by Thom Hartmann
Thomas Paine said it best.
“It has been thought,” he wrote in The Rights of Man in 1791, “…that government is a compact between those who govern and those who are governed; but this cannot be true, because it is putting the effect before the cause; for as man must have existed before governments existed, there necessarily was a time when governments did not exist, and consequently there could originally exist no governors to form such a compact with. The fact therefore must be, that the individuals themselves, each in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”
Thus, Paine and others of the Revolutionary Era reasoned, any institution made up by and of humans - from governments to churches to corporations - must be subordinate to individual living people in terms of the rights and powers held by the institution.
Because of the unique frailties and depths of passion unique to humans, just after the United States Constitution was ratified Thomas Jefferson and James Madison began a campaign to amend it with a 12-point explicit statement that would clearly and unambiguously place humans - who had created government - above their creation. This was the birth of what would become the Bill of Rights, and it originally had twelve - not ten - protections for citizens’ rights.
On December 20th, 1787, Jefferson wrote to James Madison about his concerns regarding the Constitution. He said, bluntly, that it was deficient in several areas. “I will now tell you what I do not like,” he wrote. “First, the omission of a bill of rights, providing clearly, and without the aid of sophism, for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land, and not by the laws of nations.”
Such a bill protecting natural persons from out-of-control governments or commercial monopolies shouldn’t just be limited to America, Jefferson believed. “Let me add,” he summarized, “that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular; and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”
The following year, Jefferson wrote about his concerns to several people. In a letter to Mr. A. Donald, on February 7th, 1788, he defined the items that should be in a bill of rights: “By a declaration of rights, I mean one which shall stipulate freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce against monopolies, trial by juries in all cases, no suspensions of the habeas corpus, no standing armies. These are fetters against doing evil, which no honest government should decline.”
Jefferson kept pushing for a law, written into the constitution as an amendment, which would guarantee liberties for citizens, prevent companies from growing so large they could dominate entire industries or have the power to influence the people’s government, and reduce the possibility of the nation being taken over by a military coup.
On February 12th, 1788, he wrote to Mr. Dumas about his pleasure that the US Constitution was about to be ratified, but also expressed his concerns about what was missing from the Constitution. He was pushing hard for his own state to reject the Constitution if it didn’t protect people from the dangers he foresaw.
“With respect to the new Government,” he wrote, “nine or ten States will probably have accepted by the end of this month. The others may oppose it. Virginia, I think, will be of this number. Besides other objections of less moment, she [Virginia] will insist on annexing a bill of rights to the new Constitution, i.e. a bill wherein the Government shall declare that, 1. Religion shall be free; 2. Printing presses free; 3. Trials by jury preserved in all cases; 4. No monopolies in commerce; 5. No standing army. Upon receiving this bill of rights, she will probably depart from her other objections; and this bill is so much to the interest of all the States, that I presume they will offer it, and thus our Constitution be amended, and our Union closed by the end of the present year.”
By mid-summer of 1788, things were moving along and Jefferson was helping his close friend James Madison to write the Bill of Rights. On the last day of July, he wrote to Madison: “I sincerely rejoice at the acceptance of our new constitution by nine States. It is a good canvass, on which some strokes only want retouching. What these are, I think are sufficiently manifested by the general voice from north to south, which calls for a bill of rights. It seems pretty generally understood, that this should go to juries, habeas corpus, standing armies, printing, religion, and monopolies.”
But on the issues of banning a standing army and blocking corporations from gaining monopolistic control over industries, Jefferson was getting resistance. The nation had just fought a bloody war against England, and there was little sentiment for completely dismantling the army. And the Federalists who were in power - a party largely made up of what Jefferson called “the rich and the well born” - were opposed to government constraints on business activities.
Thus only ten of his twelve visions for a Bill of Rights - all except “freedom from monopolies in commerce” and his concern about a permanent army - were incorporated into the actual Bill of Rights, which James Madison shepherded through Congress and was ratified as the first ten amendments to the constitution on December 15, 1791.