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Quotations about Liberty and Power

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One wonders how the course of American history might have been radically different if the 19th century individualist legal theorist Lysander Spooner had been appointed to the Supreme Court. One of his favorite amendments to the Constitution was the 9th, which he believed had been largely forgotten by jurists in the 80 or so years since it was enacted, possibly for very good political reasons. Had its defence of the people’s natural rights, which were not enumerated specifically in the first 8 amendments, been enforced, very little of what the US government had done in the meantime, or since, would be constitutional. After continuing to be ignored for nearly 160 years the 9th Amendment was “rediscovered” by Bennett Patterson in 1955 and again by Randy Barnett in 2005. Perhaps in another 50 years someone else, possibly a Supreme Court judge, might “rediscover” it again.

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12 May, 2010

SpoonerB-250

Spooner states the importance of the 9th Amendment to the American Constitution which protects the natural rights of the people not enumerated in the 1st 8 Amendments (1886)

Read the full quote in context here.

Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) points out the importance of the 9th Amendment to the American Constitution in protecting the natural rights of the people not enumerated in the first 8 amendments. He laments the fact that this amendment has been ignored by the courts almost since it was enacted:

But perhaps the most absolute proof that our national lawmakers and judges are as regardless of all constitutional, as they are of all natural, law, and that their statutes and decisions are as destitute of all constitutional, as they are of all natural, authority, is to be found in the fact that these lawmakers and judges have trampled upon, and utterly ignored, certain amendments to the constitution, which had been adopted, and (constitutionally speaking) become authoritative, as early as 1791; only two years after the government went into operation.

… Then followed the ninth amendment, in these words:

The enumeration in the constitution, of certain rights, [retained by the people] shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Here is an authoritative declaration, that “the people” have “other rights” than those specially “enumerated in the constitution”; and that these “other rights” were “retained by the people”; that is, that congress should have no power to infringe them…

Now, if congress and the courts had attempted to obey this amendment, as they were constitutionally bound to do, they would soon have found that they had really no lawmaking power whatever left to them; because they would have found that they could make no law at all, of their own invention, that would not violate men’s natural rights.

The full passage from which this quotation was taken can be be viewed below (front page quote in bold):

Section XXV.

But perhaps the most absolute proof that our national lawmakers and judges are as regardless of all constitutional, as they are of all natural, law, and that their statutes and decisions are as destitute of all constitutional, as they are of all natural, authority, is to be found in the fact that these lawmakers and judges have trampled upon, and utterly ignored, certain amendments to the constitution, which had been adopted, and (constitutionally speaking) become authoritative, as early as 1791; only two years after the government went into operation.

If these amendments had been obeyed, they would have compelled all congresses and courts to understand that, if the government had any constitutional powers at all, they were simply powers to protect men’s natural rights, and not to destroy any of them.

These amendments have actually forbidden any lawmaking whatever in violation of men’s natural rights. And this is equivalent to a prohibition of any lawmaking at all. And if lawmakers and courts had been as desirous of preserving men’s natural rights, as they have been of violating them, they would long ago have found out that, since these amendments, the constitution authorized no lawmaking at all.

These amendments were ten in number. They were recommended by the first congress, at its first session, in 1789; two-thirds of both houses concurring. And in 1791, they had been ratified by all the States: and from that time they imposed the restrictions mentioned upon all the powers of congress.

These amendments were proposed, by the first congress, for the reason that, although the constitution, as originally framed, had been adopted, its adoption had been procured only with great difficulty, and in spite of great objections. These objections were that, as originally framed and adopted, the constitution contained no adequate security for the private rights of the people.

These objections were admitted, by very many, if not all, the friends of the constitution themselves, to be very weighty; and such as ought to be immediately removed by amendments. And it was only because these friends of the constitution pledged themselves to use their influence to secure these amendments, that the adoption of the constitution itself was secured. And it was in fulfilment of these pledges, and to remove these objections, that the amendments were proposed and adopted.

The first eight amendments specified particularly various prohibitions upon the power of congress; such, for example, as those securing to the people the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and the press, the right to keep and bear arms, etc., etc. Then followed the ninth amendment, in these words:

The enumeration in the constitution, of certain rights, [retained by the people] shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Here is an authoritative declaration, that “the people” have “other rights” than those specially “enumerated in the constitution”; and that these “other rights” were “retained by the people”; that is, that congress should have no power to infringe them.

What, then, were these “other rights,” that had not been “enumerated”; but which were nevertheless “retained by the people”?

Plainly they were men’s natural “rights”; for these are the only “rights” that “the people” ever had, or, consequently, that they could “retain.”

And as no attempt is made to enumerate all these “other rights,” or any considerable number of them, and as it would be obviously impossible to enumerate all, or any considerable number, of them; and as no exceptions are made of any of them, the necessary, the legal, the inevitable inference is, that they were all “retained”; and that congress should have no power to violate any of them.

Now, if congress and the courts had attempted to obey this amendment, as they were constitutionally bound to do, they would soon have found that they had really no lawmaking power whatever left to them; because they would have found that they could make no law at all, of their own invention, that would not violate men’s natural rights.

All men’s natural rights are co-extensive with natural law, the law of justice; or justice as a science. This law is the exact measure, and the only measure, of any and every man’s natural rights. No one of these natural rights can be taken from any man, without doing him an injustice; and no more than these rights can be given to any one, unless by taking from the natural rights of one or more others.

In short, every man’s natural rights are, first, the right to do, with himself and his property, everything that he pleases to do, and that justice towards others does not forbid him to do; and, secondly, to be free from all compulsion, by others, to do anything whatever, except what justice to others requires him to do.

Such, then, has been the constitutional law of this country since 1791; admitting, for the sake of the argument—what I do not really admit to be a fact—that the constitution, so called, has ever been a law at all.

This amendment, from the remarkable circumstances under which it was proposed and adopted, must have made an impression upon the minds of all the public men of the time; although they may not have fully comprehended, and doubtless did not fully comprehend, its sweeping effects upon all the supposed powers of the government.

But whatever impression it may have made upon the public men of that time, its authority and power were wholly lost upon their successors; and probably, for at least eighty years, it has never been heard of, either in congress or the courts.

[More works by Lysander Spooner (1808 – 1887) and on The American Revolution and Constitution]