Essay 2 - Guest Essayist: George Landrith

The Magna Carta created the moral and political premise that, in many ways, the American founding was built upon. The Magna Carta came to represent the idea that the people can assert their rights against an oppressive ruler and that the power of government can be limited to protect those rights. These concepts were clearly foundational and central to both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

First, a bit of history about Magna Carta — its full name was Magna Carta Libertatum which is Latin for “Great Charter of Freedoms.” But, it became commonly known as simply Magna Carta or the “Great Charter.” It was written in 1215 to settle an intense political dispute between King John of England and a group of barons who were challenging King John’s absolute right to rule. The terms of the charter were negotiated over the course of three days. When they reached agreement on June 15, 1215, the document was signed by the King and the barons at Runnymede outside of London.

This was a time when kings asserted the absolute right to rule, and that they were above the law and that they were personally chosen to rule by God. At this time, even questioning the King’s power was both treasonous and an act of defiance to God himself.

The Magna Carta limited the king’s absolute claim to power. It provided a certain level of religious freedom or independence from the crown, protected barons from illegal imprisonment, and limited the taxes that the crown could impose upon the barons, among other things. It did not champion the rights of every Englishman. It only focused on the rights of the barons. But, it was an important start to the concept of limiting the absolute power of governments or kings that claimed God had given them the absolute right to rule.

Magna Carta is important because of the principles it stood for and the ideas that it came to represent — not because it lasted a long time. Shortly after signing the charter, King John asked Pope Innocent III to annul it, which he did. Then there was a war known as the First Barons War that began in 1215 and finally ended in 1217.

After King John died in 1216, the regency government of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III reissued the Magna Carta, after having stripped out some of its more “radical” elements in hopes of reuniting the country under his rule. That didn’t work, but at the end of the war in 1217, the original Magna Carta’s terms became the foundation for a peace treaty.

Over the following decades and centuries, the importance of Magna Carta ebbed and flowed depending on the current king’s view of it and his willingness to accept it, or abide by it its concepts. But subsequent kings further legitimized or confirmed the principles of Magna Carta — often in exchange for some grant of new taxes or some other political concession. But the path towards limited government and individual rights had been planted and continued to grow.

Despite its relatively short political life as a working document, Magna Carta created and memorialized the idea that the people had the right to limit the powers of their government and they had the right to protect basic and important rights. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, the political lore of Magna Carta grew and the idea of an ancient source for individual rights became cemented in the minds of reform-minded political scholars, thinkers and writers.

Obviously, it wasn’t as written in 1215 a document that protected the rights of the average Englishman. It only protected English barons. But the concepts of individual rights and the limitations of governmental power had grown and were starting to mature. Magna Carta was the seed of those powerful concepts of freedom and constitutionally limited government.  By the 17th and 18th Centuries, those arguing for reforms and greater individual rights and protections used Magna Carta as their foundation. These ideas are at the very center of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

As English settlers came to the shores of North America, they brought with them charters under the authority of the King. The Virginia Charter of 1606 promised the English settlers all the same “liberties, franchises and immunities” as people born in England.[1]  The Massachusetts Bay Company charter acknowledged the rights of the settlers to be treated as “free and natural subjects.”[2]

In 1687, William Penn, an early American leader, who had at one point been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his political and religious views, published a pamphlet on freedom and religious liberty that included a copy of the Magna Carta and discussed it as a source of fundamental law.[3] American scholars began to see Magna Carta as the source of their guaranteed rights of trial by jury and habeas corpus (which prevented a king from simply locking up his enemies without charges or due process). While that isn’t necessarily correct history, it is part of the growth of the seed of freedom and liberty that Magna Carta planted.

By July 4, 1776, the idea that government could, and should be, limited by the consent of its citizens and that government must protect individual rights was widely seen as springing forth from Magna Carta. The beautiful and important words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration spring from the fertile soil of Magna Carta:

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 Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Obviously, Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of liberty and freedom had developed a great deal since Magna Carta was penned in 1215. But, it is impossible to read Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and not see the common DNA.

When the Founders debated, drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it is also clear they were creating a set of rules and procedures to limit and check the power of government and to guarantee basic, individual rights.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” is a concept that comes from Magna Carta. Our constitutional guarantees of “a speedy trial” as found in the Sixth Amendment are also founded in the political thought that grew from Magna Carta. The Constitution’s guarantee of the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” (Art.1, Sec. 9) is also a concept that grew from Magna Carta.

Even the phrase “the law of the land” comes from Magna Carta’s history. And now we use that phrase in the United States to describe our Constitution which we proudly label “the law of the land.”

To this day, Magna Carta is an important symbol of liberty in both England and the United States.

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are in my estimation the two most important and influential political documents ever written. What they did to provide promote and protect the freedom, opportunity and security of the average person is almost impossible to overstate. As British Prime Minister William Gladstone said in 1878, “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”[4]

I believe Gladstone was correct. But, Magna Carta was an important development in political thought and understanding about government power and individual rights. It is difficult to imagine the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution without the foundational elements provided by Magna Carta.

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[1] The Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/rights-of-englishmen-in-british-america.html#obj022) as shown on 2/13/2021.

[2] The Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/exhibits/magna-carta-muse-and-mentor/rights-of-englishmen-in-british-america.html#obj023) as shown on 2/13/2021.

[3] Ralph V. Turner, Magna Carta: Through the Ages (2003).

[4] William E. Gladstone, “Kin Beyond Sea,” The North American Review, September–October 1878, p. 185-86.

Guest Essayist: George Landrith

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Partisanship and Violence in Congress — Not All Partisanship Is Bad, but Some Partisanship Is Catastrophic

Washington is a city that has long been known for partisanship. Even as respected and honored as he was, George Washington was viciously and unjustly attacked by partisans.

Thomas Paine who helped build support for America’s independence by writing the historic political pamphlet “Common Sense,” accused Washington of corruption and wrote that “the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any.”[1]

Partisans for Thomas Jefferson and John Adams viciously attacked each other with such labels as: atheist, tyrant, coward, fool, hypocrite, and weakling. Jefferson’s allies accused Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”[2]  Adam’s partisans called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”[3]

Partisans are strong supporters of a political party or cause. There is nothing wrong with being a partisan as long as it is healthy partisanship and the cause is within the bounds of the Constitution. But Partisanship becomes unhealthy when support for the cause becomes disconnected from fact, reason, constitutional limits, or basic right and wrong.

In 1856, regional tensions between North and South were intensifying, and the U.S. Senate Chamber became a cage fight arena of sorts. On May 19, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, a deeply committed abolitionist, gave a fiery speech in which he lambasted his opponents and specifically attacked his colleague Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. That may have been uncivil. But three days after that speech, on May 22, 1856, Senator Sumner was on the Senate floor affixing the franking stamp to copies of his speech which he intended to mail to supporters. Unknown to Sumner, Senator Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the Senate Chamber and clubbed Senator Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane. Witnesses said that Sumner never saw it coming and the beating was so severe, that it took him years to fully recover.

That is a classic example of toxic congressional partisanship. But it wasn’t uncharacteristic of the time. In the decade leading up to the Civil War, Congress was plagued by toxic partisanship. During that time, Members of Congress often carried firearms in the chambers, made death threats against each other, engaged in fistfights and even group brawls.

Sadly, unhealthy, corrosive partisanship is nothing new. But acknowledging that bitter hyper-partisanship has been around a long time, is not an attempt to justify or normalize it. Obviously, civility should be our standard. We can engage in robust debate. But threats and violence have no place in a constitutional republic.

In the last few decades, it seems that partisanship has grown more heated and occasionally even veers into toxic partisanship. We have seen more and more veiled threats and in some cases actual violence motivated by partisanship.

The mass shooting of GOP Members of Congress in June 2017 by an angry, and likely, mentally ill Democrat campaign volunteer on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign is one of the most recent and most egregious examples of toxic partisanship gone way too far.

A more subtle version of hyper partisanship is now in vogue. Calling upon supporters to “confront” political opponents wherever they may be, is clearly an attempt to put them in fear for their safety — without actually crossing the red line of doing them physical harm. But it is nonetheless an attempt to threaten the opposition and bully them into submission. This cannot be tolerated in a free society.

When partisanship displays itself as robust disagreements and debates about important public policy and political issues that fall within the limited powers given to government, partisanship is not a bad thing. We need a robust debate. It isn’t necessary for everyone to agree on everything. But when partisanship becomes threats of violence or worse still, actual violence, it is a sign that something is deeply wrong.

The truth is politics is a surrogate for violence and war. In a less civilized society, those who can enforce their will upon the rest of the populace become the rulers. In establishing a constitutional republic, the Founders were attempting to set aside that age old “rule by force” model of government.  Instead, they created a system where the voice of the people ruled — without enforcing their will through threats and violence.

The Constitution was a compact that we would accept election results, and if we were unhappy with those results, we would redouble our efforts to win the next election. In that social compact, we agreed not to subvert the system and revert to the “rule by force” model of governance.

But an integral part of that compact was also designed to reduce the friction points, and maximize personal freedom in an ordered society.  Thus, we also agreed in that compact that certain issues were off the table — certain issues would not be subject to a vote and our individual rights could not be endangered by an overzealous majority.  For example, our Constitution gives the federal government a short and specific list of limited powers. So the majority wins on that short list of powers, but it doesn’t win on everything that it wants. Some things are beyond the government’s or the majority’s power.

Additionally, most of the Bill of Rights limits the power of the government and the majority. No matter how many Americans dislike your political opinions, you are free to speak and write them. No matter how small a minority your faith may be, you can freely exercise your religious beliefs. No matter what the majority or government may say, you have the right to own firearms to protect yourself and keep a check on government. No matter how unpopular you may be, you may not be denied due process or a fair trial.  No matter how much the government may want your property, it may not take it for public use without just compensation. These are only some of the limits on the power of government built into our constitutional system.

The majority’s power and the government’s power was limited on purpose — not by accident or oversight. Many things were simply off limits and not subject to a majority vote. By doing this, the Founders hoped to avoid the problems so often associated with democracies — that too often they became an exercise of three wolves out-voting two sheep about what is for dinner.

The Founders believed that a significantly limited government would reduce the surface area for political friction that could rub raw and blister our civil society. Simply stated, they did not want the majority to be able to impose its will on every conceivable issue.

As government has grown in the powers it asserts and the control it claims of its citizens’ rights, the chances for serious conflict dramatically increase. This is one of the many reasons, why we should cling to the Founders vision of a constitutional republic with limited powers. One of the dangers of an ever expanding government is that it leads to more friction points and more conflict as government imposes it will on an unwilling minority on an ever growing list of issues that were once off-limits for government.

As Americans, we should be civil and eschew threats and violence. We should argue for our beliefs with vigor, but we should not attempt to use the power of numbers to impose our will by force when the Constitution does not give us that power.

Every bit as important — Americans should respect the concept of limited constitutional powers. That means the majority is limited in what victories it can claim. Without limits on government, an over-zealous majority will eventually so trample the minority, that they will begin to feel that their only option is revolution. Those seeking to impose their will on the minority, should keep in mind that the social compact is designed to give the majority its way only on those matters that are properly within the government’s power. But it is also designed to protect the minority from an over-zealous majority that believes its views are correct and should be imposed on all.

On a practical level, if we are smart and responsible, we will support government that circumspectly exercises only those powers that it was actually given in the Constitution. This is one more way that the Founders hoped to avoid toxic and hyper-partisanship. Then with that foundation, we can freely discuss, debate, and argue actively for our views on what public policy should be. That would be healthy partisanship. We need more of that in Congress and in the populace.

George Landrith is the President of Frontiers of Freedom.

[1] https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/press-attacks/#note11

[2] http://thegarrisoncenter.org/archives/5122

[3] http://thegarrisoncenter.org/archives/5122

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After the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October of 1781 where General George Washington’s army defeated and captured the British army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis, the British sued for peace. America had finally won the independence that Jefferson had written about in his famous Declaration formalized by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It took more than five years of war to win that freedom. Now came the difficult task of establishing a nation dedicated to the principles of freedom and self-government.

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News reports of federal agencies abusing the rights of Americans and violating the law have become all too common. It is no longer plausible for defenders of big government to argue that these abuses are simply a few isolated incidents. We have witnessed a veritable parade of lawless abuses from all corners of the federal government. Read more

Guest Essayist: George Landrith, President of Frontiers of Freedom

Woodrow Wilson:  A Failed President

One of the most common ways of judging a president is to simply ask if there was peace and economic prosperity during his time in office? This is a useful analysis, but not entirely complete. The president isn’t the only reason there might be peace or prosperity. Thus, other criteria should be taken into account. What policies did the president pursue? What impact did they have? And how did the president use the power entrusted to him by the American public? By these criteria, Woodrow Wilson was a failed president.

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Guest Essayist: George Landrith, President, Frontiers of Freedom

Today, much of the national political debate centers on the size and scope of the federal government. Whether the discussion is focused on federal spending, the debt, or the merits and demerits of a nationalized healthcare system, at its core, the debate is about how much power the federal government should properly wield. Read more

Guest Essayist: George Landrith, President, Frontiers of Freedom

The Founders’ proclamations on fasting and prayer are relevant today

by George Landrith

Today, many Americans think that government and even public life must be strictly separated from religious life and faith. Few know what the Constitution actually says about religious freedom or what the Founders believed about the concepts of liberty, God, and religion. But our history paints a very clear picture.

On March 16, 1776, the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia issued a proclamation calling for a day of fasting and prayer. Read more

Guest Essayist: George Landrith, an attorney and President of Frontiers of Freedom

http://vimeo.com/40278141

Amendment X:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment:
Protecting Freedom Against Big Government

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment protects Americans from big, intrusive federal government action. The heart of the Tenth Amendment is that the federal government has only those powers explicitly listed in the Constitution and all other powers are reserved to the States and to the people, and therefore explicitly denied to the federal government.

In contrast, state governments have all powers not explicitly prohibited or withheld by the state constitution or by the U.S. Constitution. Thus, states have broader powers and can, do things that Congress cannot do. For example, states can require young students to attend school and drivers to purchase automobile insurance.

Too often those in Congress and the White House assume that the federal government can do whatever the majority wishes. However, the Founders clearly and explicitly intended to prevent the majority from doing whatever it wished. Thus, they gave the federal government a very limited and carefully chosen list of powers and they reserved all other powers for the states and the people. They also provided an elaborate system of checks and balances – all to limit the power of the majority to impose its will.

The Founders felt so strongly about limited federal power as a bulwark of liberty that they added the Ten Amendment as the final exclamation point in the Bill of Rights – the federal government could not trample the rights of the people by assuming powers that it did not have, and that had been reserved to the states and the people.

At the heart of the debate over Obamacare before the Supreme Court is the question – does the federal government have the authority under the U.S. Constitution to require citizens to purchase a product? If the justices can read and understand the simple language of the Constitution, they will strike down the law because the federal government does not have the authority to do what it attempted to do in this statute.

This author is not a supporter of the Massachusetts healthcare law, but it is constitutional. There are significant differences between the Massachusetts law and ObamaCare, but perhaps the biggest difference is that Massachusetts had the authority to pass its healthcare law. That doesn’t mean it was a good idea, it just means it was constitutional. But the federal government did not have the authority to pass Obamacare. Obamacare exceeds the enumerated and limited powers given to the federal government and the limitations of the Tenth Amendment.

The Tenth Amendment is also an explicit statement of the governing principle of federalism. Federalism is the idea that there is a national government with limited powers and there are state governments with broader powers, both receiving their authority from the people. Simply stated, federalism recognizes the fact that the states are not merely political subdivisions of the federal government, but that they are separate governmental units that derive their power directly from the people and not from the federal government.

These are not old fashioned or outdated ideas. They constitute real and practical protections against the bullying powers of big government on the federal level. The Founders put in place checks and balances, limitations on power, and divisions of power – all designed to keep federal government from becoming too big, too powerful, and too intrusive. The Tenth Amendment is key to their wise designs to limit the power and scope of the federal government.

George Landrith is an attorney and the President of Frontiers of Freedom

April 13, 2012

Essay #40