The Constitutional “Shall Nots” of Congress

Universal human rights are determined by government restraint. In what areas of human life should the government not be involved? What areas of life must the government not regulate, not restrain, not limit, not oversee, not implement, not subsidize, not legalize or make illegal?

Interestingly, the first five words of the Bill of Rights state what Congress cannot do: “Congress shall make no law… .”

Even more telling– the first ten amendments, with perhaps The Sixth as the exception, all define what the government cannot do:

  • First: “Shall make no law … prohibiting … abridging,
  • Second: “Shall not be infringed”
  • Third: “No soldier shall … without the consent …”
  • Fourth: “Shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue …”
  • Fifth: “No person shall be held … nor shall any person be subject …”
  • Seventh: “Shall be preserved … No fact … shall be otherwise reexamined …”
  • Eighth: “Shall not be required … Nor excessive … imposed, nor … punishments inflicted”
  • Ninth: “shall not be construed to deny or disparage”
  • Tenth: “Not delegated … nor prohibited.”

The third, fifth, eighth, and tenth amendments don’t state “rights;” they state what authority the government does not have. In effect, limits on government are universal human rights. The Constitution outlines specific areas of human life that are off-limits to government. This suggests that there are certain aspects of human life which are fundamentally free.

The Constitution did not outline rights or prohibitions defined by a government that could later redefine them. It outlined rules to be followed by a self-ruling people in addition to separating and balancing political authority among judiciary, legislative, and executive branches.

Despite the limits the Founders enumerated in the Constitution, their limits are still limited in their ability to constrain government overreach. Matters of conscience, especially as they relate to the First Amendment, dictate certain situations when citizens decide to not follow and/or disobey unjust laws. Interestingly, dissent in the form of collective actions of conscience (refusing to pay taxes, boycotting specific products, and armed resistance) among approximately one third of American colonists who fought for independence.

The Constitution was the result of a point in time that the Founding Fathers and Framers identified of a line they could not cross. They could not comply in good conscience– it would be immoral to comply– with the laws of a corrupt and tyrannical government. Christians joined them, citing New Testament directives, identifying that they also must only “obey God rather than men.”

They recognized they could not selectively disobey certain laws because the government itself could not be obeyed. They needed a new government. Rebellion and resistance were required because the ruling authorities had rebelled against God. The government had not only violated basic principles of justice but also had squandered God-given human rights, rendering itself illegitimate.

Thomas Jefferson asserted:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long Established, should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, Accordingly, all experience [has] shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

“But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations,  pursuing invariably the same object, evidences a design to reduce [the people] under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”

Jefferson also said, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

The Shall Nots were imperative to the Founders– they wanted to ensure that if Congress violated them the people had just cause to rebel.

July 17, 2015