The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
In the waning days of the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, George Mason of Virginia, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts and Luther Martin of Maryland began pressing for the addition of a comprehensive bill of rights to the final draft of the Constitution. Roger Sherman of Connecticut immediately rejected their plea. A bill of rights, he said, was unnecessary because “The State Declarations of Rights are not repealed by this Constitution; and being in force are sufficient….” Sherman, a man who Thomas Jefferson regarded as one of the finest statesmen of the founding generation, reasoned that because the Constitution was mute on civil liberties and because it was a document with delegated and enumerated powers for the general purposes of the Union—the States United—the general government could no more legislate on matters of trial by jury than it could on the minutia of state law. Gerry’s proposal to form a committee to draft of a bill of rights was unanimously defeated (votes were by State), and as a result Mason said he would rather cut off his right hand than sign the document. This exchange began the process for codifying the language of the Ninth Amendment.
During the ratifying process in the State conventions, several leading proponents of the document made arguments against a bill of rights that mirrored those Sherman gave in the Philadelphia Convention. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, perhaps the most ardent nationalist among the founding generation, said in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention that “A bill of rights annexed to a constitution is an enumeration of the powers reserved. If we attempt an enumeration, every thing that is not enumerated is presumed to be given. The consequence is, that an imperfect enumeration would throw all implied power into the scale of the government, and the rights of the people would be rendered incomplete.”
Alexander Hamilton of New York, the most famous nationalist of the founding period, echoed Wilson in Federalist No. 84. Adding a bill of rights, he said, “would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colourable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?” Both Hamilton and Wilson contended that a bill of rights would destroy liberty rather than protect it by allowing scheming men to enlarge the power of the central authority. In short, if a particular liberty was not protected by the list of rights, they believed it could be assumed that the government had the power to abridge that liberty. And, since all powers delegated to the general government were enumerated in the Constitution, they wondered why open that Pandora’s Box?
Thus, the modern Ninth Amendment was born. As proposals for a bill of rights flooded into James Madison’s hands in the months after the Constitution was ratified, he quickly realized that individuals needed assurances that their liberties would not be circumscribed by the Constitution nor would they be left to flutter in the wind should ambitious men usurp power from the States or the people. The Tenth Amendment protects the States and most importantly the federal compact among the States. The Ninth does the same for the people individually by implicitly recognizing the validity—and to the founding generation supremacy—of the several State declaration of rights. It is an enhancer. The original preamble to the Bill of Rights expressly stated that they were “restricting clauses” on the general government only. The Ninth Amendment ensured that the powers of the general government as operating on individuals would be further checked by the States. State declaration of rights often tended to be more detailed and comprehensive and therefore served as a more effective shield for the people.
Madison said in 1789 that Hamilton’s argument against the Bill of Rights was “one of the most plausible…I have ever heard against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may be guarded against.” He was referring to the Ninth Amendment. Of course, the powers of the general government in the modern era have spiraled out of control and today the two most ignored Amendments in the Bill of Rights are the Ninth and Tenth, arguably the most important Amendments to the founding generation. The States have always stood at the vanguard of individual liberty. American citizens should remember that their first line of defense against both the State and Federal government rests in their separate State bill of rights. The founding generation believed that those declared rights coupled with the Ninth Amendment would prevent the modern leviathan in Washington D.C. We need to protect their legacy.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009), and Forgotten Conservatives in American History (forthcoming with Clyde Wilson, Pelican, 2012).
April 11, 2012