The following is a non-verbatim transcript of a speech delivered by Jacob Hornberger at the Virginia Campaign for Liberty’s Liberty Fest in Richmond, Virginia, on September 18, 2010.
Ever since the dawn of recorded history, people’s minds have been inculcated with the notion that government is the master and the people are the servants. Hardly anyone, for example, has questioned the notion that government officials have the legitimate authority to manage the economy, or direct the education of people’s children, or to control religious activity, or to decide what people can read or watch. It’s just been commonly accepted that government officials can do whatever they want, especially in the best interests of society, and that it is the role of the good, little, model citizen to submit and obey in the service of the greater good of society.
Then one day in 1776 along came a Virginian named Thomas Jefferson who issued a declaration that set that age-old notion on its head. Jefferson suggested in the Declaration of Independence that people had had it all wrong. It’s the people who are masters and it is government that is the servant.
Every person, Jefferson said, has been endowed with certain fundamental, inherent rights. These rights don’t come from government and, therefore, people don’t need to be beholden to government for them. People’s rights are endowed in them by nature and God.
What is the role of government? Jefferson observed that people call government into existence for the sole purpose of protecting the exercise of these natural, God-given rights.
And when government becomes destructive of this end — when it infringes upon or destroys people’s rights, the people have the right to ditch the government — alter or even abolish it and replace it with a government that is limited to its rightful role of servant whose job is to protect the exercise of people’s rights.
The Declaration was the most radical political statement in history. It not only rattled government officials of that time, it continues to do so even today, especially those government officials who are unable to accept the notion that they are mere servants and that the citizenry are their masters.
Eleven years later, another Virginian, James Madison, crafted the Constitution, with the aim of calling a new federal government into existence to replace the weak central government under which the American people had been operating under the Articles of Confederation.
However, Americans didn’t want to have anything to do with this new government. They simply didn’t trust it. They knew history, especially the history of the English government. They knew that a strong central government inevitably would become the biggest danger to the freedom and well-being of the people.
Madison and the Framers responded that the Constitution would prevent the government from becoming powerful and tyrannical. Since we the people are calling this government into existence as our servant, Madison said, we set the conditions under which it will operate. And one of the conditions is that the powers of the federal government would be limited to those enumerated in the Constitution. If a power wasn’t enumerated, government officials would be precluded from exercising it.
It was an audacious experiment. People around the world were shocked that citizens were actually limiting the powers of their very own government officials. But actually it was an idea that stretched far back into British history — all the way back, in fact, to the year 1215. That was when the barons of England held their own king, King John, at the point of a sword and forced him to publicly acknowledge that his powers over the people were limited.
In fact, it was in Magna Carta — the Great Charter — that the phrase “due process of law” originates — a phrase that many centuries later would find its way into the Fifth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The American people were finally persuaded to go along with the new federal government, but only on one condition — that a Bill of Rights be enacted immediately after the federal government came into existence, one that would expressly protect important fundamental rights of the people from their very own government.
The Framers responded that that was unnecessary. Since the limited, enumerated powers that were being delegated to the federal government did not include the powers to infringe on the fundamental rights of the people, such powers couldn’t be exercised. For example, since there was no power to interfere with freedom of speech or freedom of religion, the government had no lawful authority to do so.
That assurance wasn’t good enough for the American people, however. They knew that the federal government, like all governments in history, would inevitably attract power lusters who would be tempted to break out of the limits of the enumerated-powers doctrine, zealously doing whatever they wanted for the greater good of society.
The American people insisted on passage of the Bill of Rights, which really should have been called a Bill of Prohibitions because it doesn’t really grant anyone any rights, as many federal officials today suggest. People’s rights don’t come from the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. They come from nature and God. That is, even if there wasn’t a Bill of Rights or a Constitution, people would still have such inherent rights as freedom of speech and the keeping and bearing of arms.
The Bill of Rights prohibits government officials from interfering with people’s preexisting rights. The First and the Second Amendments guarantee that federal officials will not infringe upon such fundamental rights as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to keep and bear arms.
The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments protect people from the most tyrannical power of all — the power of the government to arbitrarily seized a person, cart him off to the Tower of London or other facility, torture him, even execute him without any due process of law, trial by jury, or other judicial review. The civil liberties in these Amendments were carved out in centuries of resistance by the British people against the tyranny of their own government.
Some people warned that the power lusters in Washington would claim that the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights were all the rights that people had. That was the purpose of the Ninth Amendment. It says that simply because the Bill of Rights names certain rights, that doesn’t mean that the people don’t have other rights. The list is not all-inclusive.
To make certain that all future power lusters in the government got the point, the people enacted the Tenth Amendment. It says that all the powers that exist in addition to the enumerated powers being delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are reserved to the people and to the states.
So, the federal government was designed to be a weak government with few, enumerated powers. To make it even weaker, it was divided into three branches, each with its own delegated powers.
Moreover, the federal system established by the Constitution ensured that state governments would have jurisdiction over their respective geographical areas. And even that wasn’t good enough for the American people. They enacted bills of rights at the state level to ensure themselves against the prospect of tyranny by their own state governments.
Now, we all know that there were severe violations of the principles of freedom in this new society. Slavery was the most horrific. There were also tariffs and many minor violations, especially at the state level, including subsidies to the railroads and other businesses.
But the practical significance of the Declaration and the Constitution is that a very large percentage of the populace experienced the most unusual — and the freest — society in history.
Imagine: A society with no income taxation or IRS — people were free to keep everything they earned and there wasn’t anything the government could do about it. No Social Security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no welfare, no systems of public (i.e., government) schooling, no drug laws, no immigration controls, no Federal Reserve, no legal-tender laws, few economic regulations, no gun control, no torture, no huge standing army or military-industrial complex, no going abroad in search of monsters to destroy or to spread democracy with bombs, missiles, and bullets.
What was the result of this unusual society? Only the most prosperous nation that mankind had ever seen! When people were free to accumulate wealth, massive amounts of savings and capital came into existence, making workers increasingly productive. The reason that thousands of penniless immigrants were flooding American shores every day was because they not only had a chance to survive, for the first time in history they had the chance to become wealthy. People were going from rags to riches in one, two, or three generations.
It was also the most charitable nation in history. When people were free to accumulate wealth, they voluntarily gave large portions of it away. That was how the opera houses, museums, hospitals, universities, and lots of other things got built.
All of this should give you a clue as to why today our nation, which has embraced all of those things, finds itself in the depths of despair. Americans have rendered under Caesar the things that belong to God, especially in the area of voluntary charity and the moral duty that people have to honor their parents and to care for others.
As our ancestors learned in 1861, a nation that violates its founding principles of liberty will reap the whirlwind. And that is precisely what is happening today — with out of control federal spending, out of control debt, hyperinflation on the horizon, torture, perpetual war, perpetual crisis, perpetual chaos, and perpetual and ever-growing infringements on the fundamental rights of the people.
That’s the price Americans are paying for their abandonment of the principles of liberty on which our nation was founded through their embrace of socialism, interventionism, imperialism, and statism.
Can the tide be reversed? Of course it can. If the statists could import statism to our land, we can certainly export it out of here.
But what it will require is a renewed passion for the free society and a deep understanding of the importance of free will and freedom of choice to a society, along with an appreciation for the operations of a free market.
It will also require a belief in ourselves and, equally important, a belief in others.
Perhaps most important, it requires replacing the faith that people have placed in the federal government, especially in the area of charity, with an exclusive faith in God to help people confront the hardships and travails that people periodically encounter in the journey from birth to death.
Can we succeed?
That’s where you come in. You are this era’s George Washingtons, the Thomas Jeffersons, the John Adams, the Patrick Henrys. You are Virginians. You have a legacy of liberty. You are perfectly positioned to lead our nation out of this statist morass.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote that wherever there was liberty, that was his country.
Thomas Paine responded that wherever there was not liberty, that was his country.
We happen to have been born and raised and now live in a society that was Paine’s ideal.
Our challenge and quest is to convert it into Franklin’s ideal.