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Habeas Corpus (or “How America Lost the Revolution”)


I hate to simply rant here without synthesizing ideas, but this is one simple idea: habeas corpus. A little history, political philosophy, and ranting.

In the year 1215, habeus corpus meant that those people with power had rights. The rights of habeas corpus came about when landowners who had considerable power were threatening to make a grab for power. These people were the lords, as in “House of Lords”, as in Parliament. The Magna Carta was signed and stated that those with sovereign power (landed lords and kings) were to be afforded with rights over their own selves. The essential meaning of this is “government cannot take away your autonomy without just cause, as determined by law.” In the Middle Ages, this rule only applied to thos with sovereign rights. This notion came to be known as habeas corpus. A serf certainly did not have habeas corpus. It was a privilege for the privileged.

Fast-forward a few hundred years. The number of people who call themselves “sovereign” had expanded. The king could grant you this privilege and you could pass it on to your family (being knighted was the typical way to do this). Parliament was now a powerful fixture in British government, where lords represented themselves, and practiced a trickle-down philosophy of ruling over peasants – what was good for the lord was good for their peasants. However, a few refugees tried to escape religious persectution (and succeeded). When they found their new home, he first thing they did was sign a contract incorporating their new town and setting down the rules by which things would operate. The Mayflower Compact was revolutionary – it said that all members of the community were sovereign. Since survival was not guaranteed, they agreed to centralize their sovereign power by electing a leader to exercise their collective power. This was not revolutionary in the Puritan religious tradition, but it was in government. It was one step further than Parliament’s model.

Moving forward in time just a bit further. Now that North America was safer, the crown took a renewed intrest in it. Colonists, having been allowed to exercise collective self-government for a few generations, argued to the crown that it cannot assert its power the same way as it did in Britain. There was no legal precedent in the Americas of the same extent of crown control. (Since the Magna Carta, things had become very much about precedent.) The crown argued that all British lands are the royal family’s sovereign right. The colonists argued, using the Mayflower Compact, that they had sovereignty as well. The king asserted more power and control, and in response, the colonists responded that, as sovereign peoples, they are granted by the Magna Carta the rights of habeas corpus.

War broke out. “No taxation without representation” was the tagline for a war with the absurd goal that American colonists would all be “equals” with the landed lords of England. (To be clear: to gain this franchise, one needed to be a land-owning male.) The “revolution” in the American war for independence was that people could automatically get habeas corpus. No more unfair trials, no more indefinite detainments. Habeas corpus was worth dying for. Then, the Constitution said that everyone is afforded the right of habeas corpus. It was no longer a privilege for the privileged – it was a right.

Time passed, and habeas corpus was worth dying for again. The Civil War broke out because candidate Lincoln ran on a platform of containment – no more slave states. Note that he did not support the abolition of slavery. The northern Republicans (which constituted of former Whigs and disillusioned northern Democrats) all went for Lincoln. Once succession happened, because of slavery, and war broke out, Lincoln became more and more convinced that slavery was wrong. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave people of all colors the right of habeas corpus.

Through American history, the thread that made it uniquely American was habeas corpus – sovereignty. We Americans are sovereign over ourselves. There was no western government that gave its people that muchpower that early in history. If nothing else, the experiment of the American experiment was habeas corpus. We all, today, are sovereign powers. We constituted a government to exercise our power judiciously.

And they have failed. President Bush signed a law saying that he an suspend habeas corpus for anyone he suspects of being involved in terrorism. More significantly, Congress passed that law. Any true American should be outraged that the single thread that makes the United States what it is, the root of the American Revolution and the Civil War, is now optional. The “crown” is finally winning the war… Not on terror, but on freedom. First habeas corpus, then every other right can quickly slip away.

I ask one question: where are the defenders of our rights? Where are the crowds protesting this act? Where is our Boston Tea Party? This is worse than a law saying we have to pay taxes – this is a law that says the government can do what it wants whenever it wants however it wants. Comparisons to gestapo aside, this is what the king wanted in the first place. This is what the “Founding Fathers” were fighting against. And our so-called representatives in Congress gave the the executive branch power to deny people their sovereignty. Sovereignt, of course, being the root of the Revolution.

If one supports this bill, if one lets any person have the legal basis to deny any other the right of habeas corpus (a right given even to suspected serial killers), then the American experiment failed. This law is the simply yet another nail in what is increasingly looking like the coffin of the American Revolution.

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Filed under: Philosophy, Politics

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Idealink by vijtable is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work by various sources, as cited.
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