Constitution Day 2021: Celebrating the Bill of Rights


The United States is a relatively young country, but we have the oldest written national constitution. On Constitution Day, we honor this incredible document, which has persisted for over two centuries and inspired a host of other constitutions around the world.

Today marks the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Our Constitution has lasted so long thanks to a combination of unique characteristics. As I discussed last year, one of the most important features is how the Constitution divides power – both among the three branches of the federal government and between the federal government and the 50 states. Another key feature is its protection of individual rights. Several prominent members of the founding generation believed that no legitimate law in the land could exist without specific written guarantees of individual freedoms. Their condemnation ultimately inspired the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights begins with the First Amendment, which enshrines the most basic rights of a free society, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression. By protecting these essential freedoms, the First Amendment affirms the right of every citizen to worship God in accordance with their conscience and to express themselves freely.

The Second Amendment, which recognizes the right of citizens to own and bear arms, allows the American public to protect the rights set out in the First Amendment – and all other amendments that follow. As George Mason, one of the leading advocates for a federal bill of rights, explained in 1774, armed and capable citizens are “needed to protect our ancient laws and our freedom” from tyranny. The most brutal dictators in history have all come to power while presiding over unarmed subjects: neither Stalin, Hitler, nor Mao faced significant armed civilian resistance. By guaranteeing American citizens the right to defend themselves, the Second Amendment ensures that our nation will always have control against despotism, both foreign and domestic.

The following eight amendments to the Bill of Rights list additional protections for individual freedoms. For example, the Fourth Amendment protects the right not to be subjected to unreasonable search or seizure, and the Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. And the last of the original amendments, the 10, protects both individual citizens and the states in which they live from over-federal reach. He does this by asserting that all powers not granted to the federal government are “reserved to the states or to the people, respectively.”

These protections of liberty are among the most remarkable in the world. But we must not take them for granted. As history shows, simply codifying rights on paper is not enough. The Libyan constitution, for example, guarantees its citizens many “basic human rights and freedoms,” including “equal civil and political rights,” but Libya remains plagued by an active slave trade, pervasive government corruption and a litany of other human rights violations. . North Korea has its own bill of rights, which rings just as hollow.

The reason America’s guarantee of rights has succeeded where others have failed is that our Bill of Rights is reinforced by a strict separation of powers, a federalist structure containing fifty sovereign states, and the freedom-loving spirit. of the American people. As long as we adhere to these principles and uphold our defense of freedom, we can celebrate Constitution Day for centuries.

Jay Mitchell is Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama