Bohanon: Two Views of Right to Petition
by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.
Thirty-two years ago I ran as a Libertarian for Congress. I didn’t win. I got 0.3 percent of the vote. The two other candidates were Republican Ken MacKenzie and Democrat Phil Sharp who was re-elected despite the Reagan landslide.
Mr. MacKenzie has since passed away. Mr. Sharp has just retired from a Washington, D.C., think tank. I am still at Ball State teaching economics.
Although I was excluded from most of the debates, I remember both candidates treated me with courtesy and respect. When I was allowed in the debates, we stuck to the issues and were amiable with one another. Political competition does not have to be toxic.
I also recall an economic-political epiphany I had at a debate. Mr. MacKenzie and I were critical of the seemingly never-ending expansion of federal power, authority and spending. Congressman Sharp made the point that the First Amendment guaranteed the citizens’ right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” He then went on to praise a number of federal programs that were not part of the original role of the federal government.
Representative Sharp was making an argument clearly in sync with progressive political philosophy that sees the Constitution as a “living document” that should not handcuff the peoples’ representative in Congress from enacting legislation deemed beneficial. In this view the right to petition government for redress of grievance is the right to ask government to do something about any darn thing that is bothering you.
It is a tradition in my family to read aloud the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July. This year I asked a visiting friend, the Rev. W. Scott Axford of First Universalist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, to do the honors. The beginning of the Declaration outlines the political theory that informed the Founders: “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. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . ”
My father taught me that this was the essence of our nation. All power comes from God. Under the English system of government God vested power in the hands of the King who then conferred rights to the people. In the United States, however, we thought God gave rights to individuals who then vested power in the hands of the government whose purpose was to secure these rights. The good Reverend followed my format for the reading. He omitted reading the 27 specific complaints that established the “Facts” of the King’s “absolute Tyranny over these States.”
What struck me is what followed: The Declaration then states: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.” This forms my understanding of the First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is not a blank check for endless Federal power, rather a guarantee that we citizens can petition Government when it is the source of our grievance. This view clearly implies a much more limited role for government than progressives imagine; yet I am convinced it is the historically correct and best role for the Federal government.
It is unlikely former Representative Sharp or others who share his philosophy will be persuaded by this argument. And that is OK. However, the issues raised in 1984 are quite similar to the issues today. So thanks Phil Sharp for being a good guy. Have a wonderfully productive retirement. We can disagree yet be agreeable.
Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is an adjunct of the foundation.