Defending America's Constitution

In his thoughtful and informed “The Greatest Constitutional Document of All” (The American Thinker, December 15, 2014), Rob Natelson gives the prize to the Magna Carta.

Other thinkers have in a similar vein emphasized the importance of the Bill of Rights, which emerged from Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688.  In that instance, as was the case in the Magna Carta, privileges were wrested from the British sovereign, who was forced to yield them because of the circumstances.

When I contend that the prize must go the American Constitution instead of the Magna Carta, I believe I am not simply arguing for the home team.  I’ll let an American of the actual Greatest Generation make the case for me.  Here is Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 84, arguing that the American idea of liberty is such that America did not even need a Bill of Rights:

It has been several times truly remarked, that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favour of privilege…Such was the MAGNA CHARTA, obtained by the barons, sword in hand, from King John…Such, also, was the Declaration of Right presented by the Lords and Commons to the Prince of Orange in 1688, and afterwards thrown into the form of an act of Parliament called the Bill of Rights.  It is evident, therefore, that they have no application to constitutions, professedly founded upon the power of the people…Here, in strictness, the people surrender nothing; and as they retain everything they have no need of particular reservations…For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?  Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?

The difference between British constitutionalism and the American Constitution is here made perfectly clear.  In the American idea, our rights are inherent and unalienable.  The Constitution is based on that idea of liberty.  By means of the Constitution, we the people created a government of limited powers to execute our sovereign will.  The eminent philosopher Daniel Robinson got it just right in his brilliant paper “Do the people of the United States form a nation?”

The rights in question are not the gift of enlightened government nor an offshoot of the Magna Carta, nor some sort of compact or social contract. The rights were there all along, and no government can claim validity or authenticity or the fidelity of the governed unless it is based on just this recognition.

“The rights were there all along.”  That is to say, our rights are inherent, part of our nature as human beings – as Madison and the other Founders put it, unalienable. 

By drawing a line through the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution, one can perhaps (though also perhaps not) get all the way to modern Britain, wherein subjects of the British sovereign enjoy certain privileges secured for them from their sovereigns over the centuries – but you cannot get all the way to the American idea of liberty. 

Robert Curry is the author of the forthcoming book, Common Sense Nation, to be published by Encounter Books and due out in the autumn of 2015.  You can visit him on Facebook.

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