Today, many speak of the Bill of Rights as if it is the whole Constitution, but that is not correct. The first ten amendments to the Constitution have taken on a very different meaning than what was envisioned. In fact, the Constitutional Convention considered and unanimously rejected a motion to draw up such a bill of rights for the constitution its delegates were framing.
In Federalist 84, Alexander Hamilton answers the objection that the proposed Constitution did not include a Bill of Rights. But in this penultimate essay, we learn a key principle of the Constitution and realize why the framers’ intentions and the original meaning of the Bill of Rights is perfectly consistent with the Constitution as a document that limits government in order to secure the rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
Hamilton begins by pointing out that the Constitution itself contained several related provisions protecting rights, such as the clauses against ex post facto laws, religious tests, and the impairment of contracts. In creating a limited government by which rights were to be secured and the people free to govern themselves, the Constitution, as Hamilton insisted, is itself a bill of rights.
The more important reason for not including a bill of rights at the national level of government had to do with the difference between the state and federal constitutions. Since states had broader reserved powers, bills of rights in state constitutions made sense: They were necessary to guard individual rights against very powerful state governments. But the federal government only possessed those limited powers that were delegated to it in the Constitution. As such, the federal government did not possess the power to address basic individual rights, so there was no need for a federal bill of rights—indeed, one might be dangerous. Such a bill of rights, Hamilton argued, “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?”
Put another way, why state in a bill of rights that Congress shall make no law abridging free speech if Congress in the Constitution has no power to do so in the first place? And does a bill of rights that forbids the federal government from acting in certain areas imply that the government has the power to act in other areas? If that were the case, as Madison earlier warned, then the government was “no longer a limited one, possessing enumerated powers, but an indefinite one, subject to particular exceptions.”
Nevertheless, the lack of a bill of rights similar to those found in most state constitutions became an important rallying cry for the Anti- Federalists during the ratification debate, compelling the advocates of the Constitution to agree to add one in the first session of Congress. So Madison, who along with Hamilton had opposed a bill of rights, drafted the language himself to make sure these early amendments did not impair the Constitution’s original design.
The twofold theory of the Constitution can be seen especially in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments: The purpose of the Constitution is to protect rights that stem not from the government but from the people themselves, and the powers of the national government are limited to those delegated to it by the people in the Constitution. They also address the confusion that might arise in misreading the other amendments to imply unlimited federal powers (Hamilton and Madison’s chief concern). While the Ninth Amendment notes that the listing of rights in the Constitution does not deny or disparage others retained by the people, the Tenth Amendment states explicitly that all government powers except for those specific powers that are granted by the Constitution to the federal government belong to the states or the people.
The original purpose of the Bill of Rights—stated by both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists—was to limit the federal government. Today, the Bill of Rights mainly serves to secure rights against the state governments—the exact reverse of the role these amendments were intended to play in our constitutional system.
The Bill of Rights is indeed a distinctive and impressive mark of our liberty. Unlike the citizens of many other countries, Americans are protected from their government in the exercise of fundamental equal rights. But there should be no mistake that it is first and foremost the constitutional structure of limited government—the great theme of The Federalist and the point of Federalist 84—that secures our unalienable rights and the blessings of liberty.
Matthew Spalding is the Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation.