Today is Independence Day, which brings to mind this great passage from the Declaration of Independence: 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…
While styled as an anti-immigrant movement, according to historian Tyler G. Anbinder in his book, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s, the American Party (the “Know Nothings”) of the 1850s did not widely advocate laws that would cap the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. Rather, they channeled their anti-immigrant sentiments most directly into policies that would delay citizenship for new immigrants for a number of years (and sometimes even for decades). The delay aimed to provide time to insure a measure of assimilation for new residents prior to citizenship. (Policies also…
I posted earlier this week regarding whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that they “consent” to laws and taxes through their legislative representatives. There may be good reasons Americans no longer believe they really consent to the laws their representatives enact, but it is a striking change from the beliefs articulated during the founding era.
In considering whether Americans still believe the Declaration of Independence, we next consider the most-well known section in the Declaration, “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.”
There are, of course, entire books devoted to these few lines. A few observations, however. First, what is the link between there being a creator and persons being endowed with “unalienable” (or inalienable) rights?
Over at the Law and Religion Forum, we are hosting an online symposium on a very interesting article by Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz, “Two Concepts of Religious Liberty: The Natural Rights and Moral Autonomy Approaches to the Free Exercise of Religion.” Muñoz’s basic claim is a historical one about the nature of the Founders’ constitutional commitment to religious freedom: They supported a narrow, but powerful, right of religious free exercise that protected fairly absolutely what were thought to be certain core features of religiosity—such as worship—but that did not protect the panoply of religious “interests” that might be dear to any given constituency.
Americans are united in professing respect for the Constitution, but they are deeply divided over what it actually means and how it ought to be interpreted. These disagreements have roiled our public life for decades. Everybody who follows politics knows about the clashes between the liberal proponents of judicial activism and the conservative defenders of judicial deference. These arguments go on and on, with neither side succeeding in persuading the other of the superior merits of its theory. Faced with this ongoing deadlock, we wonder if there is any way to achieve unity on the meaning of the Constitution.
One of the puzzles in constitutional law has been the original meaning of the Ninth Amendment. Some years ago, during his unsuccessful confirmation hearings, Judge Robert Bork analogized our lack of understanding of the Amendment to the situation where the language of a constitutional provision was obscured by an inkblot. He argued that since we don’t understand the provision, we are in no better position to enforce it than if an ink blot covered it.
Over the years, various explanations have been offered for the amendment. Some have argued that it protects enumerated natural rights to the same extent as the enumerated constitutional rights. Others have interpreted it to have a much less significant role.
In my view, the best interpretation of the Amendment is supplied by Michael McConnell in a relatively recent law review article. At the beginning of my scholarly career, I had come upon the same idea, but was persuaded not to write it up. My mistake, although I don’t think I would have done as good a job as McConnell does.
The status of judges in the constitutional regime is fundamentally a question of the place of politics, rightly understood, in human life—a point illustrated by the thoughtful exchanges between Richard Reinsch and Randy Barnett in this space and at Volokh. Reinsch argues the danger of giving judges indeterminate power over unspecified natural rights. Barnett replies that these need not be specified; judges need only ensure that governmental power is reasonably used to promote permissible ends.
Theirs was a productive conversation, and it might be usefully expanded to the following question: Even granting a robust reading of the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, what is the basis, and what are the costs, of empowering judges to safeguard the rights therein contained?
Many thanks to Randy Barnett for his very thoughtful response to my post “The Book of Judges,” which criticizes a natural rights constitutional jurisprudence. Barnett says I was going after a straw man—that real defenders of “judicial engagement” are not calling for a philosopher’s debate on the federal bench that would produce a settled list of the type and content of natural rights for federal judges to enforce. He isn’t about defining and specifying natural rights in judicial decisions. Instead, he notes that they exist, and they are protected in the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.