By Mary W Maxwell
“We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs forever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs … forever….
“No bailiff for the future shall, upon his own unsupported complaint, put anyone to his ‘law,’ without credible witnesses brought for this purpose. … To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice. … We will appoint as justices, constables, sheriffs, or bailiffs only such as know the law of the realm and mean to observe it well. …
In this essay celebrating the endurance, for 800 years, of a written set of rights, a “piece of paper,” I jump over five centuries and a bit to come to the then-newly independent (if it is indeed independent, don’t hold me to it) nation of the United States.
The 13 states, after saying Toodl-oo to King George the Third in 1776, got themselves united at least weakly, via Articles of Confederation, and then put more muscle into it with the Constitution of 1787. That is surely a piece of paper to admire, yet a Bill of Rights did not get added on for another two years.
The 1789 Bill of Rights lasted in America until, by my reckoning, around 2001(and I am not trying to be funny here). More in a later essay on how we are so pathetically giving up our “rights.”
By the way I confess I am not a rights man. I wholly disagree with Jefferson’s line “All men are created equal [just consider the variations in DNA] and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Jokes!
If A agrees to protect B from oppression, you might say B will enjoy that “right.” But, in my opinion, it is because they have contracted or covenanted. How can anything be a right other than as part of a mutual arrangement?
In this essay, I will pay homage to the Massachusetts Constitution, drafted by John Adams in 1779. Sometimes preambles are so much hot air, but I think Adams captured the biological reality of covenant-making.
The only species whose members can volunteer to work together is H sapiens. A wolf pack is a strong entity, but the wolves do not have the option of selfishness. We do. But we don’t have to be a fool about it. We can covenant.
Adams’ preamble in the 1780 Massachusetts state constitution says:
“The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body politic, to protect it, and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights and the blessings of life…. [Yay!]
“The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals; it is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people that all shall be governed …for the common good. …” [Dead right!]
Notice: you almost don’t need a list of rights if there really is community. People will treat each other fairly. It’s “good business” to proceed that way. Still, the committing of a few basics to words is a great idea.
No doubt Adams realized he was acting in the tradition that started with Magna Charta (if not with Adam and Eve and Steve). Herewith a few of the Massachusetts rights (most of which were copied into the US Bill of Rights):
PART THE FIRST … A DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
… Art. V. All power residing originally in the people, and being derived from them, the several magistrates and officers of government vested with authority, whether legislative, executive, or judicial, are the substitutes and agents, and are at all times accountable to them.
Art. VI. No man nor corporation or association of men have any title to obtain advantages, or particular and exclusive privileges distinct from those of the community….
Art. VII. … the people alone have an incontestable … right to institute government, and to reform, alter, or totally change the same when their protection, and happiness require it.
Art. VIII. In order to prevent those who are vested with authority from becoming oppressors, the people have a right … to cause their public officers to return to private life….
Art. X….. In fine, the people of this commonwealth are not controllable by any other laws than those to which their constitutional representative body have given their consent.
Art. XII. No subject shall be held to answer for any crimes or no offence until the same if fully and plainly, substantially and formally, described to him …And the legislature shall not make any law that shall subject any person to a capital … punishment…without trial by jury.
Art. XVII. The people have a right to keep and to bear arms for the common defence… and the military power shall always be held in an exact subordination to the civil authority.
On that last one, and since I was recently outed by Commenter Ned as being not fully dinkum di, I may as well come clean on the fact that the Aussie objection to gun-ownership does not strike a chord with me. I am anti- government by birthright. I realize that this can be an Australian trait, too. With me it’s a religion.
In 2006, when I signed up to run for Congress, I got vetted by the local Republican council in Concord, New Hampshire, at their weekly meeting. They asked me to stand up and say where I stood in regard to the Second Amendment. (US right to bear arms). I said I thought “arms” must also include any arms that the government has, such as bioweapons and surface-to-air missiles.
Naturally I was hoping the group would gasp when I said that but they just nodded and moved onto the next item on their meeting agenda.
Now that I am recalling that 2006 episode, I see that I left out an important weapon: psy-war. Hmm. But I wouldn’t feel right emulating the practitioners of deception. Hell, this is an important problem! I’m allowing the enemy to have a weapon that I renounce! They unscrupulously put their messages directly into people’s brains. They mess up my plodding attempts persuading by sweet reason. Oh dear!
Please help me sort this out. Or tear to ribbons any of the above.