Bill of Rights

Celebrating Individual Rights on Independence Day

At the country's founding, there were no walls to stop people from coming ashore and few rules to stop anyone from trying out new ideas.


Did you think about the signing of the Declaration of Independence this week?

The July 4 holiday is meant to honor that, not just fireworks. Ironically, government's grown so much since 1776 that fireworks might be illegal in your town.

The Declaration wasn't about creating rules for citizens to obey. It wasn't just about condemning the British, either.

Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues created a document steeped in the idea of individual rights. He could have written about the desire to replace a bad king with a good king, but he didn't.

The founders' bold plan was to design a completely new sort of country—one where people could rule themselves.

The Colonies were already known around the world for being a place where enterprising people could chart their own destiny. Now they would become a nation.

The population grew quickly as opportunity attracted immigrants. There were no walls to stop people from coming ashore and few rules to stop anyone from building a home or a business, or trying out new ideas.

So people prospered.

When the Declaration was written, no one had indoor plumbing or running water. Just 3 million people lived here. Most were much poorer than their relatives in England.

But within a century, America was the most prosperous country in the world.

Although it's the Declaration that we celebrate on the Fourth, it was another document, the Constitution, ratified 12 years later, that really gave the details of the system of limited government that would shape America.

The founders were sick of British tyranny. They understood the danger of big government.

Jefferson said, trust no man with too much government power; instead "bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
James Madison wrote, "The powers delegated by the proposed constitution to the federal government are few and defined."

Some delegates still opposed the Constitution, not because it was too radical, but because they feared it still left government too much power.

Looking at what politicians and regulators have done since, I guess those delegates were right.

One wrote, "Conceiving as I did that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it." He was outvoted, but objections like his inspired the Bill of Rights to further bind government.

The limits it imposed have done a lot of good.

During the Korean War, when steelworkers threatened to strike, President Truman nationalized the steel industry, claiming he had that power because America was at war. The Supreme Court overruled him and returned the steel mills to their owners. Good.

In 1895, Congress passed an income tax. The Supreme Court said, no, the Constitution does not give you the power to do that, and struck the income tax down. Eventually, politicians and state legislatures amended the Constitution to allow the tax. But at least they had to go through proper constitutional procedures and get a two-thirds vote.

Maybe those rulings made Presidents Bush and Obama think twice about trying to nationalize America's banks when the housing bubble burst. Maybe it will restrain President Trump when he … OK, I don't know what he may try to do, but his shifting moods make me nervous.

So far, the Constitution has at least slowed down big government. For a long time, the Supreme Court ignored the Second Amendment, but now they've started to enforce that, too.

The Constitution and Declaration didn't fully succeed. After all, Thomas Jefferson promised "a wise and frugal government," one leaving men "free to regulate their own pursuits."

Still, thanks to the founders' vision of limited government, we're closer to that ideal than most people who have ever lived.

That's a reason to celebrate.