“How strangely will the Tools of a Tyrant pervert the plain Meaning of Words!” -Samuel Adams
When it comes to big government, progressive Statism, words are merely a nuisance that obstruct the growth of government power. When those words have meanings that seek to limit the scheming of Statists abroad, how often do we see them ignore the planing meaning of those words? The Constitution is the penultimate definition of a restraining order on tyranny, but Statists have no problem twisting its words to mean things that no rational person could ever imagine.
Now let’s give at least one caveat here. Some of the language of the Constitution can be a bit confusing. The document was written over 225 years ago, so there are more than a few differences in writings style and word choices. However, these nuances do not nullify the meaning of those words. It simply means that we have to look at the words, and their background, more carefully than Statists would approve.
Unfortunately, 21st century America does not have much more of an attention span than a squirrel; so looking at the words for more than a few seconds does not appear to be an option. What a shame this is; if only we had the ability to read carefully, and think even more carefully, it might not be so difficult to understand what the Constitution is actually saying.
In light of this, I’m going to clarify one of the most important aspects of the Constitution: the Bill of Rights. I will include the original language of each amendment, and below I will give a modern translation that can be clearly understood, leaving no room for Statist misinterpretations.
We will start with the First Amendment, and work through each of the Amendments of the Bill of Rights, expounding on the meaning of the words as they are, and providing a clearer, modern translation that could have more thoroughly protected our essential freedoms.
Amendment I- 1791
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.
Amendment I- 2015
No law shall be made establishing a national religion, nor any law prohibiting the free exercise of one’s religion; nor shall any law be made abridging the freedom of the press, of speech; nor shall any law be made that shall inhibit the right to peaceably assemble and to petition any level of government for a redress of grievances.
One of the most significant changes to the First Amendment was the establishment clause. So often this particular clause has been misconstrued to mean that there can be absolutely no religion at any level of government. I’m sorry, is that anywhere in the Constitution, outside of certain judges’ opinions (from the same Court that ruled one had the right to own another person under the Constitution, in Plessy v. Ferguson)? I didn’t think so.
If one looks at the words themselves, and the context in which it sits, there is not evidence to say that the Founders believed in a complete separation of anything religious and governmental. In fact, many of the states actually had established churches at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. The intent here was not to create some sort of impossible neutrality on the subject, but to ensure that Congress would not make a specific religion or Christian sect the national religion as was practiced in England.
The oh so scared words “Wall of Separation” do not appear in the Constitution; if more people would actually read the document they claim to know so much about, perhaps this myth might have been dead a long time ago. This phrase rather appeared in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. It is also important to note that Thomas Jefferson was not present during the Constitutional Convention, and did not have as great deal of influence upon its crafting as is commonly believed. So why do so many people rely upon this phrase to interpret a document that does not contain any analagous language? Answer: Statism that twists the plain meaning of words, and even puts words in the Constitution that are not even there.
The second noticeable change involves the use of the word law. Rather than simply stating that “Congress shall make no law…”, it reads that “No law shall be made…” This is an important clarification that I will carry over into subsequent amendments. It also prevents the states and smaller municipalities from establishing certain religions in law, or prohibiting free exercise of religion, of the press, of speech, or of assembly. This is an important distinction, because then the incorporation doctrine would have become unnecessary (when the federal government, through the 14th Amendment, applied the federal Constitution to the states and local municipalities).
Instead of bringing about these protections later in Constitutional history, the Bill of Rights would apply to all levels of government. However, there would also have to be other protections within the Bill of Rights to ensure that federalism, the sharing of power by different layers of government, would be preserved. That will be covered in a later section.
In the next part of this series, we shall take a look at what is probably the most American Amendment of them all: the Second Amendment.