Continuing his crusade to convince his audience that the Constitution is full of Bible verses and biblical ideas, Religious Right pseudo-historian David Barton falsely claimed last week that the Constitution’s prohibition on bills of attainder was rooted in the biblical standard that every person must be punished for their own sins.
Appearing on Glenn Beck’s television program last week, Barton and Beck read from a lecture delivered by James Wilson in 1790 in which he noted that “human life, from its commencement to its close, is protected by the common law” and criticized the ancient idea that the lives of children were subject to the whims of their parents, such as in ancient Rome:
Under the Roman commonwealth, no citizen of Rome was liable to suffer a capital punishment by the sentence of the law. But at Rome, the son held his life by the tenure of his father’s pleasure. In the forum, the senate, or the camp, the adult son of a Roman citizen enjoyed the publick and private rights of a person: in his father’s house, he was a mere thing; confounded, by the laws, with the cattle, whom the capricious master might alienate or destroy, without being responsible to any tribunal on earth.
Beck and Barton bizarrely claimed that, with this passage, Wilson was making the case against bills of attainder, which Barton asserted means that “you can’t punish the family for the sins of the father or the sins of the sons.”
“Everybody stands on their own two feet,” Barton said, claiming that this idea came directly out of Ezekiel 18, in which God declares that “the soul that sins, it will die. You don’t punish the father for the sins of the children and the children for the sins of fathers.”
“We came along with the Constitution and said no bills of attainder,” Barton said, “which is you can’t attaint the whole family for what one does.”
In actuality, a bill of attainder is an act by a legislature used to declare people guilty of a crime and sentence them to death without trial. Under English law, those who were “attainted” were stripped of their property, which was then forfeited to the Crown. In practice, this “corruption of blood” prevented families from inheriting anything from those who had been attainted, but the purpose of the prohibition on bills of attainder in the Constitution was to prohibit Congress from declaring people guilty without trial, not, as Barton claims, to enshrine biblical prohibitions against collective punishment into American law.