“[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.” – Thomas Jefferson (December 20, 1787)
Did you know that it was on March 4, 1789 (225 years ago) that Congress had its first session under the Constitution? At that point the Articles of Confederation had already been written, but in 1786 Congress endorsed a plan to draft a new constitution because of defects they found in the Articles, including the lack of central authority over foreign and domestic commerce, as well as the inability of Congress to levy taxes. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates from the 13 states drafted the Constitution of the United States, which from the first draft included a strong executive branch, a representative legislature, and a federal judiciary branch. On September 17, 1787, when the convention concluded, the new United States Constitution which created a strong federal government with a complex system of checks and balances was signed by 38 out of 41 delegates to the convention.
However, the document could not become binding until ratified by nine of the 13 states, as dictated by Article VII, so the Constitution was sent to the state legislatures. Starting on December 7 of the same year, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut ratified it in rapid succession. Some states, though, including Massachusetts, opposed the document because it did not reserve powers not delegated by the Constitution to the states, as well as its lack of constitutional protection for things like freedom of speech, religion, and the press, and the right to bear arms.
The mistrust of government in these states originated from the colonial experience in which taxes were imposed on every legal and business document, newspapers, books, and pamphlets, by a government in which they were not represented. Because of this, early Americans viewed power and liberty as natural enemies, leading to the belief that containing the government’s power and protecting liberty was their most important task. They wanted to make it clear that it was not the government’s job to tell the people how to live their lives, what religion to believe in, or what to write about in a pamphlet or newspaper. In other words, the Bill of Rights was not written to give American citizens the enumerated rights, but to protect the rights the original citizens believed to be naturally theirs.
In February 1788, a compromise was finally reached, and Massachusetts and other states agreed to ratify the document with the guarantee that amendments would be adopted immediately for these issues. Following Massachusetts ratification, Maryland and South Carolina joined in, and on June 21, 1788 New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, making it binding.
Finally on March 4, 1789, 225 years ago, government under the United States Constitution began with Congress’ first session, held in New York City. James Madison, a congressman from Virginia, who drafted the proposed Bill of Rights, believed that a declaration of rights was in part a means to be used by the people against a future oppressive government. On one occasion, he argued that the declaration of rights would help install the judiciary as “guardians” of the individual rights against the other branches of government.
On September 25, 1789, after several months of debate, the first Congress of the United States of America adopted 12 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, and sent it to the states for ratification. On December 15, 1791 Virginia became the eleventh state to ratify the Bill of Rights, making it part of the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights guarantees a number of personal freedoms, limits the government’s power in judicial proceedings, and help reserve some powers to the states as well as the public. Among these are freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and assembly; the right to keep and bear arms; freedom from unreasonable search and seizure; indictment by a grand jury for any capital crime; guarantee of a speedy and public trial with an impartial jury. More importantly, the Bill of Rights reserves for the people any rights that are not specifically mentioned in the Constitution and reserves all powers not specifically granted to the federal government to the people or the states.
It was not until 1803 that, for the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an act of Congress as unconstitutional in the Marbury v. Madison case. Even though it was a simple dispute over the Secretary of State’s refusal to commission four judges that had been appointed by the Senate, it established the principle that the Supreme Court had the power to nullify acts of Congress that violated the Constitution. This in turn became the key to the development and protection of most of the rights we enjoy today.
George Washington once stated about the Bill of Rights, that “[t]hey have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.” This history lesson should remind us to be grateful for those who fought to ensure our freedoms were secure. It is up to every one of us, young (Madison was only 36 years old) or old, to exercise those rights responsibly, as well as to be involved in the goings on of our state and country, because it is up to us, “the people”, to ensure we keep them.