In my draft article on the Bill of Rights, I make a big deal about the sesquicentennial of the ratification of the first set of amendments in December 1941. Now that I’m working on a book, I’ve been looking at the bicentennial in 1991. One notable part of that celebration was a speech by President Bush 41 marking the occasion at Montpelier, James Madison’s estate in Virginia.
What I find interesting about this speech is that it gives a Reagan Revolution/1980s conservative take on the Bill of Rights that you don’t see elsewhere. (This is also the only presidential address in recent decades that focuses on the Bill of Rights.) Consider this passage:
[The Framers] gave us not a declaration of rights but a Bill of Rights, not a piece of propaganda but a set of legally enforceable constraints on government. Most important, they drafted a Bill of Rights that reflected the higher nature and the aspirations of the American people, a bill that grew out of the American character, not one grafted onto it for the sake of some abstract theory.
There’s a lesson in this for today’s writers of national constitutions and international treaties, some of whom are with us today. Today, one often hears the concept of rights attached to specific social services or material standards of living. The framers, however, did not elevate acquisition of even the most vital goods and services to the status of rights. They trusted people to make the most of their liberty and to respond to the challenge of assuming responsibility for themselves, their families, their communities, and their government. And they understood that paternalism is just a sugar-coated tyranny.
Another insight from Bush’s speech is the way in which he discussed the Second and Third Amendments: “The protections of personal rights, the safeguard against arbitrary actions of the military against private property, and the guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms have enhanced the public’s respect for our law enforcement and military authorities.” He also talks at some length about the Takings Clause, the Tenth Amendment, and property rights. You can find the whole thing here.