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Thoughts & Views: The foundations of our nation

Tomorrow being the Glorious Fourth, I decided to give myself a little refresher course in American history, and wouldn’t you know, I learned something I never knew before.

On the day in 1776 when the Continental Congress approved (this is the original wording and capitalization) “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,” it apparently marked the first time the former British colonies officially referred to themselves as “states.”

If I’m wrong about that, would some historian please correct me?

In any case, I wanted Observer readers to get a little refresher course of their own. We all (I hope) know bits of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, but this is a suitable occasion on which to repeat the initial sentences, which set the stage for the birth of a nation:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands [I always thought it was “bonds,” didn’t you?] which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“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. . . .”

I would also like to offer for your consideration, the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

More than one of these has served as a flashpoint in recent national debates, but I did wonder how familiar those on the sidelines are with the precise wording. TV’s talking heads offer scraps and phrases, but rarely enlighten the public by reading the entire amendment at the heart of an argument.

So here, for your edification, is what they say, in their original form. Take into consideration such things as subordinate clauses and (18th century) punctuation and you can get a bit of feel for what it must be like to be a Supreme Court justice:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

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

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Reading all this over, I am struck by one thing: These truly are living documents, as relevant today (except perhaps that $20 reference) as to when they were written. Therein lies the genius of our Founding Fathers. Please give a little thought to, and thanks for, that tomorrow night when our skies are ablaze with fireworks.

– Karen Zautyk

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