The Donald Koch Foundation hosted a presentation by Howard Bay and Clark Beim-Esche at the Principia School in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 2017. During the talk, the speakers discussed the history of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and why these documents remain important today.
The speakers both have strong ties to the Principia School, as well as a thorough knowledge of American history. A retired teacher of history and economics at the school, Mr. Bay is also a former Principia student. Mr. Beim-Eshce worked in the English and History departments at the Principia Upper School for more than 30 years. A winner of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum Creative Teaching Award, Mr. Beim-Esche is also an author. His 2015 book, Calling on the Presidents: Tales Their Houses Tell, is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Mr. Bay spoke first, describing the Declaration of Independence as America’s birth certificate. He went on to say that “no American document has had a greater global impact” than the Declaration of Independence. In fact, over half of today’s United Nations’ member countries have taken inspiration from our founding documents to create their own declarations of independence. All but two of these documents lack the passage from our document’s preamble, which states that “all men are created equal” and have “certain unalienable rights, including ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Our Declaration of Independence was a radical document, according to Mr. Bay, because it marked the first time that a government was formed on the basis of a set of “truths.” It also asserted that a government’s power comes from the people and not the other way around. This meant that Americans were now “citizens” and not “subjects.”
Toward the end of his presentation, Mr. Bay described the harrowing journey that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution took during the Revolutionary War and throughout the decades before ending up encased in glass at the National Archives. The fact that we could have easily lost these valuable documents is frightening. According to President Truman, “Liberty … can be lost, and it will be, if the time ever comes when these documents are regarded not as the supreme expression of our profound belief, but merely as curiosities in glass cases.” Mr. Bay concluded his portion of the talk by warning that in order to preserve the principles of liberty, each new generation of Americans must not only understand the truths expressed in our founding documents, but they must also cherish them.
Mr. Beim-Esche begins his portion of the presentation by comparing the Bill of Rights to the Ten Commandments. According to Mr. Beim-Esche, both documents are basically lists of “thou shalt nots.”
Subsequently, Mr. Beim-Esche detailed the timeline of the drafting of the Constitution, from the Declaration of Independence and the release of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776 to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He goes on to describe the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
The 10 amendments contained in this document list 24 limitations on government. Among these are restrictions on laws that diminish the freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, religion, press, and petition. The government also cannot force citizens to house soldiers in their homes without their consent or infringe upon people’s right to have and bear arms.
Additionally, the Bill of Rights prevents the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures and requires probable cause before issuing a warrant. The Bill of Rights also guarantees citizens freedom from self-incrimination, double trial for the same crime, arrest without indictment, and loss of property without just compensation. When a citizen is arrested, the government must deliver a just and timely trial, an impartial jury, notice of all charges, and legal representation. The accused also has the right to confront any witnesses. In a civil case over a certain dollar amount, citizens are entitled to a jury trial. Moreover, the government cannot impose excessive bail or fines, or any cruel and unusual punishment.
To further secure against government overreach, the 9th Amendment of the Bill of Rights denies the government any powers that the Constitution does not specifically mention. The 10th Amendment takes this one step further by stating that all rights not delegated to the federal government in the Constitution are reserved to the states and the people.
At the end of his presentation, Mr. Beim-Esche pointed to the bottom of a copy of the Bill of Rights that Donald Koch would later hand out to junior students in the audience. He said, “This copy of the American Bill of Rights is a gift to the students of Principia by the Donald L. Koch Foundation as a timeless reminder that the freedom entrusted to their care is a challenge to their generation—a test of them as individuals to preserve and protect or ignobly to lose.”