA Right, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, High Road for Human Rights, and other like-minded groups as we take back our power from those who have seized too much control; to insist that the delicate framework of checks and balances set forth in 1787 is restored to the 21st-century equivalent, privacy in E-mails and on computers as it was in letters in the late 18th century, separation of church and state, protesting data-mining by corporations and warrantless wiretaps by governments, just as in the days of our nation’s founding there were no physical searches of homes or persons allowed without a warrant from the judiciary.