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Public Papers - 1991 - December

Remarks at the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights Luncheon at Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia

1991-12-16

Thank you, Senator Warner, for those very kind words. And let me thank Robert Bass and Jack Walter of the National Trust for Historic Preservation for hosting this event, indeed, a historic event and a wonderful one to attend. We're fortunate to have the Secretary of the Interior with us, Manuel Lujan over here. Virginia is fortunate, I think, to have two great Senators, both friends of the Bush family, and I mentioned John and Chuck Robb sitting over here. Senator Strom Thurmond is with us, and also the new Congressman, George Allen from Virginia, and my old friend and classmate in the House of Representatives -- we didn't like that remark about it, John -- [laughter] -- John Paul Hammerschmidt over here. And other Members that might be with us today.

And may I single out my luncheon partner, Mrs. Smith, whose commitment to Montpelier is contagious. It didn't keep me from eating that excessively high-calorie dessert -- [laughter] -- nor push away from the chicken, but I learned a lot about Montpelier, and I go away even more enthused than I thought I possibly could be when I came down here today.

I hesitate to give a serious speech about the Bill of Rights, looking around the room with all the lawyers and experts, people who understandably have great pride in Virginia's contribution to the history of this Nation. But I'll try anyway.

We are here in the pastoral beauty of Virginia's Piedmont to celebrate 200 years since the Virginia Assembly ratified the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. This action brought into force our Bill of Rights.

It is fitting that we meet at the home of James Madison, framer of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights. In Madison we honor a learned man with a scholar's appreciation for political philosophy. We remember also a practical politician whose skill and leadership helped persuade the free people of America to embrace the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as our basis for government.

I want to thank the National Trust and others who have worked to organize this fitting commemoration. The Trust, which administers this beautiful estate, deserves the highest praise for its innovative plan to make Montpelier a living center for constitutional studies. And I will repeat what I said out here: I am pleased that our fiscal year 1993 budget requests million in Federal support for the restoration of Montpelier.

I am honored to welcome some very special guests, legal scholars and statesmen from Eastern and Central European nations which have won new freedom. I want to take this occasion also to say that an exhibit on the Bill of Rights will be the centerpiece of the U.S. pavilion at next year's Expo in Seville.

The ideas and action of the American founders were rooted deeply in human nature and experience. Though 200 years have passed, the understandings on which our Constitution and Bill of Rights are based still make a reliable guide. Whether the issue is health care or protection of the environment, the proper roles of parents and the State in educating our young, or the rise of interest groups and their power in lawmaking and litigation, we can make sound decisions today if we heed the wise counsel imparted by our founders.

Two centuries ago, our new Republic was free and dynamic and hopeful and growing. Our founders were determined to preserve those qualities. But as Madison observed, ``men are not angels.'' The framers of our Constitution confronted problems not unlike those that the Central and Eastern European constitution writers face today. The framers had to grapple with ethnic and religious differences, regional interests, issues of where power should lie and of how to contain conflict. Madison saw such problems of faction, problems of faction as the greatest threat to our national survival.

The men who gathered to write the Constitution were businessmen, farmers, and lawyers, mostly in their thirties and forties. And they had a passion for learning. They mastered the state of the art in engineering and agricultural sciences. And they steeped themselves in the wisdom of the Greek and Roman classics, in the faith and philosophy of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Neither cynical nor naive, they held a hopeful and pragmatic vision. Having seen human nature in the public square, they experienced both its frailty and its aspirations.

The framers sought to strengthen civil society by encouraging public habits of freedom, justice, and cooperation. And they worked to give us a charter that would serve, as Madison put it, ``not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.''

The framers had the humble genius to recognize that manmade laws and government are not a panacea for human problems. They believed law and government, like good medicine, should seek first and foremost to do no harm. Taxation, public works, civil litigation, law enforcement activity are part of the framework of a just and civil society. They do give health to the social organization when provided in small, measured, and necessary doses. But when taken needlessly or to excess, such medicine could sicken or kill a society.

The Constitution, therefore, became primarily a plan for uniting the Nation while preventing concentration of power and preserving the inalienable rights and liberties of individuals. The framers were so committed to this ideal that they decided after signing the Constitution to add a Bill of Rights, to impose clear and stark limits on the exercise of Government power.

The Federal system seeks to keep government close to the people whenever practical, in the States and not in the Nation's Capital. Within the National Government we have our system of checks and balances, with powers shared among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The judiciary's independence is vital to any country's governance by the rule of law.

The founders believed freedom was the key to economic as well as social well-being. They made the Constitution a powerful legal instrument for economic opportunity and growth. I do not believe our Republic could have survived, much less could it have prospered, without the commerce clause preventing the States from setting up trade barriers one against the other. Through the takings clause and the due process clause, the Bill of Rights protects people's earnings and property.

The genius of the Bill of Rights is that it limits its attention to truly important things and to things over which a just and limited government can exercise some actual control. Two centuries ago, just as now, politics tempted some to take flight from moderation and realism. Edmund Burke complained at the time of those who ``are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man that they have totally forgotten his nature.''

The framers, however, were practical men. They 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.

Madison was his era's greatest champion of freedom of conscience. It is appropriate, therefore, that the very first article of the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans' freedom to worship, to assemble, to speak, and to publish. Today, respect for the founders' ideals of freedom of conscience still drives us as we seek to restore the freedom of voluntary prayer in the public schools. It still guides us in such efforts as protecting the rights of parents to choose schools and facilities for child care.

The Bill of Rights offers a highly-developed system of protection for persons facing criminal charges. The Bill protects suspects from arbitrary search and seizure. The Bill respects the human dignity of criminals convicted of even the most heinous offenses by banning cruel and unusual punishment. The protections of personal rights, the safeguards 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. They protected our people from government abuses that were common in the 18th century and that persist in some countries today.

The final articles of the Bill of Rights asserts that the central Government should have no powers other than those explicitly given it by the Constitution. All other powers belong to the people or, where government is necessary, to States. It is this principle that leads us today to look first not to big government but to the incentives and efficiency of free markets in addressing such problems as protecting the environment.

For all the pride we should take in our Constitution and Bill of Rights, this must not be an occasion simply for self-congratulation. Indeed, if Madison could speak to us today, I think I have a good idea of what he would ask. He would ask: Are American citizens and their leaders still living true to the framers' legacy of limited government and ordered freedom? Are Americans still fighting to expand the frontiers of liberty?

As we begin our third century under the protections of the Bill of Rights, I urge my fellow Americans to focus on our Madisonian legacies in need of renewal.

The first is limited government. In many quarters, various groups have tried to replace our founders' vision with a vision of pervasive government. I simply cannot believe that the framers envisioned that the central Government would spend a quarter of the gross national product of this country.

Second is protection of property rights. The takings clause in the fifth amendment is based on a liberating political insight: A person's property serves as a bulwark of individual liberty and that government must pay a fair price whenever it takes private property for public use. By protecting a worker's earnings and savings, a family's home, or a small businessman's stake from unfair confiscation or ruinous overregulation, this principle seeks to protect the whole of society from gluttonous government.

Third is equal application of the laws. It was alien to Madison's ideals that legislators would exempt themselves from laws they impose on everyone else. He made this explicit in the famous Federalist Paper Number 57. Laws that do not apply equally to everyone offend the fundamental sense of American justice and fairness, and they threaten the public trust upon which free government depends.

And finally, we must renew our protection against the destructive forces of what Madison called factions. Factions, not the States or regions but what we today call special interest groups. That is why I urge sweeping reform of our campaign finance laws. And that's why I urge profound reform of Congress's cumbersome committee system and its vast and powerful staffs. Unreformed, these systems support selfish lobbying and pressure groups at the expense of true popular sovereignty. And that's why I also seek comprehensive reform of our tort law system, to rein in the excessive litigation that is draining our economy and straining our national civility.

If we fail to heed Madison's warning against faction, we will reap a whirlwind of social conflict, litigiousness, and coercive Government action. It's up to us to choose: Do we want to live in freedom and harmony, or will we become slaves to factional feuds pitting women against men, race against race, every sort of fevered single-issue activist against the common good?

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights have endured for 200 years, far longer than most nations' charters for government. And they've enabled us, 10 generations of Americans, to govern ourselves and keep ourselves free. Their greatness is that they harmonize our national law with American civic virtues: hard work, commitment to family, commitment to community, postponement of gratification for the sake of larger and longer term good. They are not simply dry ink markings on a brittle, old parchment; they are the spirit that animates the American Nation. This spirit will keep America alive for new generations only if each of us renews the habits of liberty and justice. The Republic that Madison gave us will live for years to come only if we keep our culture committed to the civic virtues that he cherished.

Thank you very much for permitting me to join you on this historic occasion. And may God bless you in this important work of cultural preservation. And may God bless our country at this very special time of the year. Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 1:30 p.m. In his remarks, he referred to Robert Bass, chairman, and Jack Walter, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Joan Smith, a member of the board of trustees of the National Trust.

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