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A Bonehead on History

September 21, 2004

Remember the poll a few years back that found more Americans could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government? Or the survey, also conducted by the Philadelphia-based National Constitution Center, in which one in four adults couldn't name a single right guaranteed by the 1st Amendment?

OK, it's easy to snicker about the dismal state of history and civics knowledge among ordinary Americans. But let's put a question to some of our elected representatives -- like Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and his 59 colleagues who co-authored the Reaffirming American Independence Resolution: What is the foundation for United States law?

Feeney, the resolution's chief sponsor, would probably snap, "The Constitution, of course." But he'd get only partial credit. We'll explain in a minute.

Feeney's HR 568 would direct federal judges not to cite or rely on "judgments, laws or pronouncements" of any other nation in reaching their decisions. This silly declaration, now before the House Judiciary Committee, would have no force of law even if it passed, and it surely would violate the Constitution's separation of powers. Federal judges will dismiss the measure for what it is: more sputtering from the right wing over Supreme Court decisions supporting gay rights and affirmative action that note the legal tolerance other nations display on these issues.

Mostly what HR 568 does is unmask Feeney as a bonehead when it comes to history. "Americans should not have to look for guidance on how to live their lives from ... foreign organizations," his overblown resolution thunders.

Well then, we'd best forget about the fundamental rights of man. That linchpin of our democracy is a Swiss import from Enlightenment-era philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings influenced the Constitution's framers.

Out goes the idea of balancing power among different branches of government. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the other drafters may have caught wind of that clever idea from the writings of 18th century Baron de Montesquieu -- mon Dieu, a Frenchman.

A government with a healthy respect for private property? Trace that one back to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke, whose treatises were on colonists' bookshelves.

Trial by a jury of peers? Another dangerous British import, from the Middle Ages.

Just as Americans are a mix of every ethnicity and race, so too are our state and federal laws. America's early leaders stitched together these patchworks by borrowing from French, English and Spanish precedents, some that go all the way back to the ancient Athenian city-state, where citizens had the right to vote. Rep. Feeney, that's Athens as in Greece, not Georgia.

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