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.–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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence[1]

 [Hi! This is Larry, and I’m taking over because I have a beef about how people, even intelligent ones, talk about the Constitution[2] of these United States. It’s supposed to be the supreme law of this land[3], but, to hear them tell it, it’s actually a collection of opinions, many of which contradict what’s actually written in the document with that name. The true pinheads reduce the Constitution to a few words, like those quoted above, taken from the Declaration of Independence which, of course, isn’t the Constitution, and then proceed to lecture us about what’s good or bad. And they do it all without getting into any details, fussy legalities or decided cases relevant to whatever issue they’re ranting about.

 I’ll get into the argument soon enough, but first, on a related topic, let’s talk about my trip to the dermatologist. I went because I had a problem, i.e., a recurrence of unsightly but not malignant growths on my face and upper body. The standard treatment for that is to freeze the little monsters, which the doctor did, to my great discomfort. The side effect is, once the treatment’s over, the affected areas tend to swell, discolor, etc., for a while, until they clear up and heal. So looking for some sympathy I said to the doctor: “I’m sure all this is worth the trouble; it’s been so in the past; but when it’s all over, will I be beautiful again?”

“No,” he said: “That would require a head transplant, which we don’t do here.  And if we did one, we’d have to follow it in a year or so with a body transplant to finish the job.” My medical plan won’t cover that kind of thing, so I gave up. Perhaps when the Republicans are done reforming the Affordable Care Act I’ll be able to buy insurance to cover transplants like that, but the deductible, no doubt, will be at least a million dollars. I probably won’t have that kind of spare change then, either.

But the doctor and I might have stumbled onto the solution to something I’ve noticed more and more with the mainstream media. Today’s pundits, commentators, etc. seem a bit old and set in their ways. Perhaps they’re not really up to coping with history in motion. Now big guns in the media have contracts, good ones for sure, so they can’t just be thrown out on the street. [That’s something only you and I have to worry about.] But no doubt they have medical plans – also very good – so why not send some elderly news hounds in for head transplants? If the employer springs for a body transplant the next year, it could have a whole new pundit in relatively short order. That might be more cost effective than firing expensive talent and paying them tens of millions of dollars in breach-of-contract damages simply to make them go away. And it should improve the TV experience for those of us who still watch it.

But enough of that! Let’s get back to the U.S. Constitution, and how it’s really its own thing, rather than a collection of odd quotes from other documents. There are a few basics that everybody should remember.]

 The Declaration of Independence is Not Our Constitution

  1. And our Constitution is not the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was ratified on July 4, 1776[4] and basically stated the case for 13 English Colonies in North America to secede from England and the control of King George III.
  2. This was followed in 1777 by Articles of Confederation, which established a weak central government to manage the Colonies’ affairs, including the war with England.[5] The Articles were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777 and effectively served as the first constitution of the United States. They were in force from March 1, 1781 until 1789, when the present Constitution took over.
  3. The currently operative Constitution was drafted and reported out of its Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, and adopted by 11 states by 1788. It went into force on March 4, 1789, and was accepted by all 13 of the former colonies by 1790.[6]The Constitution has been amended 27 times.[7]

The Declaration is Inspired but Confusing

  1. The Declaration starts on a grand note, stating that “all men are created equal.” But what does that mean? Does it mean that all men [and women] are identical? Probably not, although babies do tend to look pretty much alike. Does it mean that all babies, when they grow up, will have the same abilities, skills, intelligence or just plain luck in their lives? Probably not. There doesn’t seem to be much scientific evidence that that’s the case, something no doubt even the signers of the Declaration knew.
  2. So does it mean that all men [and women] are equal because the Creator has given us the same “unalienable rights”? Perhaps. So what are those rights? Well, they’re not all listed, but three are: the rights to “Life,” to “Liberty” and to pursue “Happiness.”
  3. If everybody has a right to Life, then how can one justify the death penalty for anything? Or, for that matter, pre-emptive war, abortion, or any sport activity that might be dangerous? And what happens when one’s right to Life infringes on someone else’s rights, say the right to Liberty?
  4. Liberty is a very big thing in some circles. Higher taxes for high earners are resisted in some quarters because, guess why? Because they take money from one group to provide services to another. “Taking my money, or property, is the same as taking my Liberty!” That’s what some people say. So how should we choose between the unalienable rights the Creator has given to all of us? Does one person’s right to Life outweigh another’s right to Liberty, and if so, when? Should the wealthier among us pay for medical care for the poor, so that poor people might enjoy their right to Life a bit longer?
  5. Well, what about everybody’s right to “pursue” Happiness? That one’s easier to understand, I think. We all have a right to “pursue” it, but no one is guaranteed to succeed. On the other hand, suppose the poor complain that their paths to Happiness are obstructed by barriers created by the rich. Why is college so expensive these days? Not because it’s so much better than, say, 50 years ago. Rather, it’s expensive mostly to keep out the riffraff. So is there something that needs to be done about that? How about scholarships for special classes of people? How do they ensure that everybody has a fair shot at Happiness?
  6. Here’s where people who like the Declaration of Independence as a constitution might have a problem. While the Declaration prizes Liberty, it likes Life and Happiness as well. And it says that Governments exist “to secure [all] these rights…” for the people. So perhaps Government is there to arbitrate disputes, as between the rich and the poor, etc. Pure Libertarians probably won’t like that idea.

The Declaration Never Was Incorporated into Our Constitution

  1. I looked, and I can’t find any cross reference between the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the Constitution of 1789. The 1789 document doesn’t expressly incorporate the earlier one by reference nor, I would argue, does it do that by implication. Indeed, it’s perfectly clear that those who set up our Government really hadn’t fully bought into the notion that “all men are created equal.”
  2. For example, under the Articles of Confederation, drafted immediately after the Declaration, not all inhabitants of the member states had the same rights. To enjoy the privileges and immunities of a free citizen one had to be, well, free; that is, not a slave. Also one had to be not a “pauper, vagabond or fugitive from justice.”[8] If you were in any one of those disfavored categories, you definitely were shortchanged as to Liberty.
  3. And the problem of slavery continued under the Constitution of 1789, until – 70+ years later – it was resolved by a bloody and violent civil war and a Constitutional Amendment. The 13th Amendment says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [9] That, not the Declaration of Independence, put an end to lawful slavery in this country.

Conclusion

The next time someone lectures you about our Constitution and “unalienable” rights, escape as soon as possible. And if he [or she] chases you down again, don’t buy any bridges or gold bricks to make him/her go away. Vitamins might be OK to buy; you might just get what you pay for.

But the gold bricks are almost certainly phony. And if someone claims to own a bridge that’s for sale, I’ll bet they can’t produce a clear title to prove it, These are scams, in my opinion.

Just remember, you don’t have to buy things just because the sales persons are loud!

 

 

[1] You can get transcripts of the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights direct from the National Archives, at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution . These are transcripts made by or for the custodian of those documents, so presumably they are accurate. And the price is right. They’re free.

[2] That’s the U.S. Constitution. See n. 1 for a transcript.

[3] See U.S. Constitution, Article VI: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

[4] The text was completed on July 2 and ratified on July 4, 1776. Wikipedia has a pretty good discussion of the politics and procedures in play at that time. See the Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Declaration_of_Independence .

[5] See Articles of Confederation (November 15, 1777, effective March 1, 1781), available at https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=3 .  The Articles were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, after considerable debate. This document served as the United States’ first constitution, and was in force from March 1, 1781, until 1789 when the present day Constitution went into effect.  Dates are provided courtesy of the National Archives web site.

[6] Wikipedia has a somewhat muddled explanation of the process at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Constitution#1788_Ratification .

[7] The first 10 amendments are the so-called “Bill of Rights.” The remaining 17 are just that. They don’t have a collective name. You can find transcripts of all of them by rummaging around in the National Archives web site. See n. 1.

[8] See Articles of Confederation at Article IV: “The better to secure and  perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives  from Justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states;  and the people of each state shall have free ingress and regress to and from any other state, and shall  enjoy therein all the privileges of trade and commerce, subject to the same duties, impositions and  restrictions as the inhabitants thereof respectively, provided that such restrictions shall not extend so far as  to prevent the removal of property imported into any state, to any other State of which the Owner is an  inhabitant; provided also that no imposition, duties or restriction shall be laid by any state, on the property  of the united states, or either of them.”

[9] See U.S. Constitution at Amendment 13 (passed by Congress on January 31, 1865; ratified on December 6, 1865). See n. 1.

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