Understanding the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights


When it comes to understanding their own history, Americans are horrible. To be fair, the manner in which U.S. history is taught leaves a lot to be desired. However, that does not excuse Americans from having a basic understanding of the events that shaped our country. When America was founded the settlers believed they would be an equal part of the British Empire. They were, after all, born in England and never believed their moving to a new continent would in any way change their status as citizens of England.

Americans adopted English law as the basis of their government. And every English settlement was a certified English corporate entity. And to that end almost all trade by Americans was with England. Americans exported cotton, wool, indigo and other raw materials to England. In return they got cloth, tea, kitchen utensils and other finished products. This lasted into the early 18th Century when American industry started coming into its own. For example, all goods shipped on the water were supposed to be carried on English ships however American ship owners took exception to this. As part of the “triangle trade,” Americans were supposed to send sugar and molasses to England. But rum loving Americans thought it far more economical to ship their sugar to the Caribbean and get their rum on the return voyage and one their own ships.

Then starting in the mid-18th Century England instituted a series of measures designed to bring the colonists into line. Taxing goods was nothing new but the King sent troops to America to insure that taxes were paid and English authority abided. Then in 1767 Parliament passed a series of laws that became known as the Townsend Acts. There was the revenue act, the customs act, the admiralty act, which were added on top of the quartering act of 1765. And finally in 1774 it passed the Boston Port Act, a law designed specifically to punish the belligerent population of Boston.

The 1770s also saw England replacing colonial elected governors with military governors and sending English judges to America to decide the fate of Americans brought to trial. This was meant to quell American resistance to English admiralty law but was used in other situations.

Gen. Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts and commander of 5000 British regular soldiers, considered Massachusetts residents “bullies.” After the Boston Massacre, December 1770, Gen. Gage said, “America is a mere bully, from one end to the other, and the Bostonians by far the greatest bullies.”  In 1774 Gage was engaging in a series of sorties designed to remove stores of guns and ammunition, gun powder, from colonial militia stores.  Prior to his assault on Concord, he had sent troops to Salem, Somerville, Plymouth, and Portsmouth NH in an effort to control local militia.  And as troops arrived in Boston from England, Gage ordered Boston residents to give them room and board.  That was a month prior to the battles of Lexington and Concord.

When the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1789 it was a compromise document.  The writers of the Constitution, for example, had written in a clause putting an end to slavery.  But to gain the support of 9 of the 13 colonies such a clause was not yet viable.  That basic document established our government, how it would be run, how power was divided, how elections were to be held, and some other basic items.

The full force of the basic Constitution took effect when the first election was finished and the government formed in January 1789.  Congress immediately took measures to amend the Constitution to frame some basic rights for individual Americans.  The basic document makes no such assurances.  In the years leading up to the revolution Americans could not speak freely.  Any words seen as inflammatory to British rule were enough to have a person jailed for treason, sedition, or other acts of malfeasance.  Hence the 1st Amendment is such because it free speech, and particularly that regarding the press, was deemed necessary for a legitimate democracy.  The second part of the 1st Amendment, that government can make no law with regard to religion, was a reaction to the close ties of the Church of England to English government.  That any single religion had power over a people of many religions was not acceptable.

The 2nd Amendment was simply the reaction to Gen. Gage’s overt attempts to keep Americans from having their own organized militia.  The American Revolution was fought largely by individual state militias that fell under the control of Gen. George Washington.  Most Americans believed, and with good reason, that a standing army controlled by a central government would wield its power over state militias.  This was not ironed out until after Thomas Jefferson left office and the War of 1812 commenced.  But the amendment was written specifically to reassure each individual state that its ability to raise and maintain an organized militia would be guaranteed for all time.  But this amendment effectively required states to purchase weapons for its citizen soldiers.  Prior to and during the revolution, each man was required to purchase his own weapon.

The 3rd Amendment seems irrelevant in today’s world, and it probably is.  But the Amendment was a direct response to the British Quartering act.  The American military is banned from quartering its troops in private residences.

The 4th Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure.  This too was a direct response to common practice by British troops stationed in America.

The 5th Amendment guarantees due process and the right of Americans to remain silent in cases brought against them.  An important, though less known part of this amendment, is that it separates military law from civil law.  It also indemnifies Americans from double jeopardy.  Again, all these things happened to Americans while they were under British rule and particularly in the decade leading up to the revolution.

Amendments 6 through 8 insure that certain civil liberties in courts of law as being absolute with the 9th Amendment reinforcing the idea of equality under the law.

The 10th Amendment is the first amendment which arose solely from experience between the 13 original colonies.  Those colonies saw themselves as individual republics and were very mistrustful of a superior central government.  The southern colonies feared the power of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.  What they desired was a certain level of autonomy.  They wanted to be able to create laws of their own and that such laws be independent of any law made in any other state and the federal government.  For example, almost all the northern states had passed laws outlawing slavery.  The south was not ready for such legislation and did not want the influence of the abolitionist north affecting their individual state’s law.  This amendment guaranteed that.

There are a total of 27 Amendments, 26 in force the 18th, Prohibition, having been repealed.  It took a year to passed the first ten and the next 17 ever since.  Passing a Constitutional amendment requires agreement of two-thirds states.  With there being only 13 states that made the first ten fairly easy.  But in 1912, when Arizona became the 48th state, that meant an agreement of 32 states, a difficult feat.

Anyway, we call the first 10 amendments “The Bill of Rights.”  But that is a misnomer simply because the entirety of the Constitution is our Bill of Rights.  The elimination of poll tax, the right of women to vote, the end of slavery, all individual rights, are no less a part of a bill of rights.  But the ability of Americans to either misconstrue or not understand each portion of our constitution is shameful.  People cannot defend themselves against intrusion of their individual rights either by government or corporation or individual if they are not fully aware of what they are constitutionally guaranteed.

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