The Virginia Declaration of Rights

This month commemorates the writing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, largely the effort of a neighbor of George Washington’s. While Washington was trying to piece together a continental army in 1776, others were busily constructing constitutions for the states that were ready to break from Britain.

That neighbor was George Mason. Drawing on a rich British heritage as well as newer developments in the colonies, Mason concocted a list of rights that set a standard for the era. Thomas Jefferson, up in Philadelphia at that time working on a declaration of independence, looked to Mason as one of his inspirations, and was receiving information from the Virginia convention that was finalizing the new Virginia constitution.

What did Mason include in his Declaration of Rights? He clearly spelled out:

  • Inherent rights cannot be surrendered by any compact
  • Government power derives from the people
  • Oppressive government may be altered or abolished
  • The branches of government need to be separated
  • It is essential that there be due process of law and jury trials
  • No excessive bail or fines
  • No cruel or unusual punishments
  • No general search warrants [meaning the government cannot simply ransack one’s home looking for whatever]
  • Freedom of the press will not be restrained
  • A militia is essential to liberty

Some of these might look familiar. As I said, Jefferson drew from them, and the Bill of Rights that was later added to the Federal Constitution mirrored some of these concepts.

These were not backward people. They understood what makes government work and what constitutes tyranny. We should continue to study them and learn from them.

Does Anyone Remember?

Today used to be George Washington’s birthday. Yes, I know it still is, but how many people are aware of it nowadays? Instead, we have Presidents Day, always celebrated on the Monday of the week and apparently dedicated to all presidents regardless of merit. Washington had merit; some of the others have had very little.

I mean, do I really have this urge to celebrate the presidencies of Millard Fillmore or Chester Alan Arthur? Am I supposed to rejoice in the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson? Should I extol the lack of Christian character in John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton, to name only a few who demonstrated that lack?

There certainly are presidents I admire. Washington served his country without regard to personal desires. He led an army for eight years without pay; he came out of a comfortable life to lead a nation as its first president. Everything he did set a precedent, particularly his model for stepping down after two terms.

My appreciation for Abraham Lincoln grows with each new piece of research on him. Grover Cleveland was, as one biographer tagged him, “an honest president.” Calvin Coolidge understood constitutional limitations and decided not to run again for the office in 1928 because he didn’t want the position and the power to change his character for the worse. Ronald Reagan, in my view, was the most effective president [in the positive sense of actually doing something worthwhile] of the twentieth century.

I wouldn’t mind if we celebrated all of those presidents on their own birthdays. Of course we used to do that with Washington until the 1970s when Congress decided to create three-day weekends for a number of holidays. In the process, they excised a special recognition of our first president. I like three-day weekends as much as anyone, but the decision to relegate Washington to the dim recesses of our history was inexcusable. We do still see representations of him occasionally on Presidents Day when actors dress up like him to sell cars—but that’s about all.

Why do most people not miss it? Perhaps there’s a dismal reason educationally:

Am I kidding? I wish I were. Generally speaking, we don’t know our own history. My experience teaching American history at the university level confirms this sad diagnosis.

Anyway, for those who remember who George Washington was, have a happy Washington’s birthday.

The Civility Ploy

Tonight is the State of the Union Address.  I predict that the two words we’ll hear repeatedly are “civility” and “investment.” The latter has to do with more government spending disguised as “investing in our future.” The former is now the new catchword for politics.

I believe in civility. While I do have a sense of humor and like to poke fun at absurdities in our public life, there’s a line that should not be crossed. The problem is this—that line is subjective. For instance, is this cartoon uncivil?

Or is it simply illustrating the rather rabid rhetoric that has emanated from the Left, not just in the past few weeks, but ever since I can remember? Surely you recall all the Bush hatred, publicly stated. How about the pictures of Bush as Hitler? Go back to Ronald Reagan and we learn that he was a warmonger who loved to starve schoolchildren and throw old people out on the streets.

In the House last week, one Democrat representative made the Nazi connection again. Republicans, he said, are like Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. In what way, you ask? Well, they are lying about healthcare, and that’s the same tactic that Goebbels used. Oh.

One of the positive things about being a historian is that I have studied the political rhetoric found in all periods of American history. What becomes painfully obvious is that the eras of the type of civility urged upon us now have been few. Read the newspapers of the 1790s, for instance, where you see George Washington being called a traitor to his country and accused of trying to set himself as a king. The vituperative language used against Abraham Lincoln is startling, particularly when you consider that a lot of it came from the North, not the South.

The issues I have with the current calls for civility are these: first, the astounding hypocrisy of those who are demanding it; second, the attempt to use that nice-sounding word to undermine genuine debate on the issues. Often, just disagreeing with President Obama makes one a racist or a “hater.” Yet we have to be able to say when we think policies are wrong. How would Patrick Henry fare today?

Kind of weak, isn’t it? I prefer the original.

So, as you watch the State of the Union Address [if you have the stomach for it], watch for those key words, but understand what’s really going on.

Honoring the Government

Let me clarify something today. I can almost hear some readers of this blog thinking, “He criticizes the president and Congress so much that he can’t really have any respect for the government.”

The opposite is true.

I have the highest regard for the federal government. This comes from a reading of the Constitution, the debates over its ratification, and the character of many of those who helped bring it to pass. I believe the form of government set up by our Constitution is the best the world has seen, yet I also believe that it can work the way it’s supposed to work only if we maintain our Biblical principles.

Congress, in theory, is a wonderful institution. Initially, it allowed direct representation for the people and direct representation for all state governments. This provided balance and set up a federal system. When we changed how senators were elected, state governments lost all representation. That was a blow to the federalism essential for the Congress to function the way it was intended.

Further, as I stated in my last post, when individuals in Congress are allowed to set up their fiefdoms over which they rule imperiously, we have lost the character necessary for it to represent the people.

As for the presidency, the Constitution did not set up an all-powerful executive. It did give the president strong powers in certain areas, such as making him the commander in chief of the armed forces, but the president was not to be a monarch.

George Washington, I believe, had the proper attitude toward the office. He accepted it as a sacred trust, a responsibility thrust upon him by a people who had confidence in his leadership. Given a choice, he never would have taken the job; he would have preferred to stay at home and oversee his farms. Yet his country needed him to set the right precedents for the office.

As I tell my students, what we need today are people who don’t need to be president to have fulfilled lives. Far too many of those who aspire to the office see it as the apex of their existence. Many have been running for it [in their minds, at least] since they were teenagers. How many do so because they have the same attitude Washington had? How many do so because they simply want the authority that the office bestows? The latter are not the ones I want to entrust with that authority.

I know not everyone will agree with me that Abraham Lincoln also possessed Washington’s outlook. Yes, he was a politician who wanted the job. However, a closer look at his motives reveals a strong desire to use that office for good constitutionally. He had dropped out of politics until Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. That act, which opened a new area to slavery, incited Lincoln to reenter the fray.

As president, he bore a heavy burden. Those with Southern sympathies believe he was a tyrant. I must respectfully disagree. Although under tremendous pressure to change the nature of the country forever, he did no such thing. He merely took his job as commander in chief seriously as he tried to bring rebellious states under control. In the process, slavery disappeared. I used to be one of those who disliked Lincoln. Further study changed my mind.

We have had presidents since Lincoln who did their best to keep the nation operating constitutionally. Chief among those were Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan. Others had strong impulses for changing the government in a way that would destroy the original intent of the Founders: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have been the most prominent.

Why do I critique the current Congress and President Obama so much? It’s because I have a deep respect for the original intent of this government. It’s because I have a heartfelt desire to see us maintain our Biblical principles and build upon them.

When one sees the foundations of a once-great nation crumbling, one has a responsibility to speak up. To do otherwise would be to share in the blame when it finally is destroyed.