This Idea Liberty
Robert Livingston

NOTE: This speech was given by U.S. Representative
Robert Livingston, Chairman of the Institute's Policy Board, at the Lincoln Heritage Institute's Guardian Awards Ceremony in Washington D.C., December 15, 1997.


"Its no coincidence that we are holding the Lincoln Heritage Institute's Guardian of Rights Award today, December 15th - the 206th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Ironically, and unfortunately, modern Americans take for granted the concept of democratic government that was so radical just 200 years ago.

We tend to forget that our founders knew a world ruled by monarchs ... a world where the whim and will of kings and queens and princes was law ... a world in which birthright was the only right.

We forget too that this nation is the first nation created solely for political ideals and not born of a struggle for power by one family versus another or one ethnic group versus another.

After independence was won and the new Republic was established, the founders fought with pen and pamphlet to fill in the blanks ... to define how a representative democracy would work.

But the fear of a powerful central government that ruled by dictate and military force was still fresh in their memories. When you consider the assemblance of diverse personalities and great minds at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, you cannot help but know that the almighty had a hand in their work.

These were remarkable men who in a matter of two years did what all the preceding centuries of political thought and armed struggle had failed to accomplish - establish a government of, by and for the people. The constitution that was produced was the result of volatile debate and learned compromise. And the decision to include a bill of rights was very much a condition of final adoption and ratification by the States.

The federalists led by Hamiliton and Madison argued against a bill of rights. After all, they contended, by virtue of the separation of power, the Constitution insured a system of checks and balances as a safeguard of liberty.

The Anti-federalists, led by George Mason of Virginia and George Clinton of New York, argued that a Constitution without a Bill of Rights would jeopardize the sovereignty of the states, and the freedom of the people. In the end, it was James Madison, who prevailed when he became convinced that the Constitution would never last without the addition of a Bill of Rights, and so he sat down and drafted what would become the first ten amendments to the Constitution. 206 years later, Americans still struggle to interpret the Bill of Rights.

Personally, I've never been much on reading between the lines when it comes to the rights we believe are certain and unalienable. Mr. Madison wrote in very precise and clear terms. Perhaps he wanted to ensure that one need not be a lawyer in order to understand one's rights.

But more importantly, where the constitution specifically sets out what the government can and must do, the bill of rights very clearly defines what the federal government cannot do. And that my friends is what made this constitutional democracy so radically different from any other government world history. Here was the common man dictating to the government instead of the reverse. Here were specific protections from tyranny.

For thousands of years, on every continent and in every nation, rights were granted by government, to be arbitrarily suspended or denied without notice or justification. Americans now had a Bill of Rights to challenge that very notion of power and to preserve freedom for all men for posterity. And they stand today as the foundation of not just our Democratic Government but what it means to be an American.

We are not a nation based on ethnicity, or allegiance to a monarch, or of religious homogeneity. We are Americans by right of our shared belief in the freedom and philosophy of government put forth in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

To quote Alexander Hamilton: "They are written, as with the sunbeam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."

In many ways America is an idea that just happens to have as its physical repository much of the North American Continent. Yet, America lives in the heart of every man, woman, and child from Boston to Beijing who believes that government derives its authority from all the people -- not just the rich and powerful.

After being defeated at the battle of Saratoga, British General Burgoyne was stunned when he saw the victorious American standing on the hills before him. They were so common ... poorly dressed ... obviously uneducated and of "low birth." Yet at that moment, Burgoyne who was the embodiment of British aristocracy -- the living breathing symbol of a system which valued lineage above merit -- knew that his world would not last. For in the faces of these ill clad, ramshackle soldiers was the light of freedom which no military power can extinguish.

When we won the cold war and defeated the Soviet Union -- the evil empire -- the concept America won the day. And there will come a day when communist China will follow suit, and collapse under the weight of its own tyranny. For just as Burgoyne and the British witnessed the inextinguishable fire of human dignity at Saratoga, the world witnessed that same fire in the students massacred at Tianeman Square.

The freedom unleashed on December 15, 1791 has spread across the globe. And while it has had its momentary setbacks, it continues on and is uncontainable. For truly, we Americans have witnessed the armies of Fascism, Socialism, Communism and Totalitarianism collapse like rotten timber before the rushing tide of freedom that is embodied in the constitution and the Bill of Rights.

And still today, we fight a more subtle tyranny here in America. That of the leftists politicians and bureaucrats who try to circumvent liberty and rule by regulation and government dictate.

The people we honor today -- our Guardian Award winners -- are courageous Americans who have stood in defense of individual and states' rights against the faceless political bureaucracy."


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February 1999