From the inception of the U.S. Constitution, there has been a widespread ignorance of how little it originally protected individual rights from abuses by state governments.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. But the Constitution was written in an environment when states were older, more established, and often more powerful than our national government. The newly created and weak national government was in no position to protect individual rights that states infringed upon.
Thus, an individual had only as many rights as his state decided to grant. The Constitution recognized that the source of rights could be state governments; if a state chose to deny a person's unalienable rights, that was the state's prerogative.
The fascinating book, "Candid Insights of a Mormon Apostle: The Diaries of Abraham H. Cannon 1889-1895," illustrates how individual liberty was limited by states rights. On Feb. 3, 1890 Cannon wrote: "The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Idaho Test Oath, which disfranchises all Mormons is constitutional. According to this oath ... no man who is a member of our Church can vote or hold office. This decision will doubtless have the effect to eventually debar every Mormon in the whole United States of the rights of freemen ... the time is fast approaching when the Saints will be called to ... save the Constitution from being trampled underfoot."
Later Cannon laments a report "of the disaster in Idaho by which 175 of our people withdrew from the Church in order to vote ..."
Cannon (and other church leaders) had not only hoped the Supreme Court would strike down and invalidate Idaho's anti-Mormon law; they believed the court's failure to protect their unalienable rights was a grave affront that presaged a battle for the survival of the Constitution. Their desire to preserve the Constitution largely existed because they imagined it protected religious freedom and individual liberties. It was unthinkable to them that the Constitution -- and its acceptance of states' abilities to deny unalienable rights -- and not the court, was the source of the Mormons' predicament.
But the court, relying on numerous precedents and guided by a strict constructionist approach (a very exact literal reading) to the Constitution, here ruled that state power can limit religious rights. Certainly, there is nothing in the Constitution forbidding states from making a law prohibiting a religion; only Congress is forbidden from doing that.
It is ironic that the descendents of a people who suffered so much because of states' rights have become among the staunchest champions of states rights. Assuming Cannon's views were typical for this territory, in 1890 the threat to the Constitution was too much state power. Cannon wanted a liberal approach that would forbid states from discriminating against Mormons. Currently, the majority of this state feels the threat to the Constitution is too much national power and not enough state power. Often, when members of a racial or religious minority glorify the states' rights era, it suggests they are ignorant of their history. History shows that strong local and state governments often abridged or denied unalienable rights -- even in "compound constitutional republics."
Very few books on the Constitution have been as ubiquitous recently as W. Cleon Skousen's "The 5000 Year Leap." Glenn Beck insists the book is a "must-read" that changed his life. Last fall, the Utah GOP paid for a large political flyer promoting Brad Galvez (House District 6) that referenced six principles from the book.
In the mid-1970s, at BYU, I asked Skousen: "Should the Bill of Rights apply to the states?" He quickly, quietly and calmly responded, "No, that is not what the founders intended."
Skousen correctly understood the founders' intention (unlike Cannon), but I am convinced that Skousen wanted others to be ignorant of the enormous injustices that Idaho Mormons in 1890 and many other minorities suffered in earlier eras when state power was exalted over individual liberty. I graduated from Skousen's now-defunct Freemen Institute and have read the 310 pages of the aforementioned book. It is misleading to say the course and book minimize the injustices of states depriving unalienable rights.
It is more accurate to say that those materials do not even hint of those injustices. In fact, one could study those materials carefully and still know less about state-perpetrated injustice than the person who understood the opening paragraphs of this column.
Thus, many readers of Skousen's materials are clueless:
* that the strict constructionist approach granted states the prerogative to restrict religious liberties and gun rights;
* of why the Bill of Rights came to apply to states and:
* that many liberties expanded over time.
The book promotes a sentimental view of the Constitution that ignores complexities and reinforces ignorance about the limitations of the earlier approach. Whatever other merits Skousen's writings have, those omissions constitute a serious flaw.
Jones lives in West Haven.