“The compact which exists between the North and the South,” proclaimed William Lloyd Garrison in an abolitionist declaration of 1843, “is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” When the Southern states concluded that they were no longer bound by what their enemies regarded as a compact with the devil. Garrison and his colleagues were flexible enough to set aside their hatred of both union and Constitution, and they compelled the hated South, by fire and sword, to return to the union.

Flexibility (or lack of scruple) has characterized most interpretations of the Constitution since the dissolution of the old American union; and in recent decades, judges, politicians, and ideologues have become carefree in demanding constitutional protections for women who want to kill their unborn children and for other women who want to protest against the women who want to kill their children.

Look for a “right to life” that supersedes the states’ jurisdiction over homicide cases, and you will find it only in the same penumbra where the “right to privacy” had been lurking unnoticed for two centuries until it was unearthed by the brilliant constitutional mind of William O. Douglas. It must be in that same black aura where judges have discovered the rights of pornographers and nude dancers, the right of non-Christians to eliminate prayer from public schools, or the right of the federal government to overturn state laws imposing literacy requirements on voters, or prohibiting partial-birth abortions.

Here is one point on which conservatives and leftists seem to agree: that the Bill of Rights is merely a tool for bypassing the messy politics of a corrupt democracy. Anyone who loses a fight at the ballot box can reopen the war by going to the federal courts. This is the opposite of what the Framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had in mind.

In the debates over ratification of the Constitution, many states called for a Bill of Rights to protect both the states and the people from future tyranny. Federalists were skeptical: Some of them, frankly, did not want restrictions on the growth of the central government; others were afraid that the introduction of rights into the Constitution would backfire. Theodore Sedgwick feared that a Bill of Rights would give the national government “a right of interference which would naturally tend to cheek, circumscribe and finally annihilate all state power.”

Both sides were right. The federal government has taken power over the states, communities, and private life with about the same speed and brutality as the Moors took Spain. The Moors were invited by a disgruntled Gothic prince claiming his rights, and the invitation to federal expansion has generally been the pretext that somebody’s rights were being violated. The transformation—like so many political revolutions—was accompanied, or even accomplished by, a sleight-of-tongue involving the word “rights.” The Bill of Rights refers to several concrete and historic rights asserted by the recently liberated colonists: the rights of the people “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”; “to keep and bear arms”; “to be secure . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures”; “to a speedy and public trial”; and to “trial by jury.”

In addition to these enumerated rights, the first ten amendments also provide for certain freedoms—”the free exercise of religion,” freedom of speech and of the press—and the Tenth Amendment, asserting the powers of the people and of the states, makes it clear that these threats are aimed specifically and exclusively at the general government. The point is made, however, in the first words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law . . . ” It never occurred to the Framers of these amendments that judges or the president could make laws, much less that any federal branch could pervert their clear language into a pretext for invading the people’s liberties.

The trick played on the American people was the device of confusing the lofty sentiments of the Declaration of Independence with the practical safeguards against centralization inserted into the first ten amendments. No one was foolish enough, in the early days of the republic to read the Declaration into the Constitution (as one sect of philosophes has claimed to do), but demagogues like Webster and Lincoln, in their constant harping on the themes of the Declaration, made it seem as if Mr. Jefferson’s elegant sentences on equality and inalienable rights constituted an American creed. Calhoun saw the mischief but was powerless to stem the tide.

There is one strange aspect to the Lincolnian misreading of the Declaration promoted by Prof Harry Jaffa and his disciples. As anti-Christians, President Lincoln and Professor Jaffa conveniently pass over the obviously Christian language of the Declaration. Mr. Jefferson was far from an orthodox Trinitarian, but even as an Anglican deist, he was careful to couch what seemed to be a Lockean argument in language that would appeal to the Christian majority who would be expected to fight the Revolution. Jefferson did not say: “Men were originally born equal in a state of nature from which they derive their rights.” He apparently wrote in his original draft “that all men are [present tense] created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable. Among which are the preservation of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Once Jefferson and his colleagues had clarified the point by inserting “endowed by their Creator,” the text took on an almost Thomistic ring. Our Creator has made man in such a way as to be possessed of certain essential properties which include the right to live, to be free, and to pursue the happiness which is the natural end of human existence.

Now, to a Jacobin, a Marxist, or a Straussian, “the pursuit of happiness” might serve as a cover for imposing a tyrannical reign of virtue. The students of Aristotle and St. Thomas know better, that commonwealths—as Thomas says more than once—exist to make a virtuous life possible; they cannot and must not attempt to compel virtue. (Thomas thought collecting interest on a loan was sinful, but he acknowledged that it may be in the interest of society not to punish usury.)

Mr. Jefferson was no Thomist, although he had certainly read his Aristotle. We know, however, what he thought about the role of national and state governments. His views on the power of states are declared ringingly in the Kentucky Resolutions, and although he opposed slaver)’, his loathing of the abolitionist arguments from higher powers and natural rights boiled to the surface in his famous remarks on the Missouri Compromise, when the abolitionist rhetoric awakened him as a “firebell in the night.” Albert Jay Nock once asked himself how, on Jefferson’s understanding, the state should act to “raise the general level of happiness.” Nock answered:

Mr. Jefferson’s answer to this question can be put in a few words—that it should mind its own business . . . to protect the individual from the aggressions and trespasses of his neighbors and beyond this to leave him strictly alone.

The party of Lincoln turned Mr. Jefferson and the Bill of Rights on their heads, and few Americans are willing to consider the plain meaning of these texts. I do not exempt constitutional “scholars” or political “philosophers,” and the ordinary, dim-witted sort of sluggard who chairs Senate committees or sits on the Supreme Court does not dream for a moment of going back 30 (much less 200) years to discover the truth.

To measure how far we have come, simply compare the Dred Scott decision with Roe v. Wade. In Dred Scott, the most basic argument was constitutional; African-Americans had not been considered citizens by the Framers of the Constitution nor did they enjoy, even in states dominated by abolitionist politics, the most rudimentary form of citizenship—the rights to vote, hold public office, sit on juries, intermarry with rights. If Congress or the states wanted to make them citizens, they were free to do so, but such an innovation was not the prerogative of the Supreme Court. In his decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney took note of the colonial and post-republican laws restricting the rights of African-Americans, commenting:

It is not the province of the court to decide upon the justice or injustice . . . of these laws. The decision . . . belonged to the political or lawmaking power; to those who formed the sovereignty and framed the Constitution. The duty of the court is, to interpret the instrument they have framed, with the best lights we can obtain on the subject, and to administer it as we find it, according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.

This is the pure republican doctrine of the Framers, but only 116 years later in Roe v. Wade, the justices discovered something that no one had ever heard of before: a right to privacy that prevented state governments from regulating what everyone in his right mind knew to be homicide. These two opinions were drawn on absolutely opposite grounds, but in this age of lead, the so-called conservative defenders of constitutional federalism think they can score points by confusing judicial restraint with judicial legislation and by equating slavery with murder. Slavery is an evil, but it is not murder (much less legalized abortion), and it is embarrassing to come across this degrading cliche even in Justice Scalia’s principled dissents.

Inexorably, the Bill of Rights, which was supposed to defend the concrete Anglo-American liberties for which our ancestors fought and died from the power of centralized government, has become a Declaration of the Rights of Man to justify the expansion of government at the expense of society.

How this works in the case of the First Amendment hardly needs comment. Fearing the power of government to silence political opposition, the framers of the First Amendment tried to safeguard freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and because religion in the 17th and 18th centuries was a focal point of every political struggle, they lumped the exercise of religion in with the provisions protecting political speech. In practice, however, government agents (a.k.a. judges and politicians) have converted, for example, freedom of religion to the prohibition of religion.

Aiding and abetting the government agents have been the business and cultural monopolists who have sought to cartelize all aspects of social and political expression. What does freedom of the press mean in a country where access to the vast television, radio, and newspaper markets is controlled by a few giant corporations that collude with federal regulators? Pat Buchanan has the right to say anything he likes in his own living room or even on a local talk show. If he secures the nomination of a party that not so long ago garnered 19 percent of the vote, he will still not be allowed into the presidential debates. As the New York Times explains, George Bush and Al Gore are providing the genuine differences of opinion on which hue democracy rests. Does anyone believe that?

In protecting political speech from federal control, the framers of the First Amendment did not intend to diminish the authority of any state or corporate body. From the perspective of the First Amendment, the state of Wisconsin, the city of Madison, and the University of Wisconsin are free to impose speech codes. Only federal legislation against hate speech is forbidden.

The problem goes deeper than the possible passage of one more stupid federal program. Our entire system of higher education has been cartelized by federal “assistance” accompanied by federal regulation. There is one vast university imposing federal propaganda on American students, and if an institution (e.g. Bob Jones University) attempts to assert its own traditions, it is soon slapped into line. Political correctness, however, is only the glossy pelt that covers the actual beast. The real monster is that hybrid monopoly of government and business, the corporate state. In effect, by appK ing sanctions and invoking the First Amendment, the federal government can exclude dissident political speech from American colleges and universities. On most of our campuses, it is already next to impossible to criticize homosexual rights, affirmative action, feminism, Islam. This is the eternal sequence: cartelize, regulate, prohibit.

This cartelization of rights goes on apace. Once upon a time, there were dozens of competing Protestant sects, and even among Lutherans there were numerous denominations. As the various Lutheran seminaries and sects sold out their religious traditions, they lost members both to the more robust and authentic evangelical churches and to the more traditional Lutheran synods, Missouri and Wisconsin. In disgust, the leftist and anti-Christian “Lutherans,” eager to champion the rights of homosexuals and infanticidal women, clubbed together to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the English branch of Protestantism, the Episcopalians were just as busily destroying their church: desecrating the Book of Common Prayer, pretending to ordain priestesses, justifying infanticide, turning every Sabbath into AIDS Awareness Sunday. Like the liberal Lutherans, the liberal Anglicans lost members—to the Catholic and Orthodox churches and to a variety of “continuing churches.” Now, in despair, these two infanticidal bodies are talking merger, and if such anti-churches have their way, there will be one American church of Antichrist, protected by the Constitution as the only legitimate “Christian” body. (If the American Catholic bishops have their way, they too will merge their dwindling dioceses into Antichrist, Inc.)

Don’t laugh. The time is coming when Christian parents will face persecution if they refuse to allow their daughters to date Episcopalians. The grounds will be the same First Amendment which will be invoked, before too long, to compel Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Jews to accept women priests and rabbis and perform homosexual marriages; the same First Amendment that already takes the Ten Commandments out of the courthouse and the Cross from public squares.

This is a struggle we cannot win unless we begin to fight it, and the first step will be for conservative Christians and Jews to give up, once and for all, the anti-Christian language of rights. William Lloyd Garrison was wrong in the 1840’s, but his language accurately describes the current state of constitutional law. The Bill of Rights, as expanded by the 14th Amendment, by the Civil Rights Act, and by the bloody-handed Supreme Court of the United States, is truly a covenant with death.