Purpose for a Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution
The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, better known as the Bill of Rights, are what allow us to enjoy many of the day-to-day blessings of our great country. Freedoms easily taken for granted are enshrined in these revisions to the original document. While the Constitution shaped our government, the Bill of Rights shaped our lives.
These amendments include both individual freedoms such as the right to keep and bear arms, free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to worship as we please, as well as restrictions on the power of the federal government.
You might wonder why these basic freedoms had to be added to the Constitution after it was created rather than being front and center in the debates at the Constitutional Convention. The reason can be found in considering the mission of the convention.
Specifically, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, the delegates’ primary goal was to fix the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and, thereby, form a system of government that would allow the country to flourish.
Consequently, most of the discussion at the convention focused on the form of government and how it would operate, not on the individual rights of the people. Although the representatives met from May 14 to September 17, no motion to adopt a Bill of Rights for the citizens of the country was introduced until September 12 when George Mason of Virginia did so.
Mason’s suggestion was quickly dismissed and, looking back, it seems surprising that something as crucial as a bill of rights was not subject to lengthy debate. However, we must keep in mind each state already had their own constitution, many of which contained a bill of rights.
As James Madison noted in his essay Federalist 46, the new federal constitution did not eliminate those rights granted by the states. Since personal rights already existed at the state level, Madison argued there was no need for the federal government to guarantee them as well.
From a more practical standpoint, the delegates needed to get home. They were not full-time politicians who made their living on the government payroll. They were mostly doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and farmers. Time away from home cost them money and, quite naturally, after being in hot, steamy Philadelphia for four months, they did not want to extend the convention for several more weeks to discuss such a contentious topic.
Soon after the proposed Constitution was circulated to the state legislatures for approval in late 1787, it came under criticism for several perceived faults, but primarily for its lack of a bill of rights. The group opposing the new Constitution became known as “Anti-federalists” and were led by Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and George Mason.
Gerry published a widely circulated letter, dubbed “Hon. Mr. Gerry’s Objections,” in which he stated his reasons for not supporting the new Constitution. As he saw it, “the liberties of America were not secured by the system” and it was flawed “without a bill of rights.”
Alexander Hamilton responded in Federalist 84 that “the constitution is itself in every rationale sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights.” He added that by ratifying the Constitution “the people surrender nothing, and as they retain everything, they have no need of particular reservations.”
There was also concern that, by listing only certain rights, it could be implied that those were the only ones guaranteed by the new Constitution and any others not mentioned were not. In other words, explicitly stating any rights might actually reduce our freedom.
Although the proposed document was quickly ratified by five states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut), it bogged down in other state legislatures primarily due to the absence of a bill of rights. In Massachusetts, the impasse was broken when Anti-federalists, led by John Hancock and Samuel Adams, agreed to ratify the proposed Constitution on the condition that a bill of rights would soon follow.
The Federalist minorities in the Maryland and Virginia assemblies facing similar opposition, also agreed to establish a bill of rights rather than risk delaying the ratification of the Constitution. This spirit of compromise kept the process moving.
On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the proposed Constitution. As a result, Congress formally ratified it on September 13, 1788, with an enactment date of March 4, 1789. One hurdle had been cleared.
The challenge now was to craft a bill of rights that would be acceptable to the thirteen states. James Madison of Virginia, an early opponent of a bill of rights and a member of the House of Representatives, eventually changed his position on the matter and led the effort to develop one that would satisfy the Anti-federalists.
Madison’s initial effort recommended nine changes to the body of the new Constitution rather than additional articles. However, the Federalists saw this attempt to modify the original text they had so recently ratified as a mistake. They argued these changes might undermine the credibility of the new document.
Instead, the House of Representatives, swayed by the arguments of Roger Sherman, agreed to place all amendments at the end of the Constitution. On September 25, 1788, after much debate, the House and Senate jointly agreed to twelve proposed Articles as additions to the document and forwarded them to the states for their approval.
On December 15, 1791, Articles Three through Twelve were ratified by Congress and became the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, our Bill of Rights. Interestingly, Article Two dealing with Congressional pay raises was not approved until 1992 as the 27th Amendment and Article One dealing with the number of seats in the House has never been approved.
So why should the Bill of Rights matter to us today?
Quite simply, life as we know it in the United States of America would not be the same without the rights stated in our first ten amendments. Try to imagine a country without religious freedom or the right to say what we want. Or a place where the government could search your home without cause or deny you due process of law.
The Bill of Rights matter to all of us every day we live in this great country of ours. We must know and understand our rights as Americans, or we can never hope to preserve them. It is truly our shared responsibility.
If you want to learn more about your Bill of Rights, I suggest reading Akhil Reed Amar’s book The Bill of Rights. Published in 1998, this book is an excellent account of our Bill of Rights, including the history behind their creation, how the interpretation of them has evolved, and how they are linked to one another.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.
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