Congress added the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, on Dec. 15, 1791. On Aug. 21, 1941, a joint resolution of Congress requested President Franklin Roosevelt “to issue a proclamation designating Dec. 15, 1941, as Bill of Rights Day.”

When Roosevelt issued that proclamation, “calling upon officials of the government to display the flag of the United States on all government buildings on that day and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day with appropriate ceremonies and prayer,” he remarked that Americans “forget in time that men have died to win [these rights]. They come in time to take these rights for granted and to assume their protection is assured.”

If we are to mark this day, we ought to keep two things in mind. First, the tendency to take these rights for granted and assume they are inviolable is once again common. Second, that the amendments were designed to protect the basic rights of U.S. citizens from infringement by their own government.

Alexander Hamilton and others argued that the division of powers, coupled with its system of check and balances and the limited list of powers allowed to Congress in Article I, Section 8, would protect the people from their government better than the amendments.

This needs a little explaining. Britain’s Parliament had no restrictions on its power then, and it still doesn’t. In theory, it must submit to elections, every five years at least, but even that rule was suspended during World War II. There was no general election between 1935 and 1945 (war was declared in 1939.)

The powers of the U.S. Congress are “enumerated,” implying exclusion of all powers not listed. James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, asserted reassuringly that the powers of the national government were “few and defined.”

That is no longer true. It is increasingly difficult for the U.S. Supreme Court to discover a single “enumerated power” that still impedes the continual expansion of national government authority over people’s lives.

In our day, most constitutional arguments revolve around two issues: the separation of powers and the Bill of Rights. The U.S. government’s actions during the 20th Century’s two world wars supports Hamilton’s doubts about the strength of Bill of Rights protections. The 1917 Espionage and Sedition Acts prohibited disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive remarks about the form of government, flag or uniform of the United States. Six thousand people were imprisoned under this act while the U.S. attorney general saw no constitutional protection for the wretches: “May God have mercy on them for they need expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.”

Here’s a short and sour lesson: When the president, Congress, the Supreme Court majority and public opinion agree in opposition to them, there are no First Amendment protections. The consensus these days is that the constitutional rights of Japanese-Americans were violated during World War II when the U.S. government rounded them up without trial and shipped them off to internment camps. At the time, public opinion supported President Roosevelt’s decision to ignore their rights. The Supreme Court lay low, and few in Congress complained.

Despite these serious lapses, the first 10 amendments remain an obstacle to the unimpeded exercise of government power, but only as long as the public supports them. Alerts that Donald Trump aims to take us all into the long dark night of fascism are being heard during this campaign season, although he has not given a clear idea of which amendment he wishes to nullify.

On the other hand, various progressive opinion-makers and advocates have made their hostility to parts of the First and Second Amendments fairly clear. Some have proposed amendments to “bring them up to date.”

As always, those hostile to traditional rights rely on the energy of public fear to carry the day. In the one case, the enemy is the billionaire class and wicked corporations aiming to take over democracy. In the other case, there’s the menace of crazy people with guns. And there are those influenced by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nightmares about Christian businessmen using their power to oppress heretics, atheists, schismatics and Unitarians.

We notice here an interesting historical coincidence. The Bill of Rights disasters in the 20th Century were primarily the work of progressive presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt, while the current amendment-amending enthusiasts also are identified as progressive. Perhaps that’s not entirely a coincidence since it’s rare to find any progressive policy proposal that does not involve expansion of national government powers.

Here we come to a problem. The flow of fear has been moving in the wrong direction. The Pew Research Center reports only 19 percent of Americans say they can trust the government all or most of the time. What’s worse, Pew’s polling after the San Bernardino massacre shows that most Americans now prefer protecting gun rights over controlling gun ownership. This implies an instinctive understanding that the “right to life” listed in the Declaration of Independence necessarily implies a right to self-defense.

It’s appropriate to remember on Tuesday, Dec. 15, that during the ratification campaign, the anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution demanded at least 10 amendments as barriers against the national government’s power to erode the people’s rights.

John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of Email to [email protected].

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