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R. Carter Pittman

Letter to the New York Times
Saturday, October 8, 1955

Bill of Rights Defined

Call for Congressional Probe of
Alleged Violations Criticized

The  writer  of  the  following  letter  is  an  attorney  at  law.

Your issue of Sept. 25 carries a story under the headline "New Fight Begun for Bill of Rights." Beneath the headline is an imposing list of dignitaries said to have signed an "open letter to the American people" released by "Americans for Traditional Liberties" asking a Sentate subcommittee on constitutional rights to "probe every area of constitutional violations boldly."
It is stated: "The open letter noted that the first Congress adopted the ten amendments comprising the Bill of Rights on Sept. 25, 1789." The story further relates that the open letter called on a Senate subcommittee to propose "the necessary legislation to bulwark our basic rights."
That news item disturbs and frightens. The very fact that so many should display so much ignorance is appalling.
In the first place, the first Congress never "adopted the ten amendments." The first Congress adopted a resolution requesting the President to submit twelve amendments to the various states for adoption. That resolution was adopted on Sept. 24, 1789--not Sept. 25 (Annals of Congress, Vol. 1, p. 948). Ten of those amendments were ratified by the necessary ten states and they went into effect on Dec. 15, 1791, the day Virginia, the tenth state, adopted them.

Purpose of Appeal

That people who purport to be learned and who purport to be leaders of thought in American should sign their names to a letter calling upon a subcommittee of the United States Senate to prepare legislation affecting our Bill of Rights is incredible.
Our Bill of Rights is an incomplete catalog of rights that inhere in people. Those rights inhered in our people before the Constitution and before the Revolution. It was to shield those rights from kings and parliamentary governments that the Revolution was fought. If the Congress may now legislate them in or legislate them out, or may enlarge or diminish them by legislation, then they are not rights inhering in the people; they are mere legislative permits.
What the "Americans for Traditional Liberties" has done in its "open letter to the American people" is to invite the Congress to disregard the plain language of the Bill of Rights. The very First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," etc. The Second Amendment contains the words "the rights of the people * * * shall not be infringed." The Third Amendment likewise states something that Congress may not do. The Fourth Amendment reiterates that "the rights of the people * * * shall not be violated," etc.
The Ninth and Tenth Amendments seem never to be read, much less heeded. The Ninth says: "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be contrued to deny or disparage others retained by the people." The most valuable of all unenumerated rights denied or disparaged by "Americans for Traditional Liberties" is the God-given right to be let alone.

Fundamental Concept

The amendments themselves proclaim that the rights that they state are the gifts of God--not governments. The amendments themselves proclaim that they are beyond the reach of the Congress of the United States. They proclaim the same basic and fundamental concept proclaimed in the first three paragraphs of the Virginia Bill of Rights of June, 1776, and as was echoed in a later restatement of it in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence.
Our Bill of Rights was never a legislative "bill." It was a declaration by the people themselves. Rulers opposed it bitterly. Only Mason and Gerry championed it in Philadelphia against the unanimous vote of the states there represented. Governments don't give rights. They impose burdens.
Our Bill of Rights constitutions a cluster of little foxholes of liberty ground into the hard cold face of history by helpless men for a shield against the lash of tyrants. They are the result of distrust of power and distrust of men in power. They are a recognition of Lord Acton's statement of a truth eternal--"power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Dalton, Ga., Sept. 28, 1955.