From the Right



Forever Prisoners

Judge Andrew P. Napolitano on

"I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." -- Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 30, 1787

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, neighbor and colleague, James Madison, his view that the basis of government must be to preserve liberty rather than order, the War of Revolution against Great Britain had been won, the Articles of Confederation were in place and Madison was beginning to prepare for his pivotal role in the drafting of the Constitution.

Jefferson was in Paris, as the U.S. ambassador, and he wrote to express to Madison his view that whatever amendments to the Articles of Confederation he was planning to draft, they should embrace the value of personal liberty as the default position. Madison and others were sent to Philadelphia to craft amendments to the Articles. But Madison had no amendments in mind.

He arrived in the then-capital of the new nation with a draft of a new constitution in his mind and in his notes. The draft would undergo many changes throughout the summer of negotiations in 1787, and the document would eventually receive the support of all delegates and be ratified by the 13 states, without Jefferson's preferences of liberty over order.

Yet, five of the ratifying states made it clear that they might change their minds if a Bill of Rights embracing Jefferson's sentiments was not added to the Constitution. Jefferson, 3,000 miles away, shared the same fear as ratifiers in the hesitant states that the new government that Madison and his colleagues offered needed to be chained down when it came to personal liberty.

Again, it fell to Madison to use his linguistic skills to craft 10 amendments to assure that the new federal government would not assault personal liberty. The Bill of Rights was ratified in just a few months' time and with little resistance. Even many anti-federalists, who had opposed ratification of the Constitution, supported ratification of the Bill of Rights.


Among the amendments ratified was the Fifth, which guarantees that "No person ... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Due process means that all defendants in criminal cases and all persons detained by the government are entitled to know the charges against them, are entitled to a fair jury trial with a neutral judge, and enjoy the right to appeal an adverse verdict. Due process also means that the government cannot imprison a person without filing charges at the time of imprisonment nor keep him confined after he has served his prison term.

I offer this sterile background in basic American constitutional history in order to address a lamentable constitutional mess now going on at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The age-old clash between order and freedom, about which Jefferson wrote, often comes down to uneasy cases. Cases are uneasy when the litigants whose rights are being violated are unpopular, unsympathetic or unknown.


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