Our view: Happy birthday, Bill of Rights – The Durango Herald

Posted: June 8, 2020 at 4:46 pm


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The original, held by the National Archives, is a large and predictably yellowing sheet of parchment with the inked head Congress of the United States, then, Begun and held at the city of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, 1789 the first Congress.

It is the bill of amendments to the Constitution that James Madison introduced in the House of Representatives that year on June 8.

It has 12 articles. Ten of them, articles three through 12, will, through a laborious process filled with essential debate, become the Bill of Rights when they are added to the Constitution in two years time.

People often speak of constitutional rights today. It is a quintessentially American pastime. Yet the Constitution in its original, unamended form was not meant to do almost any of the things the Bill of Rights does. It was a compact among the states describing how the federal government was to be organized and duties apportioned.

On the matter of rights it was nearly mute. It largely did not contemplate limiting the powers of the federal government, as the Bill of Rights does, because the framers were intent on creating any national government against steep odds. That meant investing the new national government with powers to own land, for example, or assume debts. Yet getting it ratified was a near thing because so many actors in the founding generation such as Patrick Henry look askance at such a beast. They did not want a government that did not come with limits.

What they wanted was an enumeration of rights they maintained were universal, or that at least ought to apply to all free-born white men of property such as themselves. They wanted freedom of conscience, thought, religion, speech, publication. They wanted the specific freedom to assemble and protest. They wanted freedom from arbitrary arrest or seizure; freedom from the state they were asked to make. They wanted autonomy within this collective and they wanted it enshrined and sworn, like the Magna Carta but with every man a baron.

Who had heard of such a thing? It was almost utopian; an enlightenment plan, another grand experiment. Could a people with so many rights even cohere? How was a nation to balance, as Washington put it at his first inaugural, the characteristic rights of free men and a regard for public harmony?

We are still looking for that answer.

Madison was a member of the new House from Virginia, where anti-Federalist feeling ran strong. He won the seat by besting James Monroe, his future presidential successor, and by promising to bring a bill of rights to the new Congress. It was either that, Madison believed, or risk another constitutional convention that could undo the sectional and sectarian compromises of the first Constitution and bring on disunion and everyones bte noire then, anarchy.

He drew on a range of historical sources, including the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which stipulated the right of Protestants to keep and bear arms, as well as the new state constitutions and the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776. He incorporated many requests from the states, although one that was popular and he eschewed was an amendment to make all tax assessments voluntary. It was a compromise.

Madison was clear about his hopes for the amendments he introduced on June 8, that they would acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free government. He was farseeing in that.

He also wished that as the Bill of Rights became incorporated with the national sentiment, it would counteract the impulses of interest and passion and there lies the other great unsettled question.

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Our view: Happy birthday, Bill of Rights - The Durango Herald

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June 8th, 2020 at 4:46 pm

Posted in Enlightenment