Let’s Rethink Civil Liberties: Balancing Freedom with Responsibility

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The Founders gave a lot of thought and debate to safeguarding individual rights. They knew well the violent history of the oppressive European monarchies, including their own ancestral homeland of England. They understood the risks of unbridled power in the hands of unaccountable heads of state.

The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Jay, seemed confident that a strong central government would rule humanely. But the Anti-Federalists, led by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Patrick Henry, had their doubts. Indeed, they first opposed the new constitution entirely, because they saw it as shifting too much power from the states and local communities to a central government.

The Anti-Federalists blocked the new constitution until the Federalists agreed to add specific amendments that would guarantee individual rights and limit the powers of the central government. Once they made that deal, both sides agreed to approve the constitution in 1788 to get the new Republic started. They went ahead with the understanding that immediately thereafter they would add a series of amendments that would finish the job.

Both sides kept their word. Shortly after ratification the new Congress, created by the new Constitution, adopted the first ten amendments that have become the legendary American Bill of Rights.

The original proposal actually included a dozen amendments, but two of them didn’t survive the debates.

By the way, when it comes to amending the Constitution, you might like to know that the President has no role in the process. Under Article II, he or she has no authority to initiate, approve, or veto a constitutional amendment.

Civil Rights: Who Gets to Ride the Bus?

The Bill of Rights promises key civil liberties but it does nothing to guarantee them. The Founders left it to Congress and the states to figure out how to protect them with laws.

As of this writing, the historical report card for American lawmakers on the civil rights front shows a barely passing grade. The last two centuries have seen an appalling series of abuses of the civil liberties of various categories of people by presidents, congresses, state legislatures, and political leaders at national and state levels. A few notable examples illustrate the point:

    • Federal laws and presidential orders deprived tens of thousands of Native Americans—the “Indians”—of their land and forcibly relocated them thousands of miles to designated reservations.
    • All across the Old South local Jim Crow laws severely restricted the civil liberties and economic opportunities open to black people. The Union may have won the Civil War, but the Confederacy won the peace. Things didn’t change much until the 1960s when Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson enforced court orders that outlawed segregation.
    • President William McKinley “annexed” the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, partly because of the strategic significance of the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, and partly to satisfy the economic aspirations of Methodist missionaries who had overthrown the islands’ last queen, Lili’uo’kalani.
    • Hawaii became a designated territory in 1900 but its people had no rights of citizenship until 1959 when it became the 50th state.
    • Women in America couldn’t vote before 1920. Eminent political figures like President Grover Cleveland resisted female suffrage vigorously. “Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote,” he declared. “The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.”
    • Labor unions, on the railroads especially, faced brutal repression from company thugs and local police until the Wagner Act of 1935 imposed collective bargaining.
    • President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which directed the mass rounding up and internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in detention camps. He did so with full concurrence by senior government and military leaders and little protest from the American public or the media. War hysteria and press advocacy fed the fear that they might somehow sabotage the American war effort or assist the Japanese war effort in some way. FDR rescinded the order in 1944 and the last of the 10 camps closed after the Japanese surrender in 1945.
    • The US Army had assigned black soldiers to segregated units for decades. The superior performance of many all-black units, and particularly the Tuskegee Airmen, who earned their remarkable reputation for protecting Allied bombers flying over Germany, overthrew stereotypes of blacks as inferior soldiers. President Harry S. Truman bucked the mainstream of public opinion when he desegregated all military units by executive order in 1948.

And through it all, for more than a century, the two major political parties—the Democrats and the Republicans—have fought for control of the lawmaking process all across America and at all levels, from the Congress to local school boards. The history of civil rights in the US reads like the history of the two-party system.

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