Putting the Federalist Papers in the Classroom--and in the Legislature

By Dave Kopel

KDEN-AM radio. Feb. 19, 1991. More by Kopel on education.

I'm Dave Kopel, a Denver lawyer, and this is Independent Thinking. To graduate from high school, should students have to understand the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers? Yes, the Colorado House of Representatives said recently, passing a statewide law to require knowledge of the founding documents.

If the bill makes it through the Senate, Colorado is going to be full of very perplexed teenagers.

For example, the students might read the Constitution and notice that the fourth amendment says that there shall be no searches and seizures without probable cause. So why does the federal government drug test people without any suspicion at all?

The sixth amendment guarantees an accused person's right to "the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." So why does the government seize a person's assets before he's convicted, and deprive him of the ability to hire a good lawyer?

The fourteenth amendment guarantees equal protection of the law. So why does the government practice reverse discrimination against Anglos and Asian-Americans?

James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that the existence of factions would help preserve liberty. So why do some politicians condemn the ACLU and the NRA for vigorously supporting Constitutional rights?

The root of these problems lies in the fact that some of today's legislators -- unlike the students who will have to pass the founding documents test -- have forgotten the basic premise of our society. It's the second and third sentences of the Declaration of Independence: That all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.

In other words, individual rights come first, and the government comes after. The purpose of government is to protect individual rights. Government does not grant rights; the people grant government specified powers in order to protect their rights. Individual rights aren't the exception to the government's general authority to do anything it wants. Rather, protecting the rights of individuals is the only reason government exists.

If the next generation of leaders understands this basic point, then Colorado will become, even more than it is already, one of the freest states in the Union.

I'm Dave Kopel, and this is Independent Thinking.

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