Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Christine O'Donnell, Constitutional Scholar

 Usually, I don't like to highlight gaffes of politicians. They are human like the rest of us, but six minutes into this video, Christine O'Donnell proves:
  • she has never read or studied the constitution or history of these United States with any depth
  • she is not being briefed or handled by anyone competent enough to prevent her from appearing to be a political novice.
We all make mistakes. But not knowing the content of the first amendment and running for the United States Senate are not phrases that should ever exist in the same sentence. In reality, Senate candidates when discussing religion should be intelligent enough, and historically grounded enough to understand the skepticism with which the Founding Fathers viewed organized (especially state based) religion, their embrace of Deism, and their defense of secular reason as the sine qua non of government.  Someone should ask Christine O'Donnell if she has read "The Age of Reason", the consummate Deist commentary subscribed to by many if not most of the Founding Fathers. So terrible was the fear of state based religion and persecution by a theocratic state, that the founding fathers attempted to excise the possibility of state based religion from our constitution:
[text of the First Amendment]:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Thomas Paine's exceptionally popular treatise (The Age of Reason)  made clear the fear that most American's had of state based religion during the colonial period:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish Church, by the Roman Church, by the Greek Church, by the Turkish Church, by the Protestant Church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

There is no secret from whence such fears were derived. Our country rebelled in part against the concept of "divine right kings" who believed they derived their rule of law from God. Paine himself would wind up in jail for blasphemy in France for publishing the third volume of the The Age of Reason, rescued from death only by luck and the intercession of James Monroe. For those who have forgotten their European history, "blasphemy" was a sentence that literally silenced dissent for hundreds of years. Thus, the Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document because it insisted that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..."  In effect, Jefferson made the Declaration  more revolutionary and emphatically secular by capitalizing the word "Men", making it clear to all the world that democracy depended on "powers from the consent of the governed" not tyrannical or "divine right kingship":
"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."
In the recent  the Heller decision, Justice Scalia gave a brief but excellent historical background to the primacy of the first and second amendments. He also demonstrates how state based religion was used as an excuse to disarm the governed:
 "Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents. See J. Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms 31–53 (1994) (hereinafter Malcolm); L. Schwoerer, The Declaration of Rights, 1689, p. 76 (1981). Under the auspices of the 1671 Game Act, for example, the Catholic James II had ordered general disarmaments of regions home to his Protestant enemies. See Malcolm 103–106. These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed...
   And, of course, what the Stuarts had tried to do to their political enemies, George III had tried to do to the colonists. In the tumultuous decades of the 1760’s and 1770’s, the Crown began to disarm the inhabitants of the most rebellious areas. That provoked polemical reactions by Americans invoking their rights as Englishmen to keep arms. A New York article of April 1769 said that “[i]t is a natural right which the people have reserved to themselves, confirmed by the Bill of Rights, to keep arms for their own defence.” A Journal of the Times: Mar. 17, New York Journal, Supp. 1, Apr. 13, 1769, in Boston Under Military Rule 79 (O. Dickerson ed. 1936); see also, e.g., Shippen, Boston Gazette, Jan. 30, 1769, in 1 The Writings of Samuel Adams 299 (H. Cushing ed. 1968). They understood the right to enable individuals to defend themselves..."
The Founding Fathers drafted the The Bill of Rights motivated in part by fear: fear of tyranny, the monarchy, and organized religion. They legislated "unalienable rights" to the governed because they feared persecution and corruption of their state by a government which would assume power cloaked in the mantles of monarchy and god. They and their ancestors had first hand experience with such persecution. Let us hope Ms. O'Donnell gets a chance to read up on some of this if and when she becomes a member of the United States Senate.

[I dedicate this blog post to my father, Barry F. Ferris, who taught American history in Oakland, California for over thirty years. He also made sure all of his students, his children and and other members of his family understood the value of the Founding Fathers, The Declaration of Independence,The Bill of Rights and the complex relationships between the men who drafted our Constitution.]

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