WASHINGTON — Washington.-- On January 1, some people still shoot firecrackers, and most take the day off.
With speeches, parades and aircraft flyovers, we celebrate Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, the birthdays of Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. We throw parties to mark events as silly as April Fool's Day, and we have just used forests of trees to commemorate the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Not one of those occasions is as important to Americans as today -- and not one in a hundred of us realizes why: On this day 200 years ago, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution went into effect following ratification by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, which should be celebrated louder than all the rest.
True, July 4, 1776, preceded it, and without independence we would not have had either the Constitution or its amendments. But independence from Britain was inevitable; we were bound to assert it soon. And though we did so in grand style, committing ourselves to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," independence alone did not distinguish our new nation from others abroad.
There was nothing inevitable about the Bill of Rights. No other country had one. The fact of it was debated at great length before being ratified, as the meaning of it is still debated today. It is our greatest ornament, the document that sets us apart from all the nations of history.
Yet in a country where some men know the batting averages of entire baseball teams, few except legal scholars can tick off the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights. Each of us enjoys its protection every day; it is as much a part of our life as the air we breathe, and we take it just as much for granted.
Indeed, most of us don't understand it. One of the most familiar dull-day exercises for civil liberties organizations is to read off its more ringing statements to citizens on the street, and ask their reaction. In every such survey, a few will maintain that the quoted excerpts are from some radical document that they would never accept in this country.
Consider the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Undeniably, it is the source of much trouble in this country, because those freedoms insure that unpopular opinion will be heard. Without the argument that single sentence encourages, things would be much calmer here -- as they were for most of this century in the Soviet Union, and still are in China.
The Fourth Amendment, which restricts the government's power search and seizure, is a frequent inconvenience to the police. Sometimes with the best of intentions, they don't follow the rules when they break into homes. They don't like the paperwork required to do it right, or the disappointment when they have done it wrong. Without the Fourth, police work would be much easier -- as it was in Germany during the Third Reich.
It is galling to some that the Fifth Amendment forbids requiring a defendant to testify against himself, and provides that he have the aid of counsel. Police interrogations and the grandstanding of congressional committees are much less productive when thus restricted. The idea that taxpayers must furnish a lawyer for a common crook, clearly guilty by the look of him, is repugnant to the nicer class of citizen.
The Eighth Amendment rules out excessive bail or fines, as well as cruel and unusual punishment. This frustrates those in the judicial or executive branch who would pacify the public passions of the moment by returning convicts to the whipping post or executing them for a broad array of offenses.
Among Americans who have no sense of what went on in colonial times, or of what still happens in other lands, there is serious resentment of such restrictions on the power of government. Regrettably, among politicians who know better, there are some who cater to these resentments instead of educating the public to discard them.
In this bicentennial year of the Bill of Rights, every one of the amendments I have cited has been under attack -- not by fascists or communists, but by duly elected U.S. officials and their judicial appointees. Although the electorate is sometimes surprised by those in all three branches of government, by and large citizens get what they vote for.
All of which suggests that if we want our country to come through the next century as free as it has the last two, we should teach the Bill of Rights and celebrate it at least as enthusiastically as we do Groundhog Day.