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What kind of guy did the Founders have in mind when they hammered out the Bill of Rights? Let’s call him Nathaniel. First, Nathaniel was a man of conscience and that was his primary concern in constructing a new political order. The first set of items in the list of enumerated rights bars the government from infringing on his right to live and express his most cherished beliefs. It also means that there can be no governmental attempt to impose beliefs nor mandate deference to such. The right to speak out, to publish, the right to organize, to petition all flow from the inherent right to live and speak the truth as whatever Nathaniel understood it to be and which relationship with these truths provided him with meaning and purpose.
Second, Nathaniel believed he had a moral duty to protect his family, his property, his neighbors, and his community. He retained arms to discharge that obligation. His gun was not a hobby nor some arbitrary possession but a fundamental component in a morally defined life.
The next two items naturally follow a requirement of his property and person. The four after that deal with the application of law in accordance with the rights and dignity to which he is entitled. That last two simply declare that those in power should not try to circumvent these basic rights by inventing new instruments of power and authority–Nathaniel does not trust those with political power not to try something like that.
On top of it all was an assumption of personal agency. Nathanial would be responsible for making his own living and managing his property and assets in a prudent manner. Women, children, the indentured, and the enslaved bore no such scope of responsibilities and were thus dependent on some guy like Nathaniel to do the right thing where they were concerned.
However, as a matter of logic and moral intuition, the concept of natural rights could not be conditioned on agency, existing empowerment, or on any status other than the common humanity in which our rights inhere. The essence of the Bill of Rights has inexorably (if slowly) brushed aside limitations on its applicability. It reached out to include white men without property, freed black men, and eventually women. Like some tectonic plates not allowed to move until the force builds up to cause an earthquake, the delay in ending slavery inevitably led to a violent rupture. The American moral essence would not be suppressed.
Racism, sexism, and elitism were external constraints on the unfolding of the essential nature of the American Project. Reversing that obvious truth to proclaim that the “-isms” comprise the essence and that liberty and natural rights are an illusion or façade requires a serious personal commitment to malicious ignorance.
But what if instead of Nathaniel we have a guy with no moral depth or referents? What if that guy wanted security more than freedom, a freedom for which he has no use because he has no compelling moral vision to live out? What if he came to experience a personal emptiness, a lack of direction, a terror at being unable to understand or define himself and thus readily adopted the tenets of whatever cult came along and let that define and contain him? What if he came to view notions like self-reliance, public debate, duty, and honor as threatening rather than ennobling? What if his goal was to obtain material security and comforts while simultaneously pawning off as much responsibility as possible on the collective? What if his moral appetites consisted solely of attempts to achieve identity and moral satisfaction through ideological gestures and cost-free cant?
In other words, if instead of a country typified by old Nathaniel we are instead a bunch of Holden Caulfields, Raskolnikovs, or hordes of the Woke would we still have a Bill of Rights? Or would the whole constitutional order disappear simply because we no longer want what it was designed to protect and preserve?Published in