Scott Rasmussen: Our rights go back much farther than Constitution

Too many Americans seem to believe our constitutional rights were created by a bunch of men in powdered wigs during the 18th century. In truth, the rights we cherish as Americans go back many centuries before that.

The difference is vitally important.

If it were true that the Founding Fathers made up our rights in the 1780s and ’90s, it would be reasonable to ask why we should pay any attention to them today. The world is much different now than it was when George Washington walked the earth. Why should their perspective matter? And, smart as the Founders were, who’s to say they were any smarter than today’s political leaders?

But that’s not the way it happened.

The rights we have as Americans were developed over centuries of pragmatic experimentation. As such, they are worthy of tremendous respect.

For example, freedom of religion grew out of a time when the king or queen could declare an official religion for their nation. Those subjects who didn’t adhere to the official religion could be put to death. This became especially troublesome when a Catholic monarch was replaced by a Protestant monarch (or vice versa). Everybody in the nation had to either change their stated beliefs or risk being burned at the stake.

It took a long time, but eventually English leaders figured out it was better for everybody if the government stayed out of defining what people should believe. That’s something we have the right to do for ourselves. We are fortunate that the Founders included this bit of wisdom in the Bill of Rights.

Freedom of the press had a colonial twist. A governor of New York appointed by the English king was so unpopular that he inspired America’s first alternative newspaper. Under British law, it was illegal to publish such negative comments about a government official. Truth was not a defense.

The publisher was arrested and put on trial. Fortunately, the English system also had developed a safety valve known as trial by jury. Even though the law was clear, the jury felt differently and refused to convict the publisher. Over the next few decades, the concept that everyone should be free to criticize the government became a core ideal in the American colonies (and one that we enjoy quite freely today).

The point is, our Founding Fathers did not make up the rights we enjoy today. They wrote down some fundamental guidelines that had been developed through the arduous process of trial and error.

Today, of course, the policy details are vastly different. One recent example is the issue of the NSA spying on American citizens. That’s something the founding generation never could have anticipated. But the fundamental principles still apply. The notion that government cannot search and seize our property without a warrant is just as relevant today as it was when the Fourth Amendment was ratified.

The “unalienable rights” deserve our respect — and the respect of our government — not because they were written by Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, but because they represent the wisdom of the ages.


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