Noah Webster – “On the Absurdity of a Bill of Rights”

This is a short read that lays some of the arguments made against the Bill of Rights on the eve of the ratification of the Constitution. See below a short Summary.

“On the Absurdity of a Bill of Rights” published on the Library of America website. http://storyoftheweek.loa.org/…/on-absurdity-of-bill-of-rig…

Webster argues that the Bill of Rights, if considered as a protection against the power of the elected legislature would be absurd on the ground that 1) there is no need to protect the people from themselves as all the power lay in the elected representatives 2) if unalterable, it commits future generations to the will of the present generation, something no one has a right to. “We have the same right to say that lands shall descend in a particular mode to the heirs of the deceased proprietor, and that such a mode shall never be altered by future generations, as we have to pass a law that the trial by jury shall never be abridged“. As Webster argues, future circumstances will surely require different means of attaining objectives, such that as an example trial by jury may not be the best way anymore. He cities recent events in England, where Pitt desire for reforming England’s mode of representations was immediately met with outrage and the plan was raised as unconstitutional (with regards to Magna Carta). But because there has been great changes in demographics leading to an unequal distribution of the population, Webster concludes that what may have been fair in the past is no longer the case today and it should be possible to change that. “The expediency of the alteration must always be a matter of opinion; but all scruples as to the right of making it are totally groundless”. Overall, a document that aims to protect the people against foreign or external powers (such as the King) makes sense, but as it stands “a bill of Rights against the encroachment of an elective Legislature, that is, against our own encroachments on ourselves, is a curiosity in government”

It is interesting to note in this essay the general lack of mention of the concept of the Tyranny of Majority (Madison’s Federalist 10 was published days or weeks before, November 22, 1787) as well as the available mechanism for amending the constitution. Webster’s view is seemingly set on the fact that the document may be forever unalterable.

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