The Constitution Is NOT a List of Our Rights

A common misconception I encounter in daily life and in the classes I teach is this: the Constitution is something that the government AND the citizenry are supposed to follow. It’s a law that universally applies to both public and private citizens. It exists to list out our rights and stop other citizens from violating those rights.

In fact, a friend of mine, just the other day, said that she’d always thought the Constitution’s Bill of Rights meant that other American citizens couldn’t violate her right to free speech or any other “right” listed.

Further, I had a student say that, through my class, they realized the Constitution applied to government too, and not just the people.

Both of these are severe misconceptions of the Constitution and need to be clarified. I fear far more than just two individuals have bought into these misconceptions.

The Constitution Applies ONLY to Government

I’m not sure where the fallacy that the Constitution applies to the citizenry at large originated from, but such a fallacy seriously injures the power of the Constitution.

So, let’s get this straight.

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  1. Government is created to make laws that apply to and govern the citizenry. We are subject to these laws. As I’ve said before, the Constitution governs government.
  2. The Constitution is the law that the government must follow just as federal laws are laws that we must follow. The Constitution explains in careful detail the structure of the federal government as well as the job of the federal government.

So, NO private citizen of the United States can violate the Constitution. Only government can violate the Constitution since the Constitution is the government’s job description.

This means that no citizen can violate your right to free speech or religion or gun ownership or quartering soldiers or right to hold your peace.

Get that?

If a group of citizens burn down a church building or try to silence a church, they are not violating the First Amendment, they are breaking whatever state or federal laws are applicable. If the federal government burns down a church building or silences a church through a series of laws, they are violating the First Amendment.

Is this starting to make sense?

If someone steals your guns, he or she has not violated your Second Amendment right, he or she has simply broken whatever laws apply to stealing. If the federal government tries to take your guns, they are violating your Second Amendment right.

The government governs us and the Constitution governs government.

The Constitution is only as powerful as we make it. If we allow government to get away with violating the law (the Constitution) over and over, they are only going to take liberties and violate the Constitution even more and eventually the Constitution won’t even matter. This is what would happen should a citizen break laws time and time again. If government keeps giving them a pass for breaking the law. Eventually, the law means nothing anymore and the citizen does whatever he or she wants.

The Constitution Does Not List Out Rights, It Lists Out Enumerated Powers

Let’s take this a step further. Because the Constitution is government’s job description, it is not a description of our rights. It has nothing to do with our rights because government can’t define, confine, give out or take away rights. Government exists to make sure that other citizens don’t violate each other’s rights and private property—rights and private property that are inherent in the citizenry regardless of government.

The Constitution simply confines the federal government’s role in this process. It enumerates for the federal government what it can make laws about leaving anything not mentioned to the state or local governments. This list of topics is rather slim in order to avoid the federal government overstepping its reason for existence (protecting me and my private property from you and vice versa) and making laws that violate its very reason for existence.

Dr. Lawson from the Constitution Center puts it this way:

IN SUM, THE CONSTITUTION’S FRAMERS THOUGHT THAT A BILL OF RIGHTS WAS APPROPRIATE FOR AN UNLIMITED GOVERNMENT, BUT NOT FOR A LIMITED ONE LIKE THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT CREATED BY THE CONSTITUTION. THE CONSTITUTION ACCORDINGLY SOUGHT TO SECURE LIBERTY THROUGH ENUMERATIONS OF POWERS TO THE GOVERNMENT RATHER THAN THROUGH ENUMERATIONS OF RIGHTS TO THE PEOPLE…IT REMAINS A GOVERNMENT OF LIMITED AND ENUMERATED POWERS, SO THAT THE FIRST QUESTION INVOLVING AN EXERCISE OF FEDERAL POWER IS NOT WHETHER IT VIOLATES SOMEONE’S RIGHTS, BUT WHETHER IT EXCEEDS THE NATIONAL GOVERNMENT’S ENUMERATED POWERS.” DR. LAWSON

image of old building on american banknote

So, as you watch federal behavior, don’t think about “Oh, have they violated my First Amendment right?”, think “Have they made laws that are outside of their specified enumerated powers?” You’ll find that your federal government is behaving much more unconstitutionally when you ask and answer the second question when compared to when you ask and answer the first.

The Government Cannot Give Rights, It Can Only Infringe Upon Them With New Laws

Along the same lines here, all of what I said above means that the federal government never gives rights. So, amendments that allow for certain races, sexes, age groups to vote are not the government giving out the right to vote, it is simply the Constitution clarifying for government that any law written that would hinder the already existent right to vote is in violation of the Constitution and therefore invalid.

I hope this is making sense because understanding how the Constitution works is of critical importance for Americans. We need to stop thinking in terms of the government giving us rights, or the Constitution protecting our rights, or the Constitution defining our rights.

No. All of those rights and that liberty simply are. The Constitution, by default, protects liberty and rights by keeping one of the most power institutions the world creates–government–in check. It governs the government by defining for government what is can do. It does not define for us what we can do (that is what laws are for).

Conclusion

Yes, the Constitution is of critical importance, but not for the reasons many Americans believe. It’s not the list of rights we all have. It’s the not the law that private Americans must follow. It’s not the declaration of independence.

It’s simply the job description for one of the most potentially powerful institutions on earth.

And by defining and confining government’s power, it preserves our rights and promotes our liberty.

Rights and liberty that we already have.

The Liberty Belle

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