Constitution Day (September 17) commemorates the 1787 signing of the document that established the United States of America. But like the victim of a terrible accident, the government that was formed that historic day in Philadelphia is hardly recognizable today, and the heart that propelled it — the principle of individual rights — is on life support.
Ironically, what started as a government of radically limited powers now mandates that the nation’s schools “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution” on the holiday of its signing.
In fact, the best “educational program” comes from James Madison, the man who scoured political thought and history to create the blueprint for our government, earning him the title “father of the Constitution.” He has a crucial lesson for us on property rights.
To prepare for his lesson, let’s contrast today’s treatment of our First Amendment rights with that of property rights.
People would be shocked if the president of the United States said: “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough speeches,” or “you’ve given enough sermons” or “you’ve authored enough books.” Virtually all Americans would protest such remarks and boldly assert that it’s a free country, so they can say, preach or write whatever they please.
Yet the president can get away with saying: “I do think at a certain point, you’ve made enough money.” And he can get away with seizing and redistributing our money in order to “spread the wealth around,” with only a minority shouting in disbelief at the outrage. These dissenting voices have been unable to stop a century-long growth of the welfare state.
Consider the onslaught against property in recent years: The city of New London, Connecticut can seize Susette Kelo’s house and land to sell to a shopping mall developer. Congress appropriates billions of our dollars and redistributes them to the companies of its choice, including failing banks, auto manufacturers and solar panels producers. And businesspersons like Warren Buffet blithely suggest that the wealthy be taxed more.
Are these attacks on our possessions accepted because the right to property is a lesser right, one that isn’t inalienable like the others?
In his article “Property,” Madison emphatically says no. He explains that our right to property is as untouchable as our freedom of speech, press, religion and conscience. In fact, he views the concept of property as fundamental, pertaining to much more than merely our material possessions.
In the narrow sense, Madison says, “A man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.” But in a wider sense, “A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them … in his religious beliefs … in the safety and liberty of his person … in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.”
He then concludes: “[A]s a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
This statement represents a profound expression of the individual’s sovereignty over his possessions of every kind: spiritual, intellectual and material. According to Madison, a human being is master of his mind and body, his beliefs and possessions, his person and property. It is all the province of the individual to create and control.