Last week we examined the first “turning point” in people’s understanding of money. That was the idea that seems to have popped up around the time of the Reformation that rights are not inherent in human beings, but in the State. By a somewhat circuitous route, this new concept of where rights come from found its way into political economy. This provided the foundation for the rapid expansion of State power and totalitarianism in the 20th century.
Had the United States remained firm in its commitment to the natural law as found, at least in part, in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (the latter constituting “the Magna Charta of humanity” when combined with the Gospels of Jesus Christ, according to Cardinal Satolli), all would probably have come out all right, at least eventually. Unfortunately, forces were in motion from the very beginning to undermine the philosophy of government in the United States. There was an overriding need, at least in the eyes of many, to preserve a “peculiar institution”: human chattel slavery.
The American Revolution was thus a turning point in history. The irony is that the damage was done not by the “revolutionary” principles. These, as many scholars have pointed out, were nothing more than a return to the natural law principles that, although honored more in the breach than in the observance, had provided the basic philosophy of government since the birth of democracy. No, the damage resulting from the American Revolution came from the fact that people demanded restoration of their own natural rights, but were willing to ignore, even actively deny the natural rights of others.
According to constitutional scholar William Crosskey, the perceived need to preserve slavery at all costs motivated James Madison to alter his notes of the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Madison also opposed George Mason’s demand for a bill of rights — and then took credit as “Father of the Bill of Rights” after successfully marginalizing Mason on that and other issues.
Mason’s crime, of course, was to be a slave owner who agitated constantly for the abolition of slavery. This was a serious threat to the social position and economic security of people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, . . . and Madison. Biographies of Mason hint that someone from Virginia who was high in the government and very influential worked tirelessly to blacken Mason’s name and alienate him from his friends and supporters. Available evidence suggests that the most likely candidate for this was Madison.
Be that as it may, the power of the pro-slavery forces reached its greatest extent in 1857. That was the year of the infamous Dred Scott decision, in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that no black man, slave or free, was a person as that term was used in the Constitution.
The decision in Scott v. Sandford effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by maintaining that it made no difference where an owner took his slaves; they remained slaves even north of Mason Dixon. Anyone who wanted to employ slave labor in a free state merely had to purchase his slaves where slavery was ostensibly legal, and transport them anywhere he liked, whether or not local law outlawed slavery.
The real import of Scott v. Sandford, however, is almost always overlooked. The clear presumption in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which frames the Constitution, is that all human beings have rights by nature.
You can debate forever over whether Thomas Jefferson in a supremely Machiavellian tactic used the clause in the Declaration of Independence abolishing slavery that was removed during the debates to divert attention away from this point. The statement that all men have inherent rights nearly wrecked the Virginia Declaration of Rights a month earlier before Mason agreed to a face-saving addition that would permit slave owners to retain their slaves. The fact remains, however, that the statement is there: all human beings are endowed by their Creator with inalienable, natural rights, and this presumption is embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution: “We, the People.”
The bottom line here is that the Constitution is clearly predicated on the assumption that rights come from the people and are vested in the State, not the other way around. What the U.S. Supreme Court did in the Dred Scott decision, however, was to turn this on its head and declare that, to all intents and purposes, all rights come from the State, and can be granted or taken away at the will of the State.