Commemorating the anniversary of the United States’ General Code of Civil Rights

Commemorating the anniversary of the United States’ General Code of Civil Rights

Andrey Shitov

The Bill of Rights was added to the American constitution ex post facto as a package of amendments. When it was formed in the US Congress of the first convocation, there were heated debates about whether it was needed at all. Anti-federalists, and even some federalists, believed that a strong central government in itself was the main source of threats to the rights and freedoms of the individual, and the protection of liberties could and should be concentrated in the localities – in the states that formed the new union state.

However, the position of supporters of the federal Bill of Rights eventually prevailed, and their leader, James Madison, became the main author of the corresponding amendments to the constitution. In 1789, a package of 12 points (although I did not find confirmation that the package was voted) was approved by both houses of Congress and sent for ratification to the state legislatures. On December 15, 1791, 230 years ago, the ten amendments were ratified by a sufficient number of the then states (11 out of 14) to be included in the basic law of the country.

Now, 230 years later, it is these first ten amendments that constitute the canonical Bill of Rights. Another proposal by Madison, according to which any decision of members of Congress to change their own salaries can come into force only after the next elections, waited for ratification for over 200 years – only in 1992 this anti-corruption mechanism was legalized as the 27th and so far the last amendment to the constitution … Finally, another Madsion amendment – on the norms of population representation in the lower house of Congress – has not yet been ratified and is formally still waiting in the wings.

Symbol of faith

Today, the Bill of Rights is perhaps the most famous part of the US Constitution and a source of national pride. Americans for the most part are sincerely convinced that they can think, say, and write whatever they please; profess any religion or not profess any; to be fluent in weapons; not to fear the arbitrariness of law enforcement agencies, to avoid self-incrimination, and in the event of problems with the law, count on a speedy and fair trial. They believe that all this was given to them almost by birthright and guaranteed by the basic law of the country.

How justified such a belief is is a special question. In my opinion, even freedom of thought and speech in the United States has recently been revised under the influence of a new cult of racial and social political correctness (woke culture) and the so-called cancel culture of everything that does not correspond to this cult, and not only today, but also in the country’s historical past.

I have long been convinced that a person is not alive by knowledge, but by faith, love and memory. I think it’s the same with the peoples: just remember the Russian Immortal Regiment. Even Confucius in ancient China argued that food, weapons and people’s trust are needed for the strength of state foundations. In case of emergency, he considered it possible to sacrifice food and weapons, but not faith. And just the Bill of Rights is one of the symbols of faith in their system for the Americans.

A utilitarian approach

Although for the founding fathers of the United States, he was, so to speak, not a dogma, but a guide to action, a means of solving urgent political problems; it is known that Madison himself, preparing to present the draft of his constitutional amendments in Congress, defined the Bill of Rights as “useful, but not absolutely necessary” (useful – not essential). He wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the “friends of the constitution” are seeking “additional measures to protect freedom”, in particular, to give the state authorities of the new republic “due popularity and stability.”

Historians believe that Madison himself then sought primarily to prevent the convening of another constituent assembly, which could destroy the difficult compromises reached at the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. It’s funny, of course, to realize in hindsight that the founders of the overseas republic, like modern political strategists, were not alien to the outright PR of their undertakings.

Since then, freedom has only strengthened its position as the supreme deity of the American political pantheon. But I am sure that basically the attitude of the US authorities to the rights and freedoms of the individual was, and remains, purely utilitarian.

You don’t have to go far for examples. Just a few days ago, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recalled that the United States regularly speaks out at the UN against Russian resolutions on the inadmissibility of glorification of Nazism, racism, xenophobia, or any manifestation of hatred. They do not even abstain, as, for example, the European Union, but directly vote against – allegedly in the name of protecting freedom of speech. “It is clear that this freedom of speech cannot be justified by anything,” the minister stressed.

Different sides of the same coin

In general, in my opinion, the rights and freedoms of the individual are not only a shrine adored by the Americans (this is true, propaganda works primarily in their own country), but also a completely prosaic instrument of US state foreign policy. A kind of “American vacuum cleaner” that collects other people’s brains, talents and money from all over the world due to the attractive power of “ideals”, and at the same time a means of consolidating the notorious “American leadership” in international affairs. I think if they did not bring such tangible benefits, Washington would not build them into any political principle and would not gather all kinds of “summits for democracy” under their banner.

I remember that in 2011, at a briefing in the White House, I once raised the question that the rampant armed crime and regular mass executions of people by elements from the crowd in the United States is nothing but the other side of American freedom. A scandal erupted in the Washington press because of this, I was accused not only of “encroachment on holy sites”, but also almost of “inciting a new cold war.” Later, the thesis about the reverse side of freedom was publicly challenged even by US President Barack Obama himself.

In retrospect, an even more seditious thought came to me. In my opinion, self-will, envy, personal greed and selfishness are not the reverse, but the very front side of American freedom. Because it is they who create the main “cravings” in the very “vacuum cleaner” (which “collects brains” from all over the world). After all, no one beckons (and does not go) to America to work for the good of society. On the contrary, it is implied, or even openly said, that it is correct and even honorable to think exclusively about one’s own benefit, to do “everything that is not prohibited by law” for one’s own prosperity.

Where does the craving in the “vacuum cleaner” come from?

It turns out that the very freedom to do this is also needed to maintain traction in the “vacuum cleaner”. And the vaunted “rule of law” in the United States, in this case, is nothing more than a protective mechanism developed by society due to the fact that without it, the wild freeman of people obsessed with personal success, who, moreover, have almost unlimited access to weapons, is simply dangerous.

Of course, freedom – God’s gift to man – is an unconditional value. But by definition, it also presupposes personal choice, that is, responsibility for how this gift is used, therefore the well-known thesis – “freedom is better than non-freedom” – at least requires clarification: freedom from what and in the name of what?

The answers to this question may vary. Now, for example, overseas for several weeks now there has been a debate about whether the jury did the right thing to acquit the teenager who, in the course of street protests and pogroms last year, shot two Buzoters in self-defense and wounded another. This has a lot to do with our conversation: the right to bear arms and the jury in the United States is one of the key constitutional guarantees proclaimed by the Bill of Rights.

“Newspapers Without Governments”

Digging through the information about the history of the adoption of this document, as a journalist, I could not help but pay attention to the mention that the thesis about “freedom of speech and press” was introduced into the text of Madison’s constitutional amendments not by himself, but by a special committee of the lower house of Congress, created to study and edit his proposals. According to Wikipedia, American constitutional scholar Richard Labunski wrote about this in his book James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights.

Most likely, however, this is some kind of misunderstanding, since other sources unambiguously attribute the authorship of the sought-after principle to Madison. The History Channel clarifies that “the first state to officially take the press under its protection was Virginia,” which, back in 1776, in its own “Declaration of Rights” proclaimed: “Freedom of the press is the greatest bulwark of liberty, and cannot be limited by anyone except despotic governments. ” “More than a decade later, Virginia Representative (and later US President) James Madison borrowed [language] from this declaration when drafting the First Amendment to the Constitution,” the channel said.

But still, discussions and disputes between the founding fathers of the United States about freedom of the press did take place. Take, for example, Jefferson’s textbook quote that having “newspapers without a government” is much better than “a government without newspapers” – misinformed).

And Kirill Koktysh, a political scientist from MGIMO, who recently published an interesting monograph Discourse of Rationalism, Freedom and Democracy, dedicated to the history of the appearance of its key concepts in political language, also confirms that the principle of freedom of the media was not immediately recognized by the founders of the overseas republic. According to him, Alexander Hamilton, who served as Treasury Secretary in the administration of the first US President George Washington, saw a logical discrepancy in this principle: they say, he understands what property rights are, but what freedom can property have? But any edition belongs to someone.

Divide and rule

Ultimately, however, according to Koktysh, “Hamilton’s bore” objections were dismissed by Madison. As for the other provisions of the Bill of Rights, the Russian researcher believes that they “in fact, consolidated the sovereignty of the merchant,” since “almost every declared right also fixes the corresponding market.” The fact that historically the advancement of liberal values ??in its real content was the consolidation of the economic and political interests of the owner class is described in detail in the monograph.

Now Koktysh also recalled that for Madison “minority rights were a critical point.” “All [US] presidents should be elected by the sum of minorities, but not by the majority,” he said. “The point is that minority support can be easily scattered so that the hired political manager, that is, the president, does not get out of control and repeat the feat. [Gaius Julius] Caesar, who, in company with [Marcus Licinius] Crassus and [Wrath] Pompey, stripped the Senate of the status of the Board of the Roman Corporation. “

“In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have been elected by a consolidated majority, and not by the sum of minorities, they are [Franklin] Roosevelt and [Donald] Trump,” the source said.

“Bill is not the main thing”

Finally, I cannot but recall, in the context of the topic under discussion, my old interview  with Antonin Scalia, at that time a member of the US Supreme Court. Even during his lifetime he was considered a kind of icon for conservative fellow citizens, and after his death, one might say, he was finally politically “canonized”. In my practice, this was probably the only case when a person agreed to a conversation, having previously made sure that the text was supposed to be printed in Russia, but not in the United States.

There were many important lessons – for example, the thesis that “a good judge should be independent not only from the legislative and executive authorities, but also from the people.” “When he defends the country’s constitution, he becomes an anti-democratic figure,” explained Scalia. “per”.

At the same time, the legendary lawyer told me that, in his opinion, the main thing in the American constitution is not the Bill of Rights, but “checks and balances”, that is, the separation of really independent branches of government, and federalism, that is, a clear distribution of powers between the center and the states … “The Soviet constitution contained more rights than ours,” said the American lawyer. “[But] it is no coincidence that the word“ constitution ”also has a second meaning – structure, structure. At the same time, any Bill of Rights is useless … “

In Russia, it is not customary to congratulate the heroes of the day in advance. But I decided to tell you about the Bill of Rights in advance. Firstly, I would like to emphasize how important the constitutional texts are, and secondly, to remind that we ourselves have December 12 – Constitution Day and the all-Russian test for knowledge of the basic law of the country.

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