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Magna Carta’s Influence on the Declaration of Independence & U.S. Constitution

By George LandrithConstituting American

The Magna Carta created the moral and political premise that, in many ways, the American founding was built upon. The Magna Carta came to represent the idea that the people can assert their rights against an oppressive ruler and that the power of government can be limited to protect those rights. These concepts were clearly foundational and central to both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

First, a bit of history about Magna Carta — its full name was Magna Carta Libertatum which is Latin for “Great Charter of Freedoms.” But, it became commonly known as simply Magna Carta or the “Great Charter.” It was written in 1215 to settle an intense political dispute between King John of England and a group of barons who were challenging King John’s absolute right to rule. The terms of the charter were negotiated over the course of three days. When they reached agreement on June 15, 1215, the document was signed by the King and the barons at Runnymede outside of London.

This was a time when kings asserted the absolute right to rule, and that they were above the law and that they were personally chosen to rule by God. At this time, even questioning the King’s power was both treasonous and an act of defiance to God himself.

The Magna Carta limited the king’s absolute claim to power. It provided a certain level of religious freedom or independence from the crown, protected barons from illegal imprisonment, and limited the taxes that the crown could impose upon the barons, among other things. It did not champion the rights of every Englishman. It only focused on the rights of the barons. But, it was an important start to the concept of limiting the absolute power of governments or kings that claimed God had given them the absolute right to rule.

Magna Carta is important because of the principles it stood for and the ideas that it came to represent — not because it lasted a long time. Shortly after signing the charter, King John asked Pope Innocent III to annul it, which he did. Then there was a war known as the First Barons War that began in 1215 and finally ended in 1217.

After King John died in 1216, the regency government of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III reissued the Magna Carta, after having stripped out some of its more “radical” elements in hopes of reuniting the country under his rule. That didn’t work, but at the end of the war in 1217, the original Magna Carta’s terms became the foundation for a peace treaty.

Over the following decades and centuries, the importance of Magna Carta ebbed and flowed depending on the current king’s view of it and his willingness to accept it, or abide by it its concepts. But subsequent kings further legitimized or confirmed the principles of Magna Carta — often in exchange for some grant of new taxes or some other political concession. But the path towards limited government and individual rights had been planted and continued to grow.

Despite its relatively short political life as a working document, Magna Carta created and memorialized the idea that the people had the right to limit the powers of their government and they had the right to protect basic and important rights. By the end of the Sixteenth Century, the political lore of Magna Carta grew and the idea of an ancient source for individual rights became cemented in the minds of reform-minded political scholars, thinkers and writers.

Obviously, it wasn’t as written in 1215 a document that protected the rights of the average Englishman. It only protected English barons. But the concepts of individual rights and the limitations of governmental power had grown and were starting to mature. Magna Carta was the seed of those powerful concepts of freedom and constitutionally limited government.  By the 17th and 18th Centuries, those arguing for reforms and greater individual rights and protections used Magna Carta as their foundation. These ideas are at the very center of both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

As English settlers came to the shores of North America, they brought with them charters under the authority of the King. The Virginia Charter of 1606 promised the English settlers all the same “liberties, franchises and immunities” as people born in England.[1]  The Massachusetts Bay Company charter acknowledged the rights of the settlers to be treated as “free and natural subjects.”[2]

In 1687, William Penn, an early American leader, who had at one point been imprisoned in the Tower of London for his political and religious views, published a pamphlet on freedom and religious liberty that included a copy of the Magna Carta and discussed it as a source of fundamental law.[3] American scholars began to see Magna Carta as the source of their guaranteed rights of trial by jury and habeas corpus (which prevented a king from simply locking up his enemies without charges or due process). While that isn’t necessarily correct history, it is part of the growth of the seed of freedom and liberty that Magna Carta planted.

By July 4, 1776, the idea that government could, and should be, limited by the consent of its citizens and that government must protect individual rights was widely seen as springing forth from Magna Carta. The beautiful and important words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration spring from the fertile soil of Magna Carta:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Obviously, Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of liberty and freedom had developed a great deal since Magna Carta was penned in 1215. But, it is impossible to read Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence and not see the common DNA.

When the Founders debated, drafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution, it is also clear they were creating a set of rules and procedures to limit and check the power of government and to guarantee basic, individual rights.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” is a concept that comes from Magna Carta. Our constitutional guarantees of “a speedy trial” as found in the Sixth Amendment are also founded in the political thought that grew from Magna Carta. The Constitution’s guarantee of the “privilege of the writ of habeas corpus” (Art.1, Sec. 9) is also a concept that grew from Magna Carta.

Even the phrase “the law of the land” comes from Magna Carta’s history. And now we use that phrase in the United States to describe our Constitution which we proudly label “the law of the land.”

To this day, Magna Carta is an important symbol of liberty in both England and the United States.

The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are in my estimation the two most important and influential political documents ever written. What they did to provide promote and protect the freedom, opportunity and security of the average person is almost impossible to overstate. As British Prime Minister William Gladstone said in 1878, “the American Constitution is the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”[4]

I believe Gladstone was correct. But, Magna Carta was an important development in political thought and understanding about government power and individual rights. It is difficult to imagine the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution without the foundational elements provided by Magna Carta.


West Virginia Barber’s Arrest Shows Failings Of The Bureaucratic State

A barber who had been cutting hair for more than 50 years never set out to make a stand. He just wanted to pay his bills.

By Jayme MetzgarThe Federalist

When Winerd “Les” Jenkins first became a barber, Neil Armstrong hadn’t yet set foot on the moon. For over five decades, Jenkins has made a living with his scissors and razor. For the past decade, he’s worked his craft from a storefront in Inwood, West Virginia. At Les’ Place Traditional Barber Shop, you can get a regular men’s haircut for $16 and a shave for $14—but come prepared to pay the old-fashioned way: in cash.

His insistence on “cash only” isn’t the only thing that’s old-school about Jenkins. He lives with his wife of 52 years on a small farm, where the couple raises rescued animals. He believes in paying his bills on time. He doesn’t use the internet, email, or text messaging. And he’s skeptical that his profession can become illegal overnight merely on the governor’s say-so.

This combination of old-fashioned values led to the soft-spoken barber’s arrest this spring. His story shows how governments’ uncoordinated coronavirus response has caught working Americans in its crossfire—and how the apparatus of occupational licensing has functioned as the state’s enforcement mechanism to shut down small business.

Denied Unemployment Assistance

When Les Jenkins first heard about the Wuhan coronavirus, his first concern wasn’t for his own livelihood but that of his wife, Sue. She is medically fragile, on oxygen after an illness left her with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) several years ago. “I thought long and hard about whether I should risk taking the virus home to her,” Jenkins told me. “But this is my only real source of income.”

Even before the state of West Virginia began issuing mandates to contain the virus, Jenkins was already putting his own protection measures in place for Sue’s sake. He wore a mask and gloves, sanitized tools and surfaces, and changed clothes upon coming home every evening.

On March 19, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice ordered all hair salons and barbershops to close. Most salon owners got the message through the media. The West Virginia Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists (WVBBC) published guidelines on its website but didn’t proactively contact its license-holders.

“The West Virginia Board of Barbers never sent me any written instructions, never called, never sent an inspector to tell me to close,” Jenkins said. “The fellow who works with me saw it on the internet and told me about it.”

Jenkins initially complied with the order, using the time off to make renovations to his store. “After about three weeks, money started getting pretty tight,” Jenkins told me. At his local bank, he was turned down for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, due to operating an all-cash business. He called Workforce West Virginia to apply for pandemic-related unemployment assistance. “The unemployment office told me that in order to get assistance, I had to provide evidence that I’d been ordered to close.”

On April 10, to get the documentation needed for unemployment, Jenkins wrote to the WVBBC, requesting a signed letter to confirm the governor’s closure order. He never received a reply.

Reported to the State

By the time two more weeks had gone by with no income, Jenkins was in real fear of losing his home, farm, and business. “I’m 72 years old,” he told me. “What else am I going to do if not this? Who’s going to hire me?”

On Wednesday, April 22, Jenkins quietly opened his shop and cut hair for seven customers—all walk-ins, including several police officers. It would be his only day in operation. The next morning a WVBBC inspector came to the door. “I’ve known her for years, and we talked for a little while about her family,” Jenkins said. “Everything was cordial.”

The inspector told Jenkins the WVBBC had received a complaint the prior week from another local hairstylist, contending that Jenkins was open for business during the shutdown. Jenkins denied seeing customers at the time of the complaint—he was in his shop making renovations—but he admitted to being open the previous day.

He told the WVBBC inspector that he would be willing to close his shop if she would provide him with a copy of the governor’s closure order, signed for verification. The inspector returned to her car. “I assumed she was going to get the letter I had asked for,” Jenkins recalls. Instead, she was calling the sheriff. Two deputies promptly arrived.

After some back-and-forth between the sheriff’s deputies, the state inspector, and the barber, things came to an impasse. “Mr. Jenkins stated that so long as [the inspector] provided him with a copy of the governor’s order with her signature, in writing, he would agree to close his shop,” the sheriff’s deputy wrote in his arrest report. Although the inspector did print a copy of the governor’s order, she refused to sign it, saying that “she was instructed not to provide her signature on the documentation.”

After noting that Jenkins didn’t believe an unsigned document was sufficient, the deputy concluded: “Mr. Jenkins then asked if he may lock up his shop before being placed under arrest, and this deputy allowed him to do so.” Jenkins told me that “no one involved raised their voice or said anything detrimental. Everyone was cordial, professional, and polite.” Nothing in the officer’s report contradicts this characterization.

Jenkins spent three hours in a holding cell before being charged with obstructing an officer and released on a $500 recognizance bond. The misdemeanor charge carries a possible sentence of $50-$500 in fines, and up to a year in jail. Jenkins also worries about potential punitive actions from the WVBBC, which could include fines, suspension, or revocation of his license.

“They’ve Got the Power Over Me”

Today, Jenkins is working again, making up for lost time after six weeks without an income. He never did succeed in obtaining any government financial assistance. “I don’t know if I would have qualified for unemployment,” he told me. “But they wouldn’t even give me the opportunity to try. One bureaucracy dealing with another doesn’t work.”

It’s unclear why the unemployment office told Jenkins he needed to prove he’d been ordered to close his business. Workforce West Virginia did not respond to a request for comment. However, in interviews, other self-employed West Virginians attested to a disorganized, confused, and delayed response in receiving pandemic-related unemployment assistance. The Workforce West Virginia website currently contains a notice that its “systems are experiencing intermittent disruptions and temporary outages” due to overwhelming demand.

It’s still less clear why the state licensing board was unwilling to issue a signed letter at Jenkins’ request. The WVBBC proved far more interested in catching Jenkins breaking the governor’s order than it was in helping him abide by it. Rather than simply provide a document to help one of its barbers obtain assistance from another state agency, the bureaucrats at the WVBBC preferred to see the 72-year-old business owner leave his shop in the back of a police car.

The WVBBC—which did not respond to multiple requests for comment—is just one of an entrenched network of state occupational licensing boards in West Virginia. Last year, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy released a study comparing the state to two of its wealthier neighbors, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Not only does West Virginia have the most licensing boards of the three, but it also has generally higher fees and more onerous licensing requirements.

Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute, doesn’t believe an entity like the WVBBC even needs to exist. He notes that while approximately 5 percent of occupations required licenses in the 1950s, today that number stands at higher than 25 percent. “It’s a protectionist racket,” he says. “If we’re going to have an entity like this for barbers and hairdressers, it should provide voluntary certification or consultative services. It certainly shouldn’t be an extension of the legal system, which it clearly is.”

Indeed, in many states, occupational licensing boards have been a key enforcement mechanism for governors’ shutdowns of small businesses. For instance, Michigan’s own shutdown-defying barber has already had his license suspended. Fortunately, under the direction of President Trump, the federal government has been working to relax the regulatory burden on businesses and restart the national economy. State governments should follow this lead. The last thing small business owners need is to be worried about heavy-handed bureaucrats looking to set examples.

As for Jenkins, he has now hired an attorney from his own pocket, helped out by a few donations from the community. “I don’t want to go to jail for a year,” he told me. “I don’t want to lose my barber license. They’ve got the power over me; they’ve got lawyers funded by the state. I never set out to make a statement or a stand. I just wanted to pay my bills.”


What Does the Oregon Shooter Tell Us About Our Gun Laws?

second amendment_gun controlThis just in: Criminals don’t follow the law.

by Charles C. W. Cooke

KGW News has identified the Oregon shooter. He was just 15 years old.

What does this mean for our public policy? Well, pretty much nothing. Despite all of the chatter from the White House and beyond, “universal background checks” have absolutely nothing to do with this case. In Oregon, 15-year-olds are not allowed to purchase firearms of any sort – whether from stores or from private sources. Last year’s Toomey-Manchin proposal, which would have mandated checks for all private sales, would therefore not have applied to this case and could not have stopped this shooting. To pretend otherwise is downright dishonest.

We also know that the shooter broke a number of other laws. Continue reading


Free Speech Wins Big In Supreme Court Ruling

Supreme CourtThe Supreme Court just lessened the influence of those “shadowy groups with harmless-sounding names” President Obama warns against. We’ll see how the Democrats’ rich donors like the sunlight.

In a 5-to-4 majority, the high court, complementing its landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, has again made it clear that trying to prevent people financing their own political speech in the 21st century is as repressive as restricting the sale of soapboxes to stand on and speak from in centuries past.

“Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects,” Chief Justice John Roberts declared in Wednesday’s McCutcheon v. FEC decision.

“If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.” Continue reading


If You’re Upset, Be Upset for the Right Reasons

Duck Dynastyby Peter Roff

These days almost everyone has a blog or a column or a podcast or some means of participating in the national conversation that goes on daily about, well, everything. It’s one of the more interesting aspects of the information revolution the rise of the Internet has sparked. It means everyone has a bullhorn or at least a microphone – and that has some people very, very scared.

Growing up most of us were taught that we had to show respect for what other people thought – regardless of whether or not we agreed with them. It was the “I may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it” view of the First Amendment protections given to speech and religious liberty in the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading


[Flashback interview] Retired Senator Malcolm Wallop: “The Great American Experiment”

“What the world has not come to grips with is that the Great American Experiment is still going on. It’s the quintessential revolution of the world. . . .”

by Peter and Helen Evans

Helen: . . . What we’d really like to talk about are the foundations of America. Once someone is aware of those they can make more informed decisions about current events. Also, once someone gets to know America, they will probably learn to love her. When we love something, we cherish and protect it from harm.

It seems that everyone is aware of the terrorist threat, but not many want to think about the internal erosion of the values which America stands for. . . . Sure, we may have to fight . . . to protect the country we love, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

Senator Wallop: For starters, I think you have to get rid of the hyphenated-American. Abraham Lincoln said it best. “When you become an American you become flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood of the Founding Fathers.” Continue reading


George Landrith explains the purpose of the Bill of Rights


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