By Bryan Fulwider
225 years of the Bill of Rights
Two hundred and twenty five years ago this week — December 15, 1791 — our infant nation ratified one of the most insightful, most progressive, most visionary documents ever. We refer to it as the Bill of Rights. That’s just another name for the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
As a result of this ground-breaking legal document, you and I as ordinary citizens of the United States have rights that a few centuries ago would have scarcely been dreamed of, let alone considered a possibility. Yet today these rights are foundational to our system of governance and to our fundamental understanding of what it means to be an American.
Relatively speaking, the main body of our Constitution is a straightforward outline of the way government functions, who does what, and how the respective components and players within government interface. The Constitution is about organization, process, and control. It’s designed to keep things simple and orderly.
To their great credit, our nation’s founders recognized that a smooth-running governmental machine isn’t the only — or even the primary — goal of government. In the minds of those out-of-the-box thinkers who drafted the Bill of Rights, government exists to safeguard and advance the rights of the individual.
What we probably don’t appreciate as fully as we should is that safeguarding and advancing individual rights is a messy, complicated, challenging, disruptive, inconvenient, inefficient exercise. But it’s worth it. Even though it makes governing more difficult.
It might be tempting to prescribe which religions are acceptable and which aren’t. But the Bill of Rights says such decisions are the right of the individual. Individuals also have the right to disseminate opinions, even those opinions that are repugnant to the majority. And the right to assemble is safeguarded, even if we’re doing it to complain about the government.
Certainly, law enforcement would be simplified if the individual’s right to bear arms could be infringed. And if the right not to be subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures could be relaxed. And if suspects could be forced to testify against themselves. And if due process weren’t a prerequisite for the government to deprive an individual of life, liberty or property. And if cruel and unusual punishments could be used as protection and deterrents.
Ensuring that a suspect has legal representation; not permitting anonymous accusations to be used in court; allowing suspects to face their accusers; providing for a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury — it would all be so much less costly and time-consuming if, like the fury-filled Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland,” some authority figure could just shout, “Off with their heads!” But our nation’s founders were determined not to create that kind of nation, subject to such fickleness.
I could go on. The facts are: We have a more admirable, more principled, and more just government because our nation’s founders were focused on rights — and on what is right — as opposed to what is merely efficient, simple, tidy, or traditional. There’s no denying that their emphasis on rights has made governing more complicated. But it also has made our nation far more impressive and a far better place to live.
In a speech given some 69 years ago to Britain’s House of Commons, Winston Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Today we’re celebrating the firm belief of our nation’s founders that principle-based inefficiency, complexity, and downright messiness are what would make our nation great. They were right.
Seemingly, dictatorship and its many variations should be able to get more done more quickly. And many are no doubt sorely tempted to try constitutional shortcuts and end-runs.
But before we do so, let’s carefully re-consider the principles and thought processes — the genius — behind that impressive document ratified exactly 225 years ago.
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider, one of the Three Wise Guys on the WMFE (90.7 FM) radio program “Friends Talking Faith,” is chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.