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Honoring Bill of Rights Day

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson's picture

Dec. 15 is Bill of Rights Day. This year is the 219th anniversary of the adoption of the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution—the Bill of Rights.

Few Americans notice Bill of Rights Day. That isn’t surprising, since we have done such a poor job of upholding and abiding by its provisions. (From my perspective, only the Third Amendment is completely intact, while the Seventh, Ninth, and 10th have been most completely ignored. Check them out for yourself.)

Rather than debate individual amendments, let’s consider a more fundamental problem: We poorly understand the elementary concept of rights.

Many Americans, both conservative and liberal, further cloud the issue by asserting that responsibilities frequently eclipse rights. We need a correct understanding of both rights and responsibilities.

To the founders, government’s sole legitimate purpose is to protect our rights. The Declaration of Independence specifies two essential points we need to understand about our rights: 1) They are God-given; 2) they are inalienable.

Divine authority is a stumbling block for some Americans, but it is the second point that is the immediate issue.

That our basic rights are inalienable means, simply and unequivocally: No person or group of persons, including government, is justified (or authorized: see the Fifth Amendment) in trespassing upon anyone’s rights — that is, in taking life, liberty or property from another — except via due process of law as a penalty for having harmed or violated someone else’s life, liberty, or property.

One person’s rights end where another person’s rights begin. Nobody’s rights trump anyone else’s.

The clear understanding of our fundamental rights has eroded over the decades. The property right has suffered the greatest damage.

Under the influence of progressive/socialist ideas, the traditional American negative right to NOT have somebody take one’s property has been corrupted and inverted into a positive premise. Now, people often claim a “right” to have certain things.

One of the most famous examples of this inverted concept of rights was President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “Economic Bill of Rights.” In 1944, FDR asserted that Americans had a “right to a useful and remunerative job,” “a decent home,” “adequate medical care,” “a good education,” etc.

Nobody objects to decent jobs, homes, healthcare, and education, but these good things can’t be “rights.” If one person has a legal right to have a home, then other people must be compelled to provide that home. That would violate those citizens’ rights to their own liberty and property.

In other words, “rights” in FDR’s sense negates “rights” in the founders’ sense. (This is ironic, since it was FDR who instituted Bill of Rights Day in 1941.) Rights = no rights, a self-evident absurdity.

Critics assert that we have become too “rights-centered” and that we need to strike a balance between rights and responsibilities. This argument is inaccurate and misleading.

First, our Republic has always been rights-centered — after all, we have a Bill of Rights, not a Bill of Responsibilities.

Second, no mature adult denies that we have responsibilities. In fact, responsibilities are implicitly inherent in the rights-based vision of our founders.

Citizens have at least three primary responsibilities in our constitutional, rights-based order: First, to respect the rights of others (first, do no harm); second, to provide for self and dependents (since nobody has a right to anyone else’s property); third, to find a way to render something of economic value to others in the social division of labor as the means to be self-supporting.

But don’t we have a responsibility to help those who are in need? Yes, we who are in the Judeo-Christian tradition have a responsibility to extend charity to those who are incapable of helping themselves. This, however, is a moral responsibility, not a legal one. We are accountable to God, not to government, for our good works.

It makes no sense to say that those who work hard, are productive, and have savings, have a responsibility to provide for those who shirked that very same responsibility to provide for themselves.

That position denies the premise that we all share the same responsibilities. It is to maintain that some competent adults have responsibilities and others don’t — analogous to the earlier point that spurious “rights” override the true rights of others.

The traditional American credo is that we all have equal rights and responsibilities. Progressives and other social engineers, by contrast, believe that government should decide whose “rights” and “responsibilities” receive privileged treatment.

Which side of the fence are you on?

Hail to the Bill of Rights! May we always honor and uphold it.

[Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values ( at Grove City Penn.) College.]


PTC Observer's picture

a brilliant columnist.

Observerofu's picture

Excellent article.

Totally irrelevant however to our Government. They are the creator of Rights at least that is their opinion.

"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt"
-Samuel Adams
Illegitimi non carborundum

I am a person who was fired for refusing to be stripped totally naked for a random drug test. Others had been stripped prior to me to extent of dropping underwear bend over and spread cheeks, lift scrotum strip search. The drug test paper work was marked random by the collector. I was also detained against my will and wishes for over an hour inside a fenced in razor wired armed security facility(power plant).After I had been fired and instructed them to mail my check. I even had guard unsnap pistol strap and place hand on gun ready to draw when I dared to stand up for my civil rights.Threatening implied deadly force for me standing up for my rights. I have a long history of clean drug test.I even tried to take drug test at my local hospital at 4 a.m. when I arrived back to my home town...Approx 3 hours after I got released from plant security.Was staying in hotel to work away from home. I also filed grievance and won for procedure violation of drug test. I had to fight to get my being barred from plant for life for not stripping(they called it refusal to comply with company policy) and my one year barring from contractor. I got a clean layoff out of grievance. Ironiacly I am told I am not life time barred from power plant(plus other company plants) yet no one will give me that in writing. The states Attorney for the county seems to have no interest in pressing criminal charges...The law for unlawful detainment for the state this happened in is very simple and clear. To hold someone against their will....end of definition. I definately feel tax dollars from a corporation to county is out waying my rights...go figure another corporation violating rights and breaking laws

This shows that corporate feudalism is incompatible with civil liberties. True democracy begins in the work place. Society is only partially democratic so long as the rich and powerful are able to buy out public officials and make arbitrary rules for us to follow in the name of 'company policy', both of which happened in your case. You have both my sympathy and my admiration for insisting on your rights within as well as outside the work place!

Ian Elliott

I appreciate your compassionate ending to your post. There are men other then me who have been traumatized by this. I know anyone can think whatever to that comment. I am sure someone will some how minimize what happened to us. Some how justify the company action and minmizing our rights. My body is my property. I am owned by no one. Corporations have treaded into video taping employees,searching their lockers,desk, etc. Claiming property ownership. In ways I can see that. To me it would be reasonable to assume an employer would search a desk they provided for you. That is a reasonable assumption in my opinion. When It comes to my person. I was born free, my deceased father fought for my freedom in Korea. I was also given the guarentee of my liberty in the constitution. I also know how to write to U.S. Senators also. I may not have the money like this corporation. What I have is a I don't care who I have to call, what I have to do in court, whatever it takes to right this wrong. Including explaining to the Senator that Homeland Security has guidlines for TSA searches. Including not strip searching atleast not in the pyshical sense.Although I would contend that body scanners push the strip search edge. Ironiacly Homeland Security has laws in place regarding power plants and refineries. I have specifically put that fact to my Senator. The state I reside in goes by federal DOT drug test standards. No where in the DOT does it allow for a visual cavity strip search. I have asked him to look into the matter. I have also asked him to propose legislation allowing management to be charged with crimes if laws are broken. If you agree with this stand I ask you contact your Senator or Senator Durbins office voicing support for my cause. You are correct democracy starts in the work place..The Civil War was first test of that idea since war was fought to end slavery.Please don't take that out of context. It goes to the point an Employer is not a slave owner. Be it Civil War time or in America now. We as Americans are born free.

The American Constitution has the answers,(not this commentator) its stated purpose was to: “provide for the common defense”, as well as “promote the general welfare”. The primary protector of this fundamental change in the purpose of government is federal power and the right of the people through their government to promote the economy through the clear mandates of the Constitution including Article 14 (which is cited for the “Equal Protection Clause”, the “Due Process Clause”) and Article 1 Section 8, Clause 3. (Cited as the “Commerce Clause”) These tools allocated power to the federal government for the benefit of all the people.

This is the common legacy of both Democrats and Republicans and has become part of our American Creed.
The ultra conservatives in their "property worship" ignore equal protection, promote the general welfare and the commerce clause and seem desire a return to the pre civil war era where states and local economic dictators held sway. On the left are those who would bury all private property killing all economic freedom, but the legacy and truth is clearly in the middle.

Our unifying principles include E Pluribus Unum. “Out of Many One” and “in God we Trust”all which argue for a firm middle course rejecting the extremes of the left and the right. We all want change, but rejecting extremism is the path which means "regulation".

Not only can you not kill your neighbor you are not allowed to watch him starve while you enjoy all the riches because the protections afforded by the Constitution imply your ownership impinges on his lack of ability to own. Your property certainly should not be seized, but neither should you not be taxed and regulated in its use.


That sounds nice on paper but it runs into difficulties in practice. Suppose I steal property from someone by violence, and then sell it later on to someone else? To whom does that property belong? If you say, to the original owner, then consider an extended scenario. B steals A's property and sells it to C. Later C sells it to D. Meanwhile A has died but his heir shows up in court and claims the property from D. How is this to be adjudicated without committing theft on one side or the other? Who has the inalienable right to that property? If you say, the heir, then you must be in favor of restoring all ancestral lands to the extant tribal organizations of native Americans who can prove a legitimate claim to them. If you wish to establish an historical baseline defining property as occurring after the land has passed into the hands of white people, then your definition of property includes the concept of theft and Proudhon is right in your case, property is theft. Adjudication of stolen property in this case must take into account values other than the single one of inalienable property rights, unless we want large portions of America given back to the Indians. We must settle the matter in terms of social justice. But that is exactly what socialists want to do with property in general. Too few people have gotten hold of too much property and too many people live in poverty and have next to nothing. This too is theft and cries out for adjudication.

Ian Elliott

What is this person talking about? It certainly is not the Bill of Rights enumerated in the United States Constitution.

By the fourth paragraph he is talking about responsibilities which are not mentioned in The Bill of Rights and philosophically are not, in my opinion, necessarily in juxtaposition with rights that are included in the Bill of Rights.

Not being able to find enough majesty in the Bill of Rights, Dr. Mark turns to The Declaration of Independence and paraphrases from that wonderful and courageous missive.

What Dr. Mark wants to write about is property. Property is mentioned in the Bill of Right in Amendment V and is discussed in that amendment both in terms of removal after “due process of law,” and “taken for public use,” after just compensation. An individual can be stripped of property as a fine for an infraction of law; (This is confirmed in Amendment VIII,) or for eminent domain accompanied by fair payment.

Dr. Mark laments, “The property right has suffered the greatest damage.” What property right is he talking about? Doctor, it is not there; you are making this up. Time and again Dr. Mark mentions property.

Then he talks of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Forgive me but this is a real stretch from a discussion of the Bill of Rights. Dr. Mark then talks of, “the influence of the progressive/socialist ideas,” this too is scathingly uncircumspect.

After reading this poorly written, choppy, pretentious essay I am left wondering if Dr. Mark has ever read the Bill of Rights.

PTC Observer's picture

This is a great post and well thought out, I will have some comments later.

PTC Observer's picture

Mr. Kerr, assuming that your complaint against the good doctor is more about substance than style; I will attempt to take on the only question you pose in your excellent rebuttal.

“Dr. Mark laments, “The property right has suffered the greatest damage.” What property right is he talking about? Doctor, it is not there; you are making this up.”

Assuming you have read Blackstone’s “Rights of Englishmen” the legal foundation of the U.S. Constitution, the right to property is explicit and the role of government is to act as a legal shield to protect arbitrary seizure of property by individuals but more specifically by the government. This is the reason that the exceptions are explicit in the Constitution. The Founders had no intention to allow these exceptions to be expanded by the Congress or the courts. Read “Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution” by M.E. Bradford for more background on this claim.

Clearly, the expansion of the “right” of government to seize property has been continual and unrelenting since the ratification of the Constitution. This is especially true in the 20th Century with the passage of Congressional laws setting up bureaucracies that are largely unaccountable to the legislature. This system has been buttressed by judicial rulings that give regulatory agencies “great deference” in carrying out their mandates. The only problem is that these mandates are trampling on the rights of citizens. The transfer of power to this administrative “state” continues and it is reminiscent of the German Reichstag’s Enabling Act of 1933 that lead to the takeover of the German government by the National Socialists. This gave the executive, Hitler, complete power over enforcing administrative law. Read “Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945” by Jeremy Noakes. To the point, representative self rule ceases to exist when bureaucracies make law.

So, an example now of how the government is violating the intent of the Constitution as it relates to property. Property is defined as tangible assets that are earned through honest individual labor, these include but are not limited to cash, investments in bonds, business, homes and commercial paper. The Comprehensive Forfeiture Act, passed in 1984, allows police to confiscate property on “probable cause”, this is the same standard as asking a judge for a search warrant. It places the citizen or business in the position of being guilty and they must prove their innocence before they can get their property back. Naturally, much of their property could be seized by government, so they must do this without assets. The American Bar Association has been trying for years to overturn this abuse of power by government. In fact, the government can charge you Mr. Kerr with a simple phone call from a person that simply doesn’t like you. A person could anonymously call the police and say that you are dealing drugs from out of your home. This is “probable cause” and if any amount of illegal drugs are found in your home, even if you didn’t know that they were there, your home and all your assets can be seized.

This is just one example of how government has the power to take your property, and even if the court finds you innocent, you will still have a very hard time getting your property back. Now knowing this, do you feel safe? Do you believe that government is protecting your property? Of course not, who would? Having lost the law by turning it over to the bureaucracy, we have acquired tyranny. There are many, many more examples of this but I think I have made my point.

No, I am not making this up. I stand ready to give you another example, and another, and another.

Its Thursday AM. Will respond probably this evening. I am jammed.
David Kerr

Observerofu's picture

of Government seizing property for the betterment of Government.

Excellent post PTO.

"Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt"
-Samuel Adams
Illegitimi non carborundum

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