An Unfortunate Constitutional Truth (For The Government)


One of the many arguments in favor of Bradley Manning’s innocence is that he took an oath to the Constitution, which is higher than any oath he may have taken to confidentiality, and by exposing the crimes of the government, he was upholding his oath to the Constitution. However, I have heard this argument countered by claiming that many of the people affected by the government actions exposed by Manning were not protected by the Constitution because they were not American citizens. This is an argument that has been repeated multiple times throughout the “War on Terror”, and regardless of your feelings on the Manning case, is simply factually incorrect.

It is first important to understand the historical background and mindset involved in the adoption of the Constitution and, more importantly, the Bill of Rights. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, the people of the United States had won their Independence from Great Britain only four years earlier. The former colonists listed deprivation of basic rights such as trial by jury and freedom from overbearing standing armies, among others, as justification for separation from their former ruler. This set the stage for the early American viewpoint of government being not a provider of rights, but a depriver of rights.

The Preamble of the Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This idea of rights being endowed by a creator, demonstrates that the founders believed rights originated from God. This is essentially the same as the more frequently referenced Natural Rights Theory, differing only in the exact origin of the rights. Nevertheless, both theories support the idea that there are certain inherent rights that all people are born with and to infringe on those rights is immoral.

This viewpoint was echoed during the adoption of the Constitution. Anti-federalists who remembered the offences of Great Britain, opposed a strong centralized government on the grounds that it would likely degenerate and end up violating the rights of the people in the name of power. One of the concessions that had to be made to get Anti-federalists on board with the Constitution was a Bill of Rights which listed rights which the government could not violate. It is also important to recognize the Ninth Amendment which points out that the Bill of Rights is only a partial list and other rights do exist. With this understanding, we see that the Bill of Rights is not a document granting people rights, but a document recognizing the existence of certain natural rights which the government guarantees not to violate. It should also be noted that the Federalists where, largely, not opposed to recognizing the existence of natural rights. In fact, the reason many of them did not feel the need for a Bill of Rights was that they felt the existence of these rights to be so obvious that listing them was unnecessary.

This understanding of the Bill of Rights as a document recognizing the existence of rights, rather than a document granting rights makes us realize that it does not only apply to American citizens, but to all people. Under Natural Rights Theory the place someone was born has absolutely no influence on the rights that person is entitled to. All people are born with the same rights. This has far reaching consequences, above even arguing the innocence of Bradley Manning. This means that the government of the United States has agreed to recognize the rights of every single human on Earth. The U.S. government cannot spy on any human without a warrant, cannot infringe on any human’s freedom of speech, religion, etc., and must grant every human suspected of committing a crime due process under the Fifth Amendment. It is for this reason that it is important to remember that, no matter what arbitrary, imaginary lines on the map you are born within, you are no more or less human than anyone else. Morality is a universal language and one that all people should become fluent in.

About Author

Leon Larkin is a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studying history and philosophy.