INDEPENDENCE DAY: The Story of Us

4th of JULY - red, white, and blue wall

by Diane Rufino, July 4, 2016

Independence Day – What it really means….

What does Independence Day – the 4th of July – mean to you?  Is it just a holiday to eat, drink, and light off fireworks?  Do you display and wave the flag of the United States out of habit – because everyone else on the block does it?  Do you cover your table with a plastic tablecloth of stars and stripes and decorate your yard with red, white, and blue because that’s what Target and Walmart remind you to do with its holiday displays and sales?   Do you actually understand what the 4th of July signifies?  Did you sleep through that lesson in American History Class? Was it even taught to you at all?

I just hope you aren’t one of those Americans who doesn’t think it matters.

When I was very young, I thought Independence Day marked the day when the 13 colonies defeated the British for our independence.  Then in middle school, I learned that it marked the date the Declaration of Independence was signed.  That was the extent of my understanding until I did my own reading.  Soon I learned that not only was the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, but that it was an act of treason against the British Crown. It was an act of treason because while the colonies were fighting for their independence, the British were fighting to quash their rebellious nature for good. Rebellion against the Crown was high treason and it would not be tolerated.

But it wasn’t until I graduated law school that I was finally able to appreciate the real significance of the Declaration of Independence.  Simply put, as its author Thomas Jefferson explained: “The Declaration of Independence… is the declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man.”  And in that magnificent document, Jefferson has laid out the natural order of our rights and the natural purpose and limits of government.

The document was almost forced on the colonies by history’s happenstance. It began with the colonies’ restlessness in the wake of an over-zealous King and Parliament which first sought to extract tax revenue from them (without representation) and then to oppress and subjugate them as a means of punishment. They were punished for daring to stand up for their rights as Englishmen, as Englishmen had done for over 500 years of their history.  Indeed, the history of England has been a history of repeated attempts, first by the barons and then by all subjects, to assert basic human rights and to demand from the King a promise (a charter) that he will respect such. Some of the attempts were successful and some only temporary, but all of England’s notable charters were signed and limited the reach of the King and Parliament, even if only for a very short time.

Some of these charters and other significant documents include: The Charter of Liberties of King Henry I (1100), the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the Grand Remonstrance (1641), and the English Bill of Right of 1689.  This history is critical for the foundation for our country because all total, these documents establish the notion that government must respect boundaries on the individual, acknowledging that they have certain essential rights and liberties.  The rights and liberties asserted and re-asserted in these documents are the “rights of Englishmen” that the colonists most eagerly embraced and were most eager to protect.

Author Brion McClanahan explains the significance of England’s grand history in his article Rethinking the Declaration of Independence: “In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized “government.” Just over one hundred years later, in 1215, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The “Great Charter,” as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law – making him essentially equal to the nobles – and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus.” (See the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679).

In October 1214, King John returned to England in disgrace. His mission to reconquer his lost territory in northern France had failed and other military campaigns were unsuccessful as well. He taxed England’s barons heavily to finance these campaigns and they were not happy.  Upon his return, he found that a group of angry barons from across the country had formed an association and were prepared renounce him as king. Over the next eight months, they made repeated demands to the King, requesting that he give them a guarantee that he would observe their rights. But the negotiations amounted to nothing. And so, on May 5 of that year, the barons gathered and agreed to declare war on King John. On May 17, 1215 they captured London, the largest town in England, without a fight.  With London lost and ever more supporters flocking to the side of the barons, the King John realized he would have to address their concerns.

On June 8, he notified the barons of his willingness to negotiate. Over the next few days, the barons assembled in great numbers at Runnymede, a relatively obscure meadow just a few miles from Windsor castle, where King John was based. They arrived to repeat their demands and negotiate peace terms. On June 15, the barons presented their terms to the King and he signed the great document – The Great Charter (“Magna Carta”).

In Chapter 39 of Magna Carta, one of the document’s most important clauses, King John made the following promise:  “No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

Here, it was agreed that the Crown and his administration would not arrest, outlaw, banish, or incarcerate any free man, deprive him of his rights, possessions or legal standing, or otherwise take official and forceful action against him, except in accordance with the lawful judgement of his equals or in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom. This was, in embryonic form, the principle of due process of law: The government shall not deprive any person subject to its jurisdiction of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Magna Carta provided that justice was to be guaranteed to every person in the Kingdom, that the right of justice would not be sold, delayed, or denied to any person. Thus, this critical, historic document provided that every freeman — i.e., every Englishmen who was not a serf — was to enjoy security and protection from illegal interference by the King (ie, government) in his person and property.   [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government….”]   The terms listed in the Magna Carta would later be referred to as “the ancient rights and liberties of Englishmen” in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

King John, in giving his consent to Magna Carta, agreed that: (1) the Monarch was subject to the law of the Kingdom and (2) the law placed limits on royal authority. This reflected an early stage in the development of the central idea of English and American constitutionalism — the idea that the ruler was not above the law and therefore had to abide by the law and stay within the limits the law imposed on his power.  [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.]

Under Magna Carta, the King still governed England, but he had to share with the barons one important sphere of political authority — the power of taxation. All royal requests for extraordinary taxes had to be submitted to the Common Council for its consideration and decision. When it came to the King’s raising revenue by means other than collecting the feudal fees and aids in amounts due him by customary right, he had to share with the barons, the largest and most powerful bloc in the Common Council, the authority to make binding decisions. The requirement, stipulated in Magna Carta, that the King submit proposals for extraordinary taxation to an assembly of his leading subjects — the barons and the Church officers of high rank — was one small but significant step on the long road to firmly establishing as a constitutional guarantee, truly binding on the Monarch and all other officers of the government, the age old principle of English government that no subject could be taxed without his consent, given by the subject directly in person or indirectly through elected representatives in a legislative assembly.   [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.].

When Britain began taxing the colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament, particularly with the Stamp Tax, the colonists asserted this basic right from the Magna Carta in their protest slogan “No taxation without representation.”  The phrase actually originated with Massachusetts attorney James Otis about 1761, who proclaimed: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”

After the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right of 1628, which was written by Parliament, was presented to King Charles I to re-assert the civil liberties of his subjects.  The Petition contained four main points: (1) No taxes could be levied without Parliament’s consent; (2) No English subject could be imprisoned without cause–thus reinforcing the right of habeas corpus; (3) No quartering of soldiers in citizens’ homes; and (4) No martial law may be used in peacetime. Each of these four points enumerated specific civil rights that Englishmen felt Charles I had breached throughout his reign. Although he’d never been that popular as the monarch, his abuse of power against the people escalated to an intolerable level after Parliament refused to increase taxation and finance his unpopular foreign policies. The purpose of the Petition was to seek redress for the serious grievances Charles had committed.

When Charles showed no sign of repenting, Parliament drafted an extensive list of grievances which it presented to him on December 1, 1641. The grievances included 204 instances of gross abuses of the King’s power and usurpations of the rights of the people.  Preceding this list of grievances were the following significant paragraphs:

For the preventing of those miserable effects which such malicious endeavours may produce, we have thought good to declare the root and the growth of these mischievous designs: the maturity and ripeness to which they have attained before the beginning of the Parliament: the effectual means which have been used for the extirpation of those dangerous evils, and the progress which hath therein been made by His Majesty’s goodness and the wisdom of the Parliament: the ways of obstruction and opposition by which that progress hath been interrupted: the courses to be taken for the removing those obstacles, and for the accomplishing of our most dutiful and faithful intentions and endeavours of restoring and establishing the ancient honour, greatness and security of this Crown and nation.

The root of all this mischief we find to be a malignant and pernicious design of subverting the fundamental laws and principles of government, upon which the religion and justice of this kingdom are firmly established.

The Grand Remonstrance would help precipitate a civil war in England and eventually lead Parliament to file official charges of high treason against Charles I.  He would be tried, convicted, and executed (beheaded) in 1649. His son Charles II was exiled and his other son James II was able to escape to France dressed as a girl.

When England erupted in this civil war, the Parliament asserted its authority and suspended the reign of the Monarch, and by 1688 had become the driving force behind English law and policy. From 1649 to 1660, England became a republic. At first it was ruled by Parliament, but in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the army, became Lord Protector of England and served until he died (1658; his son took over briefly). Eventually the blood line of Charles I was restored in 1660 first with Charles II (who sat on the throne at the time of the plague and the great fire of London) and then in 1665, with James II. He was terribly unpopular, and in fact, was widely hated by the people. Not only did he force his Roman Catholic faith on the British people, but he willingly allowed the persecution of Protestants. He was forced to give up the crown in the Glorious Revolution (the “Bloodless Revolution”) of 1688.

When King James II was expelled from England in 1688, Parliament invited King William III of Orange and his wife Mary II (daughter of James II), of the Netherlands, to assume the throne.  Parliament promised no resistance. The only requirement was that they sign the English Bill of Rights that Parliament had drawn up on behalf the people. It condemned James II for violating the rights of Englishmen, which the Parliament called the “laws and liberties of this kingdom,” and placed restrictions on the powers of the monarch. William and Mary “gladly accepted what was offered them” and signed the English Bill of Rights.

Those from England who settled the colonies, particularly Massachusetts, seeking freedom from religious persecution (Puritans and Pilgrims) and others, brought this history – and these rights – with them. After all, they were still Englishmen; they were living on a continent claimed by England and establishing settlements and communities pursuant to land patents issued by the King.

But the bond of affection would seem to be one-way only.  While the colonists sought to live as loyal subjects to the Crown, enjoying the same the rights and liberties as the citizens of England, England sought to exploit the colonies for raw materials, trade, and taxes.  For several years, things were good. No complaints.  But just as the British colonies were growing and expanding, there were French colonies growing and expanding as well – in the frontier region west of Virginia up to Canada. They were mainly fur-trappers. Eventually, Britain felt its American colonies and interests were being threatened and the two empires went to war. It lasted seven years (the French-Indian War, aka, the Seven Years War, 1754–1763), and eventually, the French were expelled and England secured greater territory. Believing the war was primarily for the benefit of the safety and security of the colonies, Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies to recoup the money it had spent. [Note that around 1750, the plantations were established and against the wishes of the colonies, Britain pushed the slave trade on them to ensure that raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, cotton, and rice were produced plentifully and productively and shipped to England]

Accordingly, Parliament enacted the following taxes:  The Navigation Acts (1651, 1660, and 1663; duties on tobacco and molasses, to name a few), the Plantation Duty Act (1673; a duty on plantations), the Sugar Act (1764; a duty or tax on sugar), the Stamp Act (1765; a tax on all documents, including legal documents, calendars, cards, etc), and the Townshend Acts (1767; duties on items imported by the colonists, including glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea).  The colonists were outraged.  They weren’t outraged at the taxes themselves, but rather by the violation of their essential right to have representation in the legislative body that passes such tax measures.  “No Taxation Without Representation!”  They compared the current king, King George III, to Charles I for indiscriminately taxing the colonies without their consent. The Sons of Liberty organized at this time – originating in Massachusetts and New York and eventually having a presence in all thirteen colonies – and they were extremely effective at protesting these taxes and frustrating their enforcement.

Protests heightened with the passage of the Tea Act in 1673. The Tea Act allowed the British East India Company, which had a surplus of tea, to have a monopoly on import tea to the colonies. In passing this act, Parliament actually thought it was doing a favor to the colonies by providing tea at a reduced price (due to the surplus).  In fact, the cost of the tea, together with the new tax (“a mere 3 pence”), would be lower than the cost of the tea provided by other sources.  But Parliament didn’t get it.  The colonists didn’t think government had the right to force a monopoly on them and interfere with the trade of colonial tea merchants. Colonial merchants couldn’t compete with the less-expensive tea that the East India Tea Company provided so abundantly. And so, the colonists once again took matters in their own hands. In Pennsylvania and New York, colonists did not allow British tea ships to enter the large city ports. They sent ships out into the harbors to block the tea ships.  In Boston, they had a “party.”  On that evening of December 16, 1773, approximately 100 “radicals,” members of a secret organization of American Patriots called the Sons of Liberty, dressed up as Mohawk Indians, boarded three East India Company ships, broke open all 342 wooden chests of tea, and dumped them into the Boston Harbor.  The value of the tea destroyed, in today’s market, would amount to about $1 million.

Well, that particular act of protest was the one that the broke the camel’s back. At first King George III didn’t seem too perturbed at the incident, but soon, the tide of British public opinion would grow against the colonists, whom they regarded as rebellious and childish, and that rising sentiment would force Parliament and King George to punish the citizens of Boston for their recalcitrance. Parliament would no longer tolerate disobedience; the colonies’ “rebellious spirit” would finally have to be addressed and they would have be made to obey British laws. Parliament would no longer be soft when it came to obeying British laws. It would show the colonies what happens to those who happen to have a “rebellious spirit” and are disobedient, and in doing so, reinforce upon them the need to obey its laws.  What followed would be a series of laws called the “Coercive Acts” (also referred to as the “Intolerable Acts”).

On March 28, 1774, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed four acts which together became known as the Coercive Acts. These individual acts included: (1) The Boston Port Act, which closed the port of Boston until damages from the Boston Tea Party were paid (no ship carrying colonial goods could enter or leave Boston Harbor until the Massachusetts Colony paid for all the tea that was destroyed);  (2) The Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively revoked Massachusetts Charter of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (1691), its colonial charter, prohibited democratic town meetings, and turned the royal governor’s council into an appointed body with wide-ranging powers (in other words, shifting government authority from Massachusetts colony to the royal governor);  (3) The Administration of Justice Act, which made British officials immune to criminal prosecution in Massachusetts; and  (4) The Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and quarter British troops on demand, including in their private homes as a last resort.

Indeed, the situation was intolerable. Parliament ordered the Royal Navy to blockade the Boston Harbor, preventing ships from entering and bringing in goods and supplies and blocking colonial merchant ships from leaving and selling their goods.  By fiat, the basic structure of colonial government was altered. England was now governing the colony. To add insult to injury, King George appointed General Thomas Gage, who had served as the head of the British Army in North America, as the new Governor of Massachusetts, and he brought troops with him.  On May 13, General Gage arrived in Boston with four regiments of troops. Aside from the fact that the colonists felt stripped them of their previously enjoyed rights, perhaps more unnerving was the presence of four thousand British soldiers in Boston. Under the Quartering Act, there would be guaranteed residence for the British Army and the citizens of Massachusetts would be required to quarter them, if necessary (otherwise they would have to remain on ships).  The Quartering Act required the colonies to house British soldiers in barracks provided by the colonies. If the barracks were too small to house all the soldiers, then localities were to accommodate the soldiers in local inns, stables, ale houses, and houses of sellers of wine. Should there still be soldiers without accommodation after all such public houses were filled, the colonies were then required to take, hire and make fit for the reception of his Majesty’s forces, such and so many uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings as shall be necessary.  Finally, British officials could abuse these acts and be free from prosecution in the colony.

In response, provincial militias started to gather munitions and store them in the countryside out of reach of the British regulars.

On May 26, Parliament dissolved Virginia’s colonial government – its Virginia House of Burgesses.  And on September 1, General Gage seized the Massachusetts Colony’s arsenal at Charlestown, located just across the Charles River from Boston – near Bunker Hill.

On Benjamin Franklin’s advice, the colonies decided to meet in a common body to address Britain’s treatment of the colonies, in particular the blockade of Boston Harbor and the Intolerable Acts on the Province of Massachusetts.  And so, on September 5, the First Continental Congress met with 56 delegates in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve out of the thirteen colonies sent delegates (Georgia did not send any). The Continental Congress, which would meet on two separate occasions, became the governing body of the “united” colonies during the time leading up to and then during the American Revolution.

On October 14, the First Continental Congress adopted a Declaration and Resolves against the blockade, the Coercive Acts, the Quartering of troops, and other objectionable British actions. These resolutions listed a series of grievances against Parliament (where have we seen that response before?) and appealed to the King to intercede on behalf of the colonies for proper respect for their rights as Englishmen. The Declaration and Resolves began as follows:

The good people of the several colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Newcastle, Kent, and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North- Carolina and South-Carolina, justly alarmed at these arbitrary proceedings of parliament and administration, have severally elected, constituted, and appointed deputies to meet, and sit in general Congress, in the city of Philadelphia, in order to obtain such establishment, as that their religion, laws, and liberties, may not be subverted: Whereupon the deputies so appointed being now assembled, in a full and free representation of these colonies, taking into their most serious consideration, the best means of attaining the ends aforesaid, do, in the first place, as Englishmen, their ancestors in like cases have usually done, for asserting and vindicating their rights and liberties, DECLARE,

That the inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature, the principles of the English constitution, and the several charters or compacts, have the following RIGHTS:

Resolved, N.C.D. 1. That they are entitled to life, liberty and property: and they have never ceded to any foreign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.

Resolved, N.C.D. 2. That our ancestors, who first settled these colonies, were at the time of their emigration from the mother country, entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural- born subjects, within the realm of England.

Resolved, N.C.D. 3. That by such emigration they by no means forfeited, surrendered, or lost any of those rights, but that they were, and their descendants now are, entitled to the exercise and enjoyment of all such of them, as their local and other circumstances enable them to exercise and enjoy.

Resolved, 4. That the foundation of English liberty, and of all free government, is a right in the people to participate in their legislative council: and as the English colonists are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances, cannot properly be represented in the British parliament, they are entitled to a free and exclusive power of legislation in their several provincial legislatures, where their right of representation can alone be preserved.

The Declaration and Resolves was presented to the King and then to Parliament on January 19, 1775.  King George laughed and dismissed the document and the Parliament did not even address it.  King George, to whom the Declaration was addressed, never even offered a formal response, for in his mind, he did not have to submit to the demands of the colonists, whom he regarded as insolent children.  He famously said to the Prime Minister Lord North: “The die is now cast, the colonies must either submit or triumph.”  He would not negotiate with them. His tacit response made it clear that he meant to maintain political unity between the colonies and the United Kingdom even at the expense of the happiness of the colonists.

Word of the Intolerable Acts and the subjugation of the colonists in Boston began to spread to other colonies and they began to react. Perhaps the most famous response came from Virginia, and Patrick Henry!

Because England had dissolved Virginia’s colonial government, its Virginia House of Burgesses, the state’s colonial leaders were forced to meet in secret.  And so they did, on March 20, 1775, at a small church which is now called St. John’s Church, in Richmond, away from the Capitol in Williamsburg. Delegate Patrick Henry presented resolutions to raise a militia, and to put Virginia in a posture of defense. He believed that martial law would eventually come to Virginia. Henry’s opponents urged caution and patience, holding out hope that the King would eventually respond – and respond generously – to the Declarations and Resolves.  On the evening of the 23rd, Henry presented a proposal to organize a volunteer company of cavalry or infantry in every county of Virginia and delivered a fiery speech in support of it.  His final words “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” would be a rallying cry for the cause of independence and indeed, his entire speech is probably the most stirring, most passionate case in defense of liberty in our American history.

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free² if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending²if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable²and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace²but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

Patrick Henry succeeded in convincing the body of delegates to pass his resolutions. Virginia would call up a militia.

On April 14, 1775, General Gage received orders from London to take decisive action against the rebel-rousers of Boston – the leaders of the Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams and John Hancock. In the wee hours of the April 19, seven hundred British troops were dispatched to Lexington, where they would capture Adams and Hancock, and then to Concord, where they would seize a secret stockpile of colonial gunpowder (Gage had received intelligence about its location).  But spies and friends of the Sons of Liberty leaked word of Gage’s plan. One lantern hanging from Boston’s North Church informed the countryside that the British were going to attack by land and two lanterns if they were going to attack by sea. A series of horseback riders – Paul Revere, William Dawes and Dr. Samuel Prescott – galloped off to warn the countryside that British troops were coming.

Word spread from town to town, and militias prepared to confront the British and help their neighbors in Lexington and Concord. Colonial militias had originally been organized to defend settlers from civil unrest and attacks by French or Native Americans and selected members of the militia were called “minutemen” because they could be ready to fight in a minute’s time. Sure enough, when the advance guard of nearly 240 British soldiers arrived in Lexington during the early morning hours, they found about 70 minutemen waiting for them on Lexington Green. Both sides eyed each other not knowing what to expect or what to do. Suddenly, a bullet rang out. It would be known as “the shot heard round the world.”  Seven American militiamen were killed in that skirmish.  The British retreated to Concord, where they found an even larger, more organized group of militiamen. They then retreated back to Boston, and as they did so, new waves of Colonial militia intercepted them. Shooting from behind fences and trees, the militias inflicted over 125 casualties, including several officers.  The American Revolution had begun.  By happenstance…. not because of the blockade of Boston Harbor, not because of the Intolerable Acts, not because of the quartering of troops, not because of King George’s rejection of the pleas of the Colonies in the Declarations and Resolves, and not because of the other instances of mistreatment of the colonies. It was because the British had come for their ammunition.

Thus, the war for independence began over the colonists’ right to bear arms and store ammunition for their defense.

Not fully expecting the standoff in Massachusetts to explode into full-scale war, the thirteen colonies agreed to reconvene the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  Samuel Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington were some of the esteemed delegates.

By the time the Second Continental Congress met again, war was already underway, and so its purpose primarily became to conduct the war and manage the efforts.  Already, colonial militias had seized arsenals, driven out royal officials, and besieged the British army in the city of Boston. On June 14, the Congress voted to create the Continental Army out of the militia units around Boston and quickly appointed Congressman George Washington of Virginia as the Commanding General of the Continental Army.  On July 6, Congress approved a Declaration of Causes outlining the rationale and necessity for taking up arms in what had become the American Revolutionary War.  The original draft was written by Thomas Jefferson but the final was written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Much of Jefferson’s language was retained in the final draft. The Declaration insisted that the colonists do not yet seek independence from the mother country but were forced to take up arms “in defense of the Freedom that is our Birthright and which we ever enjoyed until the late Violation of it”, and will “lay them down when Hostilities shall cease on the part of the Aggressors.’  [Interestingly, the very first sentence of the declaration includes a condemnation of the institution of slavery, which the Crown imposed on the colonies].

On July 8, 1775, the Second Continental Congress drafted what was called the Olive Branch Petition, which it sent to the British Crown as a final attempt at reconciliation.  In it, the colonies expressed their collective desire to remain loyal to the British crown. King George, however, refused to receive it.

Rather, on October 27, the King spoke before both houses of the British Parliament to discuss the growing concern about the rebellion in America, which he viewed as a traitorous action against himself and Great Britain. He began his speech by reading a “Proclamation of Rebellion” and urged Parliament to move quickly to end the revolt and bring order to the colonies.  He spoke of his belief that “many of these unhappy people may still retain their loyalty, and may be too wise not to see the fatal consequence of this usurpation, and wish to resist it, yet the torrent of violence has been strong enough to compel their acquiescence, till a sufficient force shall appear to support them.” With these words, the king gave Parliament his consent to dispatch troops to use against his own subjects, a notion that his colonists believed impossible.

At this point, note that just as the British continued to implore the King to respect their rights and liberties with their various charters and petitions and remonstrances, the colonists followed their same path. The colonies would have preferred to remain associated with Great Britain through bonds of affection and respect, sharing the history and bounded government that had been established for over 500 years, but for over 15 years, the actions and reactions by King and Parliament amounted to “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations” which were clearly designed to establish absolute rule over the colonies. We can see how England’s own history is providing the path – even the format and the words – for Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Paine, who moved to the colonies from England at the end of 1774, published his pamphlet “Common Sense” in January 1776.  Common Sense advocated independence from Great Britain; Paine used moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for an independent government – one that suited their happiness; he appealed to their common sense. And it worked. The publication was wildly popular.

The two sides had once and for all reached a final political impasse and the bloody War for Independence would now be conducted in earnest.  The skirmish had now become a war for independence.

On April 12, the state of North Carolina authorized her delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence. This was the first official action by a colony calling for independence. The 83 delegates present in Halifax at the Fourth Provincial Congress unanimously adopted the Halifax Resolves.  The Resolves read:

The Select Committee taking into Consideration the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America, and the further Measures to be taken for frustrating the same, and for the better defense of this province reported as follows, to wit,

It appears to your Committee that pursuant to the Plan concerted by the British Ministry for subjugating America, the King and Parliament of Great Britain have usurped a Power over the Persons and Properties of the People unlimited and uncontrolled; and disregarding their humble Petitions for Peace, Liberty and safety, have made divers Legislative Acts, denouncing War Famine and every Species of Calamity against the Continent in General…..

Resolved that the delegates for this Colony in the Continental Congress be empowered to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency….

North Carolina’s state flag proudly displays this historic date.

Virginia followed suit. On May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention passed a similar resolution. It read:

Resolved, unanimously, that the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.

At that same Convention, Virginia decided to instruct its delegate in the Second Continental Congress to introduce a formal resolution to declare the colonies independent from Great Britain.  And so, on June 7, delegate Richard Henry Lee, introduced a resolution, termed the Lee Resolution or Resolution of Independence, which contained three parts: (1) to declare the united Colonies rightfully independent of the British Empire: (2) to establish a plan for establishing foreign relations with the Colonies; and (3) to establish a plan of a confederation to unite them officially.

The Lee Resolution simply read:

Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved;

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances;

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed three concurrent committees in response to the Lee Resolution – one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan of treaties “for forming foreign alliances,” and a third to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation.”  A Committee of Five was assembled to draft a document to explain the reasons for independence and it included John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. According to Adams, Jefferson proposed that he, Adams, do the writing of the document, but he declined. Rather, Adams said, it should be Jefferson.  Jefferson was known for his writing skills. As Adams told him: “Reason first: you are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second: I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Thomas Jefferson - clear pic

Jefferson completed his draft of the declaration in just a few days. He argued in his opening two paragraphs that individuals have inalienable rights, that governments are instituted by consent of the people primarily to secure those rights, and that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses their fundamental natural rights over a long period of time. Then, in a direct attack on King George (in like fashion to the Grand Remonstrance of 1641 and the English Bill of Rights of 1689), Jefferson listed 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances when the king violated the “the ancient rights and liberties” of the American colonists. Having thoroughly laid out his proof that the king was a “tyrant” who was “unfit to be the ruler of a people,” Jefferson continued on to condemn the British Parliament and the British people.  “These unfeeling brethren,” he wrote, had reelected members of Parliament who had conspired with the king to destroy the rights of the colonists. Jefferson ended his draft by stating, “we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states….. ”

When Jefferson submitted his draft to the Congress on June 28, the delegates left the first two paragraphs essentially unchanged.  Instead, they concentrated on Jefferson’s list of grievances against King George and the British people. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare the independence of the American colonies from English rule.  And on the July 4 – the Fourth of July – it approved the final edited version of the Declaration of Independence.

News of the colonies’ independence rang out in all the colonies.

While the 4th of July is the date that we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers didn’t actually affix their signatures until August 2.  John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign his name and he did so in big letters. The story goes that after he signed his name, he gazed upon it and said: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles!”

In explaining the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote: “This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

For most of my life, I marveled at the Declaration. Its words were stirring, its declarations were brilliant, its indictment of King George was compelling, and its conclusion was heroic.  I assumed the ideas, the words, and the flair were all the brainchild of Jefferson.  But after reviewing the historical documents he had studied all his life, and taking into account the various resolutions and declarations written and adopted by the various colonies at the time, it’s quite clear that the Declaration is a composite of several documents.  First of all, Jefferson essentially copied the form of the English Bill of Rights (and to some degree the Grand Remonstrance before it) as he sat down to compose his draft. Thus, Jefferson’s indictment of King George III was not a radical departure from accepted English practices.  He was following English tradition, which in turn he adapted to American circumstances.  I’ve seen signs and tee shirts calling our Founding Fathers “Our Founding Liberals,” but realizing that Jefferson, in writing the Declaration, followed established English tradition and re-asserted the “ancient rights and liberties” that for over 500 years have defined Englishmen, our Founders were actually quite conservative.

Winston Churchill commented on this tradition: “We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.”

In addition to historic English documents, Jefferson also borrowed language from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Resolves in drafting the Declaration. Mason asserted that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and maintaining happiness and safety.” Jefferson altered – shortened – his language in his original draft to state: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  In fact, Jefferson adopted his famous phrase from John Locke’s 1689 publication Two Treatises on Civil Government  –  “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Everyone at the time understood that Jefferson equated “happiness” with property and safety.  By “equal,” Jefferson meant that all citizens or freeholders are, as Mason wrote, born “equally free and independent” under the law.  Note that the barons of England asserted their legal equality with the king in 1100 and 1215.  So, Jefferson was not stating anything new.  [ See Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence”]

By its very name, the Declaration of Independence was a bold assertion of independence. Because it was asserted in defiance of the King, it was a highly treasonous document.  Its signers were traitors. The outcome of the war would decide their fate.  On October 19, 1781, British General Cornwallis surrendered his troops at Yorktown, Virginia and the British were defeated.  After six years of fighting, the Colonies had won their independence.  And once the Colonies had become independent, the Declaration essentially ceased to have any legal force. That which it sought to accomplish had been accomplished.

But that’s not where the Declaration of Independence’s story ends.

The Declaration may lack legal force but nonetheless, it remains the source of all legitimate political authority here in the United States and it memorializes the principles on which our country is founded.  Abraham Lincoln once referred to the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence as “the electric cord that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.”  And Calvin Coolidge remarked that “the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence predicated upon the glory of man and the corresponding duty to society that the rights of citizens ought to be protected with every power and resource of the state, and a government that does any less is false to the teachings of that great document — false to the name American.”

Declaration of Independence - signatures

 

A review of the most famous paragraphs of the Declaration remind us of the essential principles that make up our political foundation and ground our precious liberties.

The first paragraph reads:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The first paragraph characterizes the nature of the Declaration.  When Jefferson writes that it is time for the colonies “to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another” he is saying that the colonies intend to secede from Great Britain.  The Declaration, first and foremost, is a secessionist document.  What follows in the other paragraphs are the reasons and explanations for the decision to “dissolve their political bonds”; that is, to secede.

The phrase “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them” is a particularly significant one.  It means that our rights are not a gift from the State, but arise from our nature. This marks a paradigm shift from the system in England. English law was still dictated by the Divine Right of Kings. Even though charters, petitions, and a Bill of Rights put limitations on the Crown and to some extent, on government in general, they still acknowledged that the King and the State had power over the individual. Without such charters, petitions, and Bill of Rights, the King and government could treat the individual as it wanted, generously or oppressively.  Thomas Jefferson was making it clear that in the United States, rights are NOT a gift from the State, to be enjoyed at its benevolence, but rather that they arise from Nature and from God, separately and equally.  God and Nature go hand in hand. God who created the heavens and the Earth also created the laws of nature. For those who believe God to be the great author of Nature, then rights come from Him, as our Creator. For those who lack faith, they can rest assure that our Declaration equally recognizes that all individuals possess fundamental rights because they are natural rights – part of our very humanity from birth.  Even if you do not believe in a God Almighty, still you must respect the laws of nature.  In this way, Jefferson was laying out the concept of Individual Sovereignty in a way that its people could universally understand and agree, irrespective of the particulars of their individual and very diverse faiths.  Individual Sovereignty is the basis of our Rights in this country.

We may argue yet what are Nature’s Laws, but this much we can be certain:  All people must observe and ultimately obey it, just as the laws of nature apply equally to all human beings.  Since governments are merely fictional entities created by mankind and not by nature, rights supersede government. Saying that government is more important than the individual would be “unnatural.”

In the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.  Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

In this paragraph, Jefferson’s mighty pen goes into greater detail about the nature of the aforementioned natural rights. He tells us that our rights, which are endowed by our Creator (or Nature), are unalienable and although are numerous, the most obvious ones are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  “Unalienable” (which is the same as “inalienable”) means that the individual can never been divested of these rights. They cannot be taken away or denied.  They remain with the individual and government cannot take them away.  “Life,” of course, is clear enough.  “Liberty,” according to Jefferson, was the degree to which an individual can exercise his rights, his freedom.  The rights which come under this umbrella would include the rights asserted in the Magna Carta, for example, or in the English Bill of Rights, or in Virginia’s Declaration of Rights. (Remember the time period that the Declaration was written).  “Pursuit of Happiness” includes property, but encompasses much more.  “Pursuit of Happiness” means an individual should be able to freely exercise all his rights in order to live his life to its full potential.  That “full potential” includes the ownership of property and the fruits of one’s labor, mind, and personality (all that which makes a person a unique “individual”).  “Property” was too narrow a term for Jefferson.  Now, just as the individual has the rights to Life, Liberty, and Property, he also has the equal right to protect them.  This right of self-protection and self-preservation is also a natural right. Samuel Adams summed it best: “Among the natural rights of the colonists are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.”

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” is another important principle.  It is a critical and basic tenet of our form of government. First it states unequivocally that the primary role of government is “to secure these rights.” In other words, in the grand scheme of things, individual rights are supreme over the authority of the State (ie, government). The primary role of government, and the motivating force behind the formation of government, is to secure the inalienable rights, endowed by our Creator (Nature), of each individual.  This means that government is to be ideally limited to the role of a policeman, a judge, a prison warden, and a military force.  Furthermore, this provision explains that government has no powers of its own, but only “derives” its powers from individuals consenting to transfer power to it.  This is where the doctrine of Individual Sovereignty comes from. In a state of Nature, man has full sovereign power to govern himself – to provide for himself, to protect himself, to think and act as he wants.  He is responsible for himself and his conduct.  What is especially critical about this principle of “deriving powers from the consent of the governed” is that power delegated by the people is always “temporary” in nature.  The people can always re-assume their sovereign power – their right to govern themselves.

Having told us the proper function of government, Jefferson then tells us what gives cause to changing it: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The first thing to note is that governments are always “temporary.”  Government exists at the whim of the people and have no right in and of itself to its own existence or longevity. Government is a “creation.”  It is not a natural institution. Because is arises by the “consent of the governed,” it is a product of compact.  Compacts have elements of contract law and agency law. The second thing to note is the Declaration acknowledges that individuals have the RIGHT to establish their government to effect THEIR happiness and their safety. When government ceases to serve those purposes, then individuals are well within their natural right to abolish that government and establish another.

The Declaration goes one step further and challenges individuals to be vigilante of their rights and critical of their government.  “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

How will a people know for sure when it is time to “abolish” their government?  Or how will they know when it is time to dissolve political bonds that tie them to another; that is, how will they know when it is time to secede from another political body?  The Declaration, in that last sentence, tells us: “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

And that line, as Jefferson will explain in the section that follows, sums up the position of the Colonies.  In that section, Jefferson sets out to make the case that the conduct of the King is a history of abuses and usurpations.  He lists 27 grievances against King George III – 27 instances where he violated the rights of the colonists – which he, Jefferson (and the Second Continental Congress, as evidenced by its adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776) believe evidences a design to reduce them under an absolute Despotism (tyranny).  In the last paragraph of the Declaration, Jefferson will finally make the case that because of this evil design, the Colonies have a right and a duty to dissolve their political bonds with the King.

The last paragraph reads:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The Declaration of Independence ends with these powerful words: “For the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.”  We can never forget that the Declaration was a treasonous document, which, if the British had won the war, would have sealed the fate of each of its signers and earned them a date with a hangman’s noose.  But they believed in their cause. They believed in the words they wrote in that document and they believed in their case against the King.  And they were willing to risk it all.

Signer Benjamin Rush (of Pennsylvania) wrote: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”

After signing his name in a large flowing style, it is rumored that John Hancock’s full response was this: “There! His Majesty can now read my name without his spectacles. And he can double the reward on my head!”  Benjamin Franklin, insisting that every single delegate sign the Declaration of Independence, said: “We must all hang together or surely we shall all hang separately.”  The large, burly Virginian, Benjamin Harrison, turned to the pipsqueak from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, and joked: “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”

One day after the Declaration was adopted by the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, John Adams wrote home to his wife Abagail: “I am well aware of the toil and blood and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the gloom I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the means. And that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction.”

In a speech he gave on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (5 July 1926), Calvin Coolidge reflected:

Great ideas do not burst upon the world unannounced. They are reached by a gradual development over a length of time usually proportionate to their importance. This is especially true of the principles laid down in the Declaration of Independence. Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed. If no one is to be accounted as born into a superior station, if there is to be no ruling class, and if all possess rights which can neither be bartered away nor taken from them by any earthly power, it follows as a matter of course that the practical authority of the Government has to rest on the consent of the governed. While these principles were not altogether new in political action, and were very far from new in political speculation, they had never been assembled before and declared in such a combination… In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man — these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We cannot continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause… If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final.”

By a stroke of remarkable coincidence, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day – the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826.  Jefferson preceded Adams in death by five hours.

When I think about Independence Day, I think of our magnificent story.  I think about the uncompromising determination of people to live free and the eternal vigilance it took to finally secure lasting boundaries on government. I think about the ways the British and then the colonists expressed their discontent with the King and the many ways they sought to exert their rights, and how the many efforts culminated in their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence. I think about how our Founding Fathers brilliantly turned government on its head – transforming a system of government based on the Divine Right of Kings to a system predicated on Individual Sovereignty.  I think of a continuum of a story that began in 1215 with a stand-off on the meadow at Runnymede in order to secure a promise from an arrogant and ambitious king that ended with a document signed by 56 delegates assembled together from 13 separate states on July 4.  The continent may have changed, but man’s yearning to be free did not.

Now, as we all know, a country is a physical location inhabited by a body politic. Principles are embraced by people and not by geography, and so liberty and independence is a spirit that must live in all of us. If it doesn’t, then we suffer oppression together. As Machiavelli once said: “It is just as difficult and dangerous to try to free a people that wants to remain servile as it is to enslave a people that wants to remain free.”  The Declaration embraces our revolutionary spirit, and God help us when our country has the spirit of an aging grandmother. The key is to always keep that revolutionary spirit.  And maybe that’s what Independence Day is all about…. to reflect on our history and to rekindle that spirit every year.

In conclusion, I would like to implore that on this Independence Day and on every Independence Day, that we remember the advice that was once given to us by James Madison: “The people of the U.S. owe their Independence and their liberty to the wisdom of descrying in the minute tax of 3 pence on tea, the magnitude of the evil comprised in the precedent. Let them exert the same wisdom, in watching against every evil lurking under plausible disguises, and growing up from small beginnings.”

 

References:

Brion McClanahan, “Rethinking the Declaration of Independence,” Abbeville Institute, July 4, 2016.  Referenced at:  http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/blog/rethinking-the-declaration-of-independence/

Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), “The American System of Government: The American Constitutional System – English Origins (1066-1558),” Cyberland University of North Carolina.

Referenced at:  http://www.proconservative.net/CUNAPolSci201PartFourB.shtml  [In-depth study of the Magna Carta]

The Petition of Right of 1628 – http://study.com/academy/lesson/petition-of-right-of-1628-definition-summary.html

The English Bill of Rights of 1689 –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/england.asp

The Grand Remonstrance – http://www.constitution.org/eng/conpur043.htm

The Declaration and Resolves – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolves.asp

Patrick Henry’s Speech of March 23, 1775 – https://www.history.org/almanack/life/politics/giveme.cfm

Halifax Resolves – http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-revolution/4328

Preamble and Resolution of the Virginia Convention of May 15, 1776  – http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/const02.asp

The Lee Resolutions –  http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/lee.asp

“Boiling It Down, This Is What You’ve Said,” Mark America, October 15, 2011.  Referenced at:  http://markamerica.com/2011/10/15/boiling-it-down-this-is-what-youve-said/

Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace”, address at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri (March 5, 1946); in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963 (1974), vol. 7, p. 7288.

Calvin Coolidge, speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 5, 1926).

 

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The Constitutionality of Gun Control Laws

Second Amendment - Poster (vulture)    by Diane Rufino

On January 16, 2013, President Obama signed 23 Executive Orders which he claimed are aimed at reducing gun violence.  Now begins the initiative to bring his comprehensive gun control scheme to Congress. The cornerstone of the scheme will include more inclusive and scrutinous background checks and a ban on assault weapons.  The National Rifle Association, however, doesn’t buy the story that the administration is selling. In fact, it believes there is a more ominous plan down the road.  The NRA is using a Justice Department memo it obtained, dated January 4, 2013 and written by one of the Justice Department’s top crime researchers, to argue that the Obama administration itself doesn’t believe that its proposed gun control plans will work to cut down on violence. Rather, it believes it will ultimately need to seize firearms and require national gun registration.  These, of course are ideas that the White House has not proposed and claims it does not support.

At this point, President Obama wants to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that exceed 10 rounds.  He and his fellow gun law proponents argue that no one should need more than that.  And the President is pushing for universal background checks for nearly all gun purchases. Today, checks are only mandatory on sales by federally licensed gun dealers, not transactions at gun shows or other private sales.

The Memo critiques the effectiveness of gun control proposals, including many that were put forward by the executive orders and now by proposed legislation, such as the registration and the assault weapon and ammunition magazine bans.

The memo says straw purchases and gun thefts are the largest sources of firearms used in crimes, and says such transactions “would most likely become larger if background checks at gun shows and private sellers were addressed.”  (Straw purchases are when criminals and those who are legally prohibited from owning a firearm have another person make the purchase for them). The memo says requiring background checks for more gun purchases could help, but also could lead to more illicit weapons sales. Criminals are not going to submit to background checks honestly.  They will continue to use false names and offer false information.

At the same time, President Obama is looking to stack the federal courts with anti-gun judicial nominations. For example, he is presently pushing Caitlin Halligan, currently the NY’s Solicitor General and an attorney with a long track record in favor of gun control, for the DC Court of Appeals. In fact, one Senate Republican said that she is the most “anti-Second Amendment nominee Obama has ever put forward.”  The final transformation of America will eventually occur at the hands of federal court judges who haven’t studied the writings of the Founding Fathers and who don’t understand the scheme of ordered liberty they envisioned for this country.

On January 18, Beaufort County, NC was the first local entity in the nation to take a stand against the President’s agenda to regulate gun rights and to stand up for the phrase in the Second Amendment which reads “The right of the people to have and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners passed the strongest Second Amendment Protection Resolution to date in North Carolina. Other counties in the state have followed suit, including Pitt, Franklin, Lenoir, and Cherokee – with varying degrees of strength and effectiveness). And still there are other counties who would like to adopt resolutions but have reservations as to what they can do legally.

The bottom line is that state and local elected representatives, as well as state and local civil servants, swear an oath to the US Constitution. They pledge a solemn vow, invoking the name of our Creator, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.  The oath is not to support a “living constitution”; nor is it a promise to support any and all actions of the federal government, which is organized under the Constitution. The oath is to obey and support only lawful orders. After all, a legal framework with defined limitations is what is at the heart of our constitutional republic. In America, government is tasked with constraining people in unlawful conduct, but it is also obliged to constrain itself as well.  The framework was designed for a specific purpose, and that purpose is articulated most splendidly in the Declaration of Independence – for the free exercise of our God-given rights and liberties.

In helping those counties, those local Sheriffs, and those state officials assess the legality of taking a position seemingly antagonistic to the federal government, there are a series of questions to ask and answer.

Is the Particular Federal Law Supreme? –

The issue at stake is which federal laws are to be considered “Supreme,” and thus trump state law where there is any conflict and preclude any state from interfering with or frustrating the federal scheme. The Supremacy Clause (Article VI, clause 2) reads: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The general rule – the correct rule – is that constitutional federal law trumps state law where it conflicts. The state law must therefore yield to the federal law.  This was the government’s argument when it challenged Arizona’s immigration bill, SB 1070.  In that case, the Supreme Court found that the government is indeed supreme on immigration, but nonetheless upheld parts of the Arizona bill because it concluded that they furthered and assisted the federal scheme.

The problem is the incorrect assumptions  too many government officials make – at both the federal and state level.  These assumptions are as follows: (1)  That every federal law is supreme law of the land under the Supremacy Clause; and  (2) That every federal law is constitutional.

Blind allegiance to the perceived supremacy of the federal government is disloyalty to the Constitution and to the United States.  In fact, it is a crime. Chief Justice John Marshall explained this in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison (1803):

With respect to the Constitution’s requirement, in Article VI, that federal officials, including judges, take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”)  “Why does it direct the judges to take an oath to support it?

The particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument. It is also not entirely unworthy of observation that, in declaring what shall be the supreme law of the land, the Constitution itself is first mentioned; and not the laws of the United States generally, but those only which shall he made in pursuance of the Constitution, have that rank.

Why does a judge swear to discharge his duties agreeably to the Constitution of the United States, if that Constitution forms no rule for his government? If it is closed upon him, and cannot be inspected by him?  If such be the real state of things, this is worse than solemn mockery. To prescribe, or take this oath, becomes equally a crime.”

Chief Justice Marshall used the example of a federal judge, but mockery and disloyalty apply to all those officials who accept and pledge the responsibility that the oath demands.

Is it Constitutional? –

In looking at federal law, the first question you should ask is whether it is constitutional.  Because under the Supremacy Clause, only laws made in pursuance to the Constitution are supreme.  If they are not, they are not only unconstitutional but they are also not supreme law.

As we all know, individuals are free to do whatever they want, unless they are constrained by the law.  Government, on the other hand, can only act pursuant to the powers they are expressly delegated in the Constitution.  Government needs express authority to act, and when it acts pursuant to powers not delegated or oversteps powers that are intended to be limited, then those acts have no legitimacy and are not enforceable upon the people. That is the contract that the people have with the federal government, under the US Constitution.  Same goes for the states and the state constitutions.

So, the first question to ask is whether the particular federal law has a proper constitutional foundation.  All of our Founding Fathers agreed that any act that violates the Constitution is null and void and not a valid, enforceable law.  Our entire Constitution consists of limitations and a series of checks and balances. Our Founders talked at length about the checks and balances in the Constitutional Convention. They talked about the separation of powers and the jealous arrangement whereby each branch would jealously guard their own powers from the encroachment of any of the other branches. They would gladly do so to prevent one branch from becoming too powerful in the exercise of government and  too powerful over the other two branches.  Furthermore, our Founding Fathers build our government on a federal scheme. We are a federation of sovereign states and not a consolidation of people.  Our system is federal and not national.  In our federal scheme, as embodied by the Tenth Amendment, the precious balance of power and limitations imposed by the Constitution was intended to be kept in check by the tension presented by having two sovereigns – or Dual Sovereignty.  A “sovereign” possesses supreme power.  A sovereign state, for example, has the supreme power to legislate for its safety, security,  people, and best interests.  Under our system of Dual Sovereignty, the federal government is deemed to be sovereign (again, the Supremacy Clause) when it acts pursuant to its constitutionally limited and legitimate powers (17 or so in Article I, Clause 8, and about 21 total in the entire Constitution).  It is a limited sovereign.  The states, on the other hand, as articulated in the Tenth Amendment, retain and reserve the great bulk of remaining powers to legislate and regulate within their territories and are therefore sovereign with respect to those powers.  James Madison addresses the nature of the division of powers best in Federalist Papers No. 45:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security.”

Even the design of the government itself was premised on the federalist scheme so that the States themselves would intimately provide a necessary check on the power of the federal government. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when James Madison initially proposed that the federal government be given a “negative” (ie, “veto” power over acts of the state legislatures that it deemed frustrated the goals of the government, the states successfully countered back with the exact opposite – a state “negative” over the federal government. In discussing the second branch of the legislature – the Senate – the delegates specifically talked about this branch providing an immediate “negative” (ie, a “veto” power) over the actions of government. The Senate was intended to be the physical presence of the States within the structure of the government, always able to protect their interests and protect their sovereign powers.  (Of course, this notion of a state “negative” is the basis of the doctrine of nullification). The states provided a federal balance in other aspects as well.

In Federalist No. 45, Madison explained:

“The State governments may be regarded as constituent and essential parts of the federal government; whilst the latter is nowise essential to the operation or organization of the former. Without the intervention of the State legislatures, the President of the United States cannot be elected at all. They must in all cases have a great share in his appointment, and will, perhaps, in most cases, of themselves determine it. The Senate will be elected absolutely and exclusively by the State legislatures. Even the House of Representatives, though drawn immediately from the people, will be chosen very much under the influence of that class of men, whose influence over the people obtains for themselves an election into the State legislatures. Thus, each of the principal branches of the federal government will owe its existence more or less to the favor of the State governments, and must consequently feel a dependence, which is much more likely to beget a disposition too obsequious than too overbearing towards them.”

In Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton articulated the danger in overstepping the bounds of federal power and federal authority:

“There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.”

Recently, Tennessee’s Attorney General, Robert Cooper, wrote a legal opinion stating that Tennessee’s    proposed piece of legislation, SB0250 (“An Act to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 4,

Chapter 54, relative to the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act”), is unconstitutional because it violates the Supremacy Clause of the US Constitution.  SB0250 was written to expand and amend the Tennessee Firearms Freedom Act to address federal actions in the state. Specifically, the bill adds the following section to the Firearms Freedom Act:

(a) The general assembly declares that any federal action prohibited by this chapter relating to firearms, firearms accessories or ammunition, whether made in Tennessee or not, is not authorized by the United States constitution and violates the restrictions contained therein and is hereby declared to be invalid in this state; that said federal action shall not be recognized by this state; and that said federal action is rejected by this state and shall be null and void and of no effect in this state.

(b) Any federal action shall be deemed an intentional violation of state sovereignty and shall be unenforceable within the borders of Tennessee if the federal action does or attempts to:

(1) Infringe on, ban, regulate, or restrict state government, local government or civilian ownership, transfer, possession or manufacture of a firearm, a firearm accessory or ammunition in this state;

(2) Require any state government, local government or civilian owned firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition in this state to be registered or tracked in any manner; or

(3) Impose federal taxes, fees or any other charges on any state government, local government or civilian owned firearm, firearm accessory, or ammunition that are payable to any government entity.

(c) No public official, employee, or agent of this state or any of its political subdivisions shall:

(1) Act to impose, collect, enforce, or effectuate any penalty in this state that violates the public policy set forth in this section; or

(2) Cooperate with or assist with the enforcement of federal action prohibited by this chapter.

Attorney General Cooper wants the legislature and the People of the Tennessee to believe that the following federal acts and constitutional and therefore supreme:  (i) a ban on firearms; (ii) tracking of ammunition; (iii) federal taxes on firearms and their accessories;….

Where exactly in the Constitution did the states delegate the power to regulate firearms?  It doesn’t. What the States did demand, on the other hand, was the Second Amendment, which states that: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Some argue that the federal government has some regulatory authority under the Commerce Clause, but that argument would be wrong.  Again, we have the Second Amendment (and in fact, the Bill of Rights in general).  The Preamble to the Bill of Rights states the intention of the States in adopting them:  “The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”   As we all know, the States refused to ratify the US Constitution until a Bill of Rights, proposed by the States themselves, was added.  So we see that the Bill of Rights, and in this case the Second Amendment, puts further restrictions on the federal government. These “declaratory and  restrictive clauses” further restrain the government in the exercise of their delegated powers.  As an example, Congress was delegated the power to regulate interstate Commerce (“to make regular”).  After the Bill of Rights was added, the government was prohibited from using the Commerce power to infringe on the right of the people to have and bear arms.

The Second Amendment states specifically and succinctly – “the right of the people to have and bear arms shall not (must not) be infringed.”  There simply is no wiggle room.  The federal government, therefore, has no authority to regulate in this area and thus, the federal acts mentioned above are not constitutional.

Does the Federal Judiciary Have Exclusive Power to Make Determinations of Constitutionality? –

The second question to ask is which branch/tribunal/entity has the exclusive power to make the determination of constitutionality.  The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison(1803) has delegated that power to itself.  It was not delegated to the federal courts in the US Constitution.  Nowhere in Article III is the Supreme Court given “exclusive” jurisdiction.  Alexander Hamilton wrote about the weight to be afforded the federal judiciary in Federalist No. 78:

“Whoever attentively considers the different departments of power must perceive, that, in a government in which they are separated from each other, the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution; because it will be least in a capacity to annoy or injure them. The Executive not only dispenses the honors, but holds the sword of the community. The legislature not only commands the purse, but prescribes the rules by which the duties and rights of every citizen are to be regulated. The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment; and must ultimately depend upon the aid of the executive arm even for the efficacy of its judgments.

If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two (the legislative and the judicial branches), that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents. Nor does this conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.”

Under the contractual nature of the Constitution (ie, the States negotiated the terms of the Constitution and were its signers, thus agreeing to be bound by its terms including the surrender of some of their sovereign power which is the necessary “detriment” or “consideration” which contract law uses to find a valid contract), the states are the legitimate parties and are therefore in the legal position to explain the terms under which they signed.  In other words, the States are in the proper position to define the extent of the powers that they delegated to the federal government.  The government itself is not a party to the contact and in fact, is its creation.  And as the plain words of the Constitution express and the Federalist Papers explain, the right to be the exclusive interpreter of the Constitution was not delegated to the Supreme Court (or the federal courts in general).

Mr. Robert Cooper, the Tennessee AG, mentions the possibility that the federal acts might be unconstitutional.  At the end of the brief he filed, Cooper wrote: “While the bills themselves declare that certain federal firearms regulations are unconstitutional, that determination  rests with the federal judiciary and not a state legislature.”  He rests his assertion on the Marbury v. Madison case, which was mentioned above.  But he misconstrued Chief Justice Marshall’s ruling.  Chief Justice Marshall merely asserted in that case that the Supreme Court CAN, in fact, nullify an act of Congress by declaring it unconstitutional. But nowhere does he assert that the Court has exclusive authority to rule on constitutionality.  The discussion of this topic is addressed below:

“The people have an original right to establish, for their future government, such principles as, in their opinion, shall most conduce to their own happiness is the basis on which the whole American fabric had been erected. The exercise of this original right is a very great exertion; nor can it, nor ought it, to be frequently repeated. The principles, therefore, so established, are deemed fundamental. And as the authority from which they proceed is supreme, and can seldom act, they are designed to be permanent. This original and supreme will organizes the government, and assigns to different departments their respective powers. It may either stop here, or establish certain limits not to be transcended by those departments. The government of the United States is of the latter description. The powers of the legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken, or forgotten, the Constitution is written. The distinction between a government with limited and unlimited powers is abolished if those limits do not confine the persons on whom they are imposed, and if acts prohibited and acts allowed are of equal obligation.

The Constitution is either a superior paramount law, unchangeable by ordinary means, or it is on a level with ordinary legislative acts, and, like other acts, is alterable when the legislature shall please to alter it. If the former part of the alternative be true, then a legislative act contrary to the Constitution is not law: if the latter part be true, then written constitutions are absurd attempts on the part of the people to limit a power in its own nature illimitable. Certainly all those who have framed written constitutions contemplate them as forming the fundamental and paramount law of the nation, and consequently, the theory of every such government must be, that an act of the legislature, repugnant to the constitution, is void.

The particular phraseology of the Constitution of the United States confirms and strengthens the principle, supposed to be essential to all written constitutions, that a law repugnant to the Constitution is void; and that courts, as well as other departments, are bound by that instrument.”

The Marbury v. Madison case sent up a red flag to Thomas Jefferson who was perhaps our most important and prolific Founding Father.  In reaction to Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion in Marbury, Jefferson grew terribly suspicious of the Supreme Court and warned that judicial review would lead to despotism. He wrote:

“The germ of dissolution of our federal government is in the constitution of the federal judiciary: an irresponsible body, working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief, over the field of jurisdiction until all shall be usurped from the States, and the government of all be consolidated into one. To this I am opposed; because, when all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the centre of all it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”

Attorney General Cooper also cited Cooper v. Aaron, a Supreme Court case from 1958 which held that state government officials are bound to comply with Supreme Court rulings and court orders based upon the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. This case addressed the remnants of the Jim Crow South and Arkansas’ refusal to enforce the desegregation mandate of Brown v. Board of Education (Cases I and II, 1953 and 1954, respectively).  Cooper referenced Cooper v. Aaron to assert the supremacy of the federal judiciary and to affirm that its rulings cannot be challenged by any state.

Again, Cooper v. Aaron rests on a fallacious or bastardized interpretation of Marbury. Such a notion obliterates the notion of a constitutional system and makes the Supreme Court the sovereign.  I shouldn’t even have to point out the absurdity of the Court making itself supreme.

Edwin Meese, Attorney General under President Ronald Reagan, said this about theCooper decision: “The logic of Cooper v. Aaron is at war with the Constitution, at war with the meaning of the rule of law.”  We need look no farther than the Dred Scott case (1857).  The Dred Scott decision not only denied even free blacks citizenship but went on to declare all those of African descent to be inferior and suitable only to serve others. To see the inherent flaw in this idea of judicial supremacy would be to accept that the Dred Scottdecision was the legitimate law of the land.  Abraham Lincoln would not accept it.  In response to the ruling, he said: “If the government, upon vital questions affecting the whole of the people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that imminent tribunal.”

If we accept the misguided notion that the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the meaning and intent of the Constitution, then we have to accept that the decision in Dred Scott is the law of the land (which is still good Supreme Court jurisprudence by the way since it was only overturned legislatively, if you will, by constitutional amendment).  The justices in that case didn’t interpret the Constitution; rather, they used the bench for a most insidious function – to make social policy.  Dred Scott was a slave who traveled with his slave master from a slave state to a non-slave state.  He then challenged his bondage.  The question, therefore, before the Court was not only whether he should be considered free but whether he even had the legal right (as a black man) to challenge his slave status.  Justice Taney wrote the opinion:

“We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.

It is true, every person, and every class and description of persons who were, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, recognized as citizens in the several States became also citizens of this new political body, but none other; it was formed by them, and for them and their posterity, but for no one else. And the personal rights and privileges guaranteed to citizens of this new sovereignty were intended to embrace those only who were then members of the several State communities, or who should afterwards by birthright or otherwise become members according to the provisions of the Constitution and the principles on which it was founded. It was the union of those who were at that time members of distinct and separate political communities into one political family, whose power, for certain specified purposes, was to extend over the whole territory of the United States. And it gave to each citizen rights and privileges outside of his State which he did not before possess, and placed him in every other State upon a perfect equality with its own citizens as to rights of person and rights of property; it made him a citizen of the United States.

It becomes necessary, therefore, to determine who were citizens of the several States when the Constitution was adopted. In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.”

When the Supreme Court itself acts outside and above the bounds of constitutional power, which party can declare such?

That was a problem that Thomas Jefferson’s addressed  in 1804: “The Constitution meant that its coordinate branches should be checks on each other. But the opinion which gives to the judges the right to decide what laws are constitutional and what not, not only for themselves in their own sphere of action but for the Legislature and Executive also in their spheres, would make the Judiciary a despotic branch.”

The fact is that the men who drafted our founding documents – James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – did not subscribe to the notion that only the federal courts could determine constitutionality.  Jefferson wrote this: “The several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government;….  that the government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers.”  [Resolutions of 1798].

James Madison wrote: “The states, then, being the parties to the constitutional compact, and in their sovereign capacity, it follows of necessity that there can be no tribunal, above their authority, to decide, in the last resort, whether the compact made by them be violated; and consequently, that, as the parties to it, they must themselves decide, in the last resort, such questions as may be of sufficient magnitude to require their interposition.”  [Report of 1800]

The Impact of the American Revolution on the Drafting and Intent of the Second Amendment –

A third inquiry might be a look at the (historical) events that shaped and guided the Founders and the drafters of the Second Amendment.

As we all remember from our early American history, the Boston Tea Party prompted a very strong response from the King of England.  It would be the series of intolerable acts known as the Coercive Acts which would offend so greatly the colonists notion of freedom that independence became the only solution.

All of the particular provisions of the Coercive Acts were offensive to Americans, but it was the Quartering Act and the possibility that the British might deploy the army to enforce them that primed many colonists for armed resistance. The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.”

The Royal Governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage, had forbidden town meetings from taking place more than once a year. When he dispatched the Redcoats to break up an illegal town meeting in Salem, 3000 armed Americans appeared in response, and the British retreated. Gage’s aide John Andrews explained that everyone in the area aged 16 years or older owned a gun and plenty of gunpowder.  They could not tolerate this.

Military rule would be difficult to impose on an armed populace. Gage had only 2,000 troops in Boston. There were thousands of armed men in Boston alone, and more in the surrounding area. Gage’s response to the problem was to deprive the Americans of gunpowder.

Although colonial laws generally required militiamen (and sometimes all householders, too) to have their own firearm and a minimum quantity of powder, not everyone could afford it. Consequently, the government sometimes supplied “public arms” and powder to individual militiamen. Policies varied on whether militiamen who had been given public arms would keep them at home. Public arms would often be stored in a special armory, which might also be the powder house.

Before dawn on September 1, 1774, 260 of Gage’s Redcoats sailed up the Mystic River and seized hundreds of barrels of powder from the Charlestown powder house.  The “Powder Alarm,” as it became known, was a serious provocation. By the end of the day, 20,000 militiamen had mobilized and started marching towards Boston.  In Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, rumors quickly spread that the Powder Alarm had actually involved fighting in the streets of Boston, but accurate reports were provided just in time and war was temporarily averted.  The message, however, was unmistakable: If the British used violence to seize arms or powder, the Americans would treat that violent seizure as an act of war, and would fight.

Tension continued to grow as the British continued to seize firearms and gunpowder and block the importation of arms and ammunition to America in an effort to disarm the rebellious colonists.

On March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry would give his famous fiery speech to the Virginia legislature, which had to meet in secret at St. John’s Church in Richmond because the British were clamping down on their rights to govern themselves. In that speech, he delivered those famous words: “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!”  What was the reason for those words?  Well, at the time, King George had declared all 13 North American colonies to be in a state of open rebellion. Lord Dunsmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, had ordered all the gunpowder in Williamsburg seized and stored aboard his ship anchored in the Virginia harbor, to keep it out of the hands local patriot forces. In his speech, Henry argued that the British plainly meant to subjugate America by force. Because every attempt by the Americans at peaceful reconciliation had been rebuffed, the only remaining alternatives for the Americans were to accept slavery or to take up arms. And so he urged that Virginia organize a militia to stand up to the British.

In just 3 weeks, the American Revolution would begin.

On the night of April 18, the royal governor of Massachusetts, General Thomas Gage was ordered by King George III to suppress the rebellious Americans, had ordered 700 British soldiers to confiscate weapons stored in the village of Concord and capture Sons of Liberty leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, who were both reported to be staying in the village of Lexington.

As word of General Gage’s intentions spread through Boston, it prompted the patriots to set up a messaging system to alert the countryside of any advance of British troops. Paul Revere arranged for a signal to be sent by lantern from the steeple of North Church – one if by land, two if by sea.  On the night of April 18, 1775 the lantern’s alarm sent Revere, William Dawes and other riders on the road to spread the news. The messengers cried out the alarm, awakening every house, warning of the British column making its way towards Lexington. In the rider’s wake there erupted the peeling of church bells, the beating of drums and the roar of gun shots – all announcing the danger and calling the local militias to action. In the predawn light of April 19, the beating drums and peeling bells summoned between 50 and 70 militiamen to the town green at Lexington. As they lined up in battle formation, they heard the sound of the approaching Redcoats. Soon the British column emerged through the morning fog.  At Lexington Green, one eyewitness report claims that British Major Pitcairn ordered the Bostonians to “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels, or you are all dead men.”  At that moment a shot was fired. It may very well have been accidental. Nonetheless, hearing the shot, British troops fired upon the small group of militia, killing eight men and wounding ten more. The militia then retreated into the woods.  And so started the first battle in the American Revolutionary War.

What transpired after the day of “the shot heard ’round the world” was perhaps more significant in some respects. That event was Gen. Gage’s attempt to confiscate the arms of all the inhabitants of Boston. Disarming the militiamen in the countryside had a plausible purpose—the Crown was the “legitimate” government and the militiamen were engaged in rebellion. But to disarm every peaceable inhabitant of Boston without them having committed any unlawful act or threatening any transgression was conclusive evidence to the colonists, including many not yet committed to fight for either side, that their fundamental rights as Englishmen were being destroyed.

What happened in the days leading up to skirmish on Lexington Green, when the British sought to disarm the colonists, and what happened in the days following Lexington and Concord, with the wholesale confiscation of firearms from the people of Boston, remained fresh in the minds of our Founders and framers.  It would have a profound impact on them and play a major role in the construction and adoption of the Second Amendment.

The Meaning of the Second Amendment –

And a fourth question to ask is what was the meaning of the Second Amendment when it was passed (because each of our first ten amendments holds a special place in America’s understanding of ordered liberty as the nation was congealed in 1788-89). The following are crucial points to be considered:

(a)  The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads as follows, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The amendment, as written, is very clear.  First the right to keep and bear arms is not subject to any qualification, conditions, or degrees. Secondly, the right shall (ie, “must”) not be infringed. What is it about the phrase “shall not be infringed” that the government and critics fail to understand?  Since the amendment is a prohibition on government, it is a restraining order on government.  Henry St. George Tucker, a lawyer who put his career on hold to fight the American Revolution, set out in 1790 to write an American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England.  In 1803 he completed and published it.  Commonly referred to as “American Blackstone,” it was the definitive treatise on American law and became essential reading for every lawyer of the day.  In explaining the American right to keep and bear arms, Tucker wrote these words:  “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed and this without any qualification as to their condition or degree, as is the case in the British government.”  In the appendix to his text, Tucker provided a fuller explanation of the Second Amendment:  “This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty…. The right of self defense is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms, is under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction….”

(b)  The Preamble to the Bill of Rights, as with any preamble, states the intent and purpose of the particular amendments. The Preamble reads:

The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

         RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution..

On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the 10th of 14 states to ratify, thus giving the Bill of Rights the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it legal.

(c)  The Second Amendment doesn’t grant rights; it recognizes rights. The Second Amendment, which embodies the most fundamental right of self-defense, self-protection, and self-preservation, was considered by our Framers as obvious, “natural,” and a “self-evident truth.”  The Declaration of Independence articulates clearly that while individuals have the inalienable right of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, they also have the natural right to defend them. In fact, it is precisely the primary role of government. The Declaration states: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety…”     According to the Declaration, the rights of self-defense, self-protection, and self-preservation are as fundamentally and inherently endowed as the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The framers, tasked with defining the foundation of our new nation, were immersed in the prevailing republican thought of the day, as articulated in the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and others, which discussed “natural rights” in some detail.  Others, known as the anti-Federalists, argued that at least some of the rights needed to be made explicit in the Bill of Rights to avoid having future generations with less understanding of republican theory weaken in their defense of those rights. The right to keep and bear arms is a natural right of individuals under the theory of democratic government. This was clearly the understanding and intent of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution and was a long-established principle of English common law at the time the Constitution was adopted, which is considered to be a part of constitutional law for purposes of interpreting the written Constitution.  Alexander Hamilton summed the position well in Federalist Papers No. 28: “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government, and which against the usurpations of the national rulers may be exerted with infinitely better prospect of success than against those of the rulers of an individual State. In a single State, if the persons entrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource; except in their courage and despair.”  [http://constitution.org/leglrkba.htm%5D

 (d)  The Second Amendment also recognizes the right, power, and duty of the people to organize into militias and defend their state.  Indeed, at the time the Second Amendment was adopted, it was understood that the people were the militia. George Mason said it best during the debates in the Virginia Ratification Convention on June 16, 1788: “I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people..” [See Elliot’s Debates, Vol. 3]  In Federalist Papers No. 29, Alexander Hamilton indicated that a well-regulated militia is the people in a state of preparedness. Tench Coxe, in his article “Remarks on the First Part of the Amendments to the Federal Constitution,” (written under the “A Pennsylvanian”) in the Philadelphia Federal Gazette, June 18, 1789, explained: “Whereas civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as military forces, which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article [the Second Amendment] in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”

And what was the purpose of a state militia?  Our Founding Fathers understood an armed citizenry was necessary for more than just protecting the state’s security and interests. US Rep. Elbridge Gerry (Mass) spoke on this topic when debating the Second Amendment from the floor of the Congress after James Madison proposed the draft of the Bill of Rights: “What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty …. Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.”  [See Annals of Congress at 750; August 17, 1789]  George Mason repeated the same admonition in the Virginia Ratification Convention (June 1788): ” … to disarm the people – that was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”

And Noah Webster effectively articulated the principles underlying our Constitution and Bill of Rights in his publication An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution (Philadelphia 1787).  He wrote: “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed; as they are in almost every kingdom in Europe.  The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops that can be, on any pretense, raised in the United States. A military force, at the command of Congress, can execute no laws, but such as the people perceive to be just and constitutional; for they will possess the power, and jealousy will instantly inspire the inclination, to resist the execution of a law which appears to them unjust and oppressive.” But perhaps no one is more qualified to explain the intent of the Second Amendment than Thomas Jefferson who was the man responsible for finally convincing James Madison to draft them. Jefferson wrote: “No Free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” In 1787, he wrote: “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.” [Letter to William Stephens Smith; See Jefferson’s Papers 12:356]  Even Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story understood the purpose of an armed citizenry (and hence the intent of the Second Amendment): “The militia is the natural defense of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpation of power by rulers. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of the republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally … enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”  [Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, p. 3:746-7, 1833

(e)  While the U.S. Constitution does not adequately define “arms,” we have a clear understanding of its historical context.  The Federalist Papers and other writings of the Founding Fathers and their contemporaries mention “arms” to suggest it has a rather broad definition. For example, in Federalist No. 29, Alexander Hamilton emphasized the deterrent effect of a citizen militia against the U.S. Army: “If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form an army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of the people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow-citizens.” A reading of Federalist No. 26 will help us understand that when our Founders envisioned the fundamental right of individuals to take up arms against an oppressive government, they understood that sometimes the oppressor was protected by state-of-the-art weaponry (as were the British forces). In other words, the body of citizens must be armed and disciplined accordingly to be a formidable force against a tyrannical government. When the Second Amendment was adopted, the common understanding was that “arms” comprised those weapons that could be carried and discharged/operated by hand, including muzzle-loaded muskets and pistols, swords, knives, bows with arrows, and spears. However, a common-law definition reads “light infantry weapons which can be carried and used, together with ammunition, by a single militiaman, functionally equivalent to those commonly used by infantrymen in land warfare.” That certainly includes modern rifles and handguns, full-auto machine guns and shotguns, grenade and grenade launchers, flares, smoke, tear gas, incendiary rounds, and anti-tank weapons.  It would not, however, include heavy artillery, rockets, or bombs, or lethal chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. The standard, therefore, has to be that “arms” includes weapons which would enable citizens to effectively resist government tyranny.  The rule should be that “arms” includes all light infantry weapons that do not cause mass destruction.  If we follow the rule that personal rights should be interpreted broadly and governmental powers narrowly, which was the intention of the Framers, instead of the reverse, then “arms” must be interpreted broadly.  [http://constitution.org/leglrkba.htm%5D

(f)  Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States is the federal government vested with the authority to impose acts, laws, executive orders, rules, or regulations relating to civilian firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition. The right to “keep and bear arms” is absolute and not subject to any qualification, conditions, or degrees.  [Although some may argue that the government has some regulatory power under the Commerce Clause, the Bill of Rights was adopted as a further limitation on this power; See (b)]  Samuel Adams emphasized this point in Massachusetts’ Ratification Convention (January 1788): “That the said Constitution shall never be construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms … ”  Thomas M. Cooley, renowned jurist (1824-1898), wrote in his text General Principles of Constitutional Law, Third Edition [1898]: “The right [to bear arms] is general. It may be supposed from the phraseology of this provision that the right to keep and bear arms was only guaranteed to the militia; but this would be an interpretation not warranted by the intent. The militia, as has been explained elsewhere, consists of those persons who, under the laws, are liable to the performance of military duty, and are officered and enrolled for service when called upon…. If the right were limited to those enrolled, the purpose of the guarantee might be defeated altogether by the action or the neglect to act of the government it was meant to hold in check. The meaning of the provision undoubtedly is, that the people, from whom the militia must be taken, shall have the right to keep and bear arms, and they need no permission or regulation of law for the purpose. But this enables the government to have a well regulated militia; for to bear arms implies something more than mere keeping; it implies the learning to handle and use them in a way that makes those who keep them ready for their efficient use; in other words, it implies the right to meet for voluntary discipline in arms, observing in so doing the laws of public order.”

In light of the authority above, it would appear that all federal acts, laws, executive orders, rules or regulations tending to infringe upon the right of law-abiding persons to have and bear firearms, firearm accessories, or ammunition are in violation of the 2nd Amendment, as well as the 10th Amendment and Supremacy Clause, of the US Constitution.

The Heller and McDonald Decisions –

It just so happens that at this point in time, the Supreme Court has confirmed the original meaning of the Second Amendment.

The District of Columbia v. Heller (2009) and McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010) cases marked the first time in about 70 years that the Supreme Court was willing to consider the meaning of the Second Amendment.  For the first time, the Court was presented with the question of whether the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms for private purposes.  In Heller, the Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self- defense. The Court based its holding on the text of the Second Amendment and its history, as well as applicable language in state constitutions adopted soon after the Second Amendment.

The McDonald case came to the high Court from the Seventh Circuit, where the panel of judges held that states had the right to enact gun bans because the Fourteenth Amendment did not require the states to respect the rights protected under the Second Amendment.  Luckily, the Supreme Court reversed the Seventh Circuit.  It held that, indeed, the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applicable to the states.  In analyzing whether a particular right protected in the Bill of Rights applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court has come up with a threshold determination and that question asks whether the particular right is one that is “fundamental to the Nation’s scheme of ordered liberty” or one that is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”  If the Court determines that it is so, then the Court will declare that the particular right is appropriately applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  Based on the review done in Heller and the decision it reached, the Court in the McDonald case recognized that the right to self-defense was one such “fundamental” and “deeply rooted” right.  Justice Clarence Thomas went through a detailed analysis to explain just how deeply-rooted that right is.

Prior to the Heller case, the last case the Supreme Court heard on the Second Amendment was United States v. Miller, in 1938.  It was a questionable decision then and unfortunately, because of the Court’s doctrine of stare decisis (“that which has been decided”: otherwise known as court “precedent”), the Court was still bound by it.  Actually, the argument was never asserted in Miller that the Second Amendment protects the individual right to bear arm. Yet the Supreme Court nevertheless upheld a federal gun control law and said that the Second Amendment only protects arms that are reasonably related to the maintenance of a state militia.

Since that horrible decision, federal circuit and federal district courts have ruled on dozens and dozens of cases in which gun control laws were challenged under the Second Amendment and they have consistently read the Second Amendment to protect a state’s right to preserve a militia and have it armed…  but not as an individual right to bear arms for private purposes unrelated to militia services.  So, while the militia theory of the Second Amendment, or collective rights theory of the Second Amendment, had only been vaguely mentioned by the Supreme Court in Miller, it had become the dominant law of the land in the federal courts in the 70 years prior to Heller.

In the meantime, scholars began to study the Second Amendment and its history.  Over the years, much historical, academic, scholarly material were collected which completely undermined the argument that the Second Amendment protected only a state’s right to preserve a militia and not an individual’s right to bear arms. Over the last 30 years there has been literally a tidal wave of scholarship looking into the original meaning and purpose of the Second Amendment.  The overwhelming majority of studies have sided with view that our Founders sought to protect the individual’s right to bear arms for self-defense.  And it was this new-found understanding and appreciation of the Second Amendment that guided the Court’s decision in Heller and then McDonald.

In February 2003, the six residents of Washington, D.C. filed a lawsuit in the District Court for the District of Columbia, challenging the constitutionality of provisions of the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975, a local law (part of the District of Columbia Code) enacted pursuant to District of Columbia home rule. This law restricted residents from owning handguns, excluding those grandfathered in by registration prior to 1975 and those possessed by active and retired law enforcement officers. The law also required that all firearms including rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.” A district court judge dismissed the lawsuit. The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, however reversed the dismissal and struck down provisions of the FCRA as unconstitutional. In 2008, the case (District of Columbia v. Heller) came before the Supreme Court.  The issue presented was whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.  The Court held that it does and as such, the DC ordinance which banned the possession of handguns in the home was struck down as an unconstitutional violation of a fundamental and essential individual right.

In 2009, 75-year-old Chicago resident Otis McDonald took the initiative to protect himself from the increased threat of crime in his neighborhood of Morgan Park. Since buying a house there in 1971, he watched as the neighborhood fell into the hands of gangs and drug dealers. His lawn was regularly littered with refuse and his home and garage had been broken into a combined five times, with the most recent robbery committed by a man McDonald recognized from his own neighborhood.  An experienced hunter, McDonald legally owned shotguns, but believed them too unwieldy in the event of a robbery, and wanted to purchase a handgun for personal home defense.  But he was unable to do so under Chicago’s city-wide gun ban. Pursuant to the ban, all handguns were prohibited (after 1982) and all firearms had to be registered. In 2008, he joined three other Chicago residents in filing a lawsuit challenging the ban as an unconstitutional violation of the Second Amendment.  The case (McDonald v. City of Chicago) was heard by the Supreme Court in 2009.

The question presented to the Court was whether the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is incorporated as against the States by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities or Due Process Clauses.  In other words, the Court was asked to determine whether the US Constitution protects the Second Amendment against infringement or violation by the States.  Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas answered in very strong terms that it does.

American Thinker gave an excellent presentation of the case: “The most important job of the government is the protection of its people. That protection involves their physical safety and the security of their property. It means providing police presence to deter criminals before they commit crimes and harsh penalties for offenders whose crimes were not deterred. The fact is that most crimes cannot be deterred because the bad guys don’t generally mug people in front of the officer on patrol. Since the police can’t be everywhere, people need a way to protect themselves.  And that was how Otis McDonald felt when he walked into a Chicago police station and applied for a .22-caliber pistol two years ago. As the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging Chicago’s 28-year handgun ban, McDonald was a sympathetic figure: an elderly man trying to protect himself from violent hoodlums preying upon his neighborhood.  He was also a neighborhood activist, proposing alternative policing strategies to make his neighborhood safer; his efforts earned him death threats from local gangs.”

The Supreme Court was given statistics from the Chicago Police Department which showed that the City’s handgun murder rate actually increased since the ban was enacted and that Chicago residents now face one of the highest murder rates in the country.  They were given statistics to show that guns increasingly end up in the hands of criminals, gang members, and others who are mal-intentioned.  It is also a statistical fact that legal gun owners are exponentially less likely to commit a crime.  Bob Weir, a former detective sergeant in the New York City Police offered his views on gun control laws: “We have often heard a scenario in which a law-abiding citizen, unable to wait for assistance any longer, took action against an intruder and lived to talk about it. One of the scariest scenes I can imagine is one in which I’m awakened in the middle of the night by strange sounds coming from another room of the house and I have no weapons to protect my family….  During my twenty years as a cop, I took a lot of guns off the bad guys, none of which were registered. How could they be? Bad guys aren’t allowed to have registered guns! Only good guys have that right. Hence, when you make gun possession illegal for the good guys, the bad guys will be the only ones with guns.”

It is also worth noting that in the weeks leading up to the decision, Chicago suffered a surge in gun violence, with between 26-55 shootings per week and many of them being fatalities.  Bob Weir commented: “We’ll never know if some of those lives would have been spared had the victims been armed. But one thing seems obvious: If the guys with illegal guns knew that the rest of the population was unarmed, they could kick down any door and have their way with the residents. The only thing stopping them now is the knowledge that many people have guns and are willing to use and capable of using them to protect their families. We’ve all heard tape recordings of people who dialed 911 as someone was breaking into their home only to be told that the police may be several minutes away.  In cases where the caller was armed, shots could be heard as the intruder gained entry and tried to attack the caller.”

Police will often joke that many street gangs are equipped with enough firearms to take on the Taliban. In New Jersey, a Trenton-area gang threatened war on the Trenton Police. They sent an anonymous letter to the Trenton Times warning that at the hour of their choosing, they would bomb the building. Eventually the Trenton police would uncover an incredible arsenal of weapons that the gang had compiled. No gun control law could have prevented that arsenal. Such laws only strengthen the black market. Furthermore, our law enforcement and criminal justice system has often proven inadequate to protect law-abiding citizens who become victims of crime and inadequate to disarm the thugs that roam freely throughout the country.

To make matters worse, the DC Court of Appeals had handed down a ruling in 1981 that should weigh heavily on anyone even contemplating giving up gun rights to the government. It held that a city has no legally enforceable duty to protect its citizens from crime. That case was Warren v. District of Columbia.  It involved three women who were living in a townhouse in DC. Under DC law at the time, they were forbidden not only to own handguns but also mace, pepper-spray, and other non-lethal tools of self-defense.  Late one evening in March 1975, two thugs broke into the townhouse and attacked the woman downstairs at the time. They began beating her and then raped here. The other two women, hearing the struggle, called 911 and were told that police were being sent.  As the transcript later showed, the dispatcher reported only that there was a domestic disturbance. The squad car that responded simply drove past the residence, didn’t observe any sign of a disturbance, and drove on his way. The women upstairs then called 911 again and were again told that help was on its way. This time, the dispatcher didn’t even bother to send out a radio call.  Believing their friend was dying, the women called down to the intruders, telling them that “Police are on their way!” Instead of fleeing, the thugs went upstairs and forced the women at knifepoint to the apartment below.  For the next 14 hours, the three women were held captive, raped repeatedly, beaten, abused, and forced to commit sex acts upon one another for the intruders’ entertainment. Luckily, the women were spared their lives.

The women sued the District of Columbia for failing to provide police assistance and lost. The DC Court of Appeals agreed and ruled that the city had no legal duty to protect its citizens, even when its employees have given assurances that help would be provided.  Under the ruling, the government is free from responsibility in protecting its citizens even as it is also free to ensure that they cannot protect themselves either.

The Heller and McDonald cases have undermined the government in one aspect of theWarren decision. The government cannot prevent law-abiding citizens from exercising their right to keep and bear arms for self-protection. The Supreme Court, in those cases, held that the right to own a gun (bear arms) is a fundamental right, one that is firmly rooted in our history and heritage, and as such, citizens cannot be denied this right by the federal government or by any State. But we are standing on the precipice of putting the government back in the exact position it was under Warren – absolved from responsibility to protect us and free to prevent us from protecting ourselves.

But permitting the government to condition, qualify, and regulate the right of self-defense will put the power back in the hands of criminals, will put law-abiding citizens at risk, and will set the country on the same path of government gun control that has defined the tyrannical regimes of Europe, Asia, and Africa.  The bottom line is that the measures are unconstitutional and the power to stand up to such unconstitutional measures lies with the States and with each state and local elected official and state and local civil servant who has taken a solemn vow to support and defend the US Constitution.  Unfortunately, as John F. Kennedy once said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The American people are not going to stand by peacefully and allow their right of self-defense to be eroded. Government must serve the rights of the people.

References:
Tennessee SB0250 –  http://legiscan.com/TN/text/SB0250

Michael Maharrey, National Communications Director for the Tenth Amendment Center, addresses the arguments made by Tennessee Robert Cooper in his brief against SB0250 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65o_vo8nUIU

The Intent of the Second Amendment –  http://constitution.org/leglrkba.htm

Federalist No. 45 –  http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa45.htm

Federalist No. 78 –  http://www.constitution.org/fed/federa78.htm

Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803)

Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958)

Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 373 (1856)

McDonald v. City of Chicago, 153 U.S. 535 (Oct. 2009)

District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. __ (2008)

Warren v. District of Columbia (444 A.2d. 1, D.C. Ct. of Ap. 1981)

Bob Weir, “Thanks to Otis McDonald and the Supremes,” American Thinker, July 3, 2010.

James Madison: Report on the Virginia Resolutions  (Jan. 1800)  –  http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch8s42.html

Thomas Jefferson: Resolutions Relative to the Alien & Sedition Act (November 10, 1798) –http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch8s41.html

The Legal and Historical Roots of  the Second Amendment (video) –http://www.secondamendmentdocumentary.com/

The Police Have No Legal Duty to Protect Its Citizens (from the legal documentary “In Search of the Second Amendment”) –  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb3rAglRsqU

Alo Konsen, “The Second Amendment Definition of ‘Arms’,” 2003.  Referenced at:http://brainshavings.com/the-right-to-keep-and-bear-what/

Publius Huldah explains why federal gun control laws are unconstitutional –http://publiushuldah.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/publius-huldah-shows-federal-gun-control-is-unlawful/

“Obama Gun Control Ban: Confiscate Firearms, NRA Claims,” Newsday New York, January 23, 2013.  Referenced at:   http://newyork.newsday.com/news/nation/obama-gun-control-plan-seize-firearms-nra-claims-1.4697883

“Here are Obama’s 23 Executive Orders,” Forbes, January 16, 2013 –  http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/01/16/here-are-the-23-executive-orders-on-gun-safety-signed-today-by-the-president/

The 23 Gun Violence Reduction Executive Actions:

1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.

2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.

3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.

4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.

5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.

6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.

7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign

8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).

9. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.

10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make itwidely available to law enforcement.

11. Nominate an ATF director.

12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.

13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.

14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

15. Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effectiveuse of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to developinnovative technologies.

16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.

17. Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.

18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.

19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.

20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.

21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.

22. Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations.

23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.

Reference:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/01/16/here-are-the-23-executive-orders-on-gun-safety-signed-today-by-the-president/