by Kevin R.C. Gutzman
Editor’s Note: Bill of Rights Day is Tuesday, December 15th. But as Kevin Gutzman points out in this article, it’s not a day of celebration. Instead, it should be a day of mourning for the death of decentralized self-government.
Although the majority made mention of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment,” no one really believed that this new right had any basis in the Constitution. The Court majority claimed that its decision reflected a new societal consensus, despite the fact that six states and, as it turned out, Congress recently had adopted legislation providing capital punishment for certain child rapists. The dissenting justices said that the actual basis of the Kennedy decision was “the Court’s ‘own judgment’ regarding ‘the acceptability of the death penalty,’” but the majority opinion made clear that the Court simply differed with the people’s representatives on the question how significant rape of a child is.
In other words, the justices substituted their legislative will for that of elected legislators. Alas, there was nothing unusual about this. Kennedy v. Louisiana illustrates what has come of the Bill of Rights in our day.
The Bill of Rights should be mourned, not celebrated. It is defunct. Intended as the bulwark of the right of decentralized self-government, it now serves mainly as an excuse for the opposite: a roving judicial veto of state policies that federal judges dislike.
So, if the people of virtually every state ban flag burning or regulate abortion, provide capital punishment or support prayer in school, that does not settle the matter. Unlike 200 or 100 years ago, today the federal judiciary is apt to step in to stop state legislatures from adopting policies like this.
The people never consented to have the federal judges behave this way.
The purpose of the first ten amendments was laid out clearly by their Preamble. “Preamble?” You might ask. “What preamble?” Although the main body of the Constitution is never published without its Preamble, one could study American history for a lifetime without ever encountering the Preamble to the Bill of Rights.
That Preamble says that Congress is recommending amendments to the states because a number of states in ratifying the Constitution “expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.” Since the people were afraid of the new Federal Government, that is, the Bill of Rights was being added to hedge in the powers of the Federal Government more carefully.
So, for example, the Tenth Amendment stated what Thomas Jefferson called the underlying principle of the entire Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” In other words, the Constitution gave the Federal Government a few enumerated powers, and those were all.
That is why the First Amendment begins by saying that, “Congress shall make no law.” Congress, not government generally. The point was to leave such questions in the hands of elected state legislators.
America’s Revolution was fought and won in the name of self-government via elections to state legislatures. King George III and Parliament insisted that those legislatures could legislate only when and as far-off officials essentially unaccountable to American colonists said they could. The Americans rejected that idea. In fact, rejecting that idea was what made Britain’s North American colonists into Americans.
No surprise, then, that six years after the Revolution ended, in the First Congress, the people insisted that the principle of local self-government — of federalism — be made explicit through the Tenth Amendment and the other nine. They wanted explicit statements that the distant new Congress could not violate Americans’ most cherished rights — rights the king and Parliament had repeatedly infringed.
This was an uncontroversial understanding of things in the Constitution’s first century and more. The Supreme Court unanimously said in 1833 and thereafter that the Bill of Rights was a limitation solely on the Federal Government.
But the 20th century saw a great change. The Progressives of the early part of the century opposed constitutional limitations on government power generally, and the New Deal of the 1930s stood for the elimination of the Tenth Amendment from constitutional law. Congress’s power is essentially unlimited today, and federal courts have come to supervise virtually all state policies — essentially on the basis of federal judges’ policy preferences.
No one today even pretends that the Bill of Rights serves its intended purpose of restraining the Federal Government. Quite the opposite. And the death of decentralized, election-based government is entirely lamentable.
Kevin R. C. Gutzman, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at Western Connecticut State University, is the author of Virginia’s American Revolution: From Dominion to Republic, 1776–1840 and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Constitution. He is also the co-author, with Thomas E. Woods, Jr., of Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to Barack Obama. His upcoming book, James Madison and the Making of America, will be published by St. Martin’s early in 2011.