This week we celebrate the Bill of Rights! Our great charter of liberty went into effect on December 15, 1791. Share this article far and wide!
Why Do We Have A Bill Of Rights? By Daniel W. Sheridan (Twitter: @DanielWSheridan) – –Audio Version of the Article Below–
The Founding Fathers met in the summer of 1787 to create a new form of government for these United States. George Washington and James Madison called the convention a miracle. They were amazed that people with diverse backgrounds were able to come up with a document the sole purpose of which is to protect the people through an ingenious system of checks and balances.
Yet, as great as the document was, there were a few in the Convention who couldn’t bring themselves to sign it. These men were Governor Randolph of Virginia, and George Mason, another Virginian and famous author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. Their complaint was that the proposed Constitution didn’t contain a bill of rights. On September 12, 1787, Mason called on the Constitutional Convention to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. The good man in his appeal added some theatrics to get his point across telling his fellow delegates that he’d rather cut off his hand than sign the document without a bill of rights. The motion was defeated, thus Mason didn’t sign the Constitution.
Once the Constitution was complete it was sent to the States for ratification. The States debated the issue, and some were hotly contested, especially in New York and Virginia.
One of the main arguments of those who opposed ratification was that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights, just as Mason and Randolph had complained. Patrick Henry of Virginia, and a good friend of Mason, took the lead on this point. He said history has proved that a government will assume just about any power unless it was told “hands off!” in no uncertain terms.
“It is so in Great Britain, for every possible right, which is not reserved to the people by some express provision or compact, is within the king’s prerogative…It is so in Spain, Germany, and other parts of the world,” Henry noted.
This is a good argument because the facts of Henry’s statement are indisputable. Alexander Hamilton, however, was against including a bill of rights arguing that bills of rights traditionally were written to restrain Monarchs, and since America is a Republic he believed a bill of rights was unnecessary. His most impressive argument was in Federalist # 84:
“I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”
Both parties ultimately got their way. The Constitution was ratified and no time was wasted satisfying those who demanded a Bill of Rights. James Madison got the ball rolling at the very first meeting of the Congress. The “Father of the Constitution” now became the assembler of the Bill of Rights.
The States submitted 189 suggestions, Madison boiled them down to seventeen, and Congress approved twelve. On October 2, 1789, President George Washington sent the twelve proposed amendments to the states for ratification, they ratified ten of them.
The preamble to the Bill of Rights sums up the spirit and goal of the Bill of Rights:
“The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution…”
What is amazing about the Bill of rights is that it’s not technically a declaration of rights; it’s a list of prohibitions against the federal government! “For a proper understanding of these provisions it is essential to keep in mind that their purpose…was to put it out of the power of the government now being created to violate the fundamental rights of the people who were to be subject to its authority. They constitute limitations, therefore, upon the power of the Federal Government only” (Thomas Cooley, The General Principles of Constitutional Law In The United States Of America).
The Bill of Rights, though originally considered as restrictions against the Federal Government, has been applied to the States as well since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. “The Supreme Court has,” according to Frank MaGruder, “cited them in increasing control over the states through Amendment 14. The Court uses such phrases as “violating the purpose [or spirit] of Amendment 1.”
This is what makes our Constitution and the Bill of Rights unique in human history. In a world where it was universally believed a “king could do no wrong,” where rulers were above the law, Americans not only confessed that rulers actually do wrong, they went further and wrote into their Constitutions, Federal and State, restrictions aimed at their rulers.
In America, law is king. That’s good for “We the people.”
Did you enjoy that? Then put your money where your mouth is and spread the message of liberty. Get your Pocket Constitutions at www.FreedomFactor.org and give out copies of the Constitution to friends and family! Let them know what a great heritage we have. Plus, learn how you can create custom Pocket Constitutions with your company or organization’s information on the covers!
Let’s make America an Empire of Reason Again!