America has entered its third great era: the post-constitutional one. In the first, in the colonial years, a unitary executive, the King of England, ruled without checks and balances, allowing no freedom of speech, due process, or privacy when it came to protecting his power.
In the second, the principles of the Enlightenment and an armed rebellion were used to push back the king’s abuses. The result was a new country and a new constitution with a Bill of Rights expressly meant to check the government’s power. Now, we are wading into the shallow waters of a third era, a time when that government is abandoning the basic ideas that saw our nation through centuries of challenges far more daunting than terrorism. Those ideas — enshrined in the Bill of Rights — are disarmingly concise. Think of them as the haiku of a genuine people’s government.
Deeper, darker waters lie ahead and we seem drawn down into them. For here there be monsters.
The Powers of a Police State Denied
America in its pre-constitutional days may seem eerily familiar even to casual readers of current events. We lived then under the control of a king. (Think now: the imperial presidency.) That king was a powerful, unitary executive who ruled at a distance. His goal was simple: to use his power over “his” American colonies to draw the maximum financial gain while suppressing any dissent that might endanger his control.
In those years, protest was dangerous. Speech could indeed make you the enemy of the government. Journalism could be a crime if you didn’t write in support of those in power. A citizen needed to watch what he said, for there were spies everywhere, including fellow colonists hoping for a few crumbs from the king’s table. Laws could be brutal and punishments swift as well as extra-judicial. In extreme cases, troops shot down those simply assembling to speak out.
Among the many offenses against liberty in pre-constitutional America, one pivotal event, the Stamp Act of 1765, stands out. To enforce the taxes imposed by the Act, the king’s men used “writs of assistance” that allowed them to burst into any home or business, with or without suspicion of wrongdoing. American privacy was violated and property ransacked, often simply as a warning of the king’s power. Some colonist was then undoubtedly the first American to mutter, “But if I have nothing to hide, why should I be afraid?” He soon learned that when a population is categorically treated as a potential enemy, everyone has something to hide if the government claims they do.
The Stamp Act and the flood of kingly offenses that followed created in those who founded the United States a profound suspicion of what an unchecked government could do, and a sense that power and freedom are not likely to coexist comfortably in a democracy. A balancing mechanism was required. In addition to the body of the Constitution outlining what the new nation’s government could do, needed was an accounting of what it could not do. The answer was the Bill of Rights.
The Bill’s preamble explained the matter this way: “…in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the government’s] powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.” Thomas Jefferson commented separately, “[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
In other words, the Bill of Rights was written to make sure that the new government would not replicate the abuses of power of the old one. Each amendment spoke directly to a specific offense committed by the king. Their purpose collectively was to lay out what the government could never take away. Knowing first-hand the dangers of a police state and unchecked power, those who wrote the Constitution wanted to be clear: never again.
It needs to be said that those imperfect men were very much of their era. They were right about much, but desperately wrong about other things. They addressed “humanity,” but ignored the rights of women and Native Americans. Above all, they did not abolish the institution of slavery, our nation’s Original Sin. It would take many years, and much blood, to begin to rectify those mistakes.
Still, for more than two centuries, the meaning of the Bill of Rights was generally expanded, though — especially in wartime — it sometimes temporarily contracted. Yet the basic principles that guided America were sustained despite civil war, world wars, depressions, and endless challenges. Then, one September morning, our Post-Constitutional era began amid falling towers and empty skies. What have we lost since? More than we imagine. A look at the Bill of Rights, amendment by amendment, tells the tale.