Share this!

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” —Micah 6:8

Ratification of the Bill of Rights, December 15, 1791

The creation of the American Republic under the Constitution of the United States, in 1787, came into being through extremely contentious debates and competing visions of the place of a central government in a confederacy of states. The loose union of rebellious states had held together under the Articles of Confederation beginning in 1777, and there were many people satisfied with the arrangement. George Washington was not one of them, nor James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. Representatives of twelve of the states met for four months in a convention to modify the Articles, hoping to make them more unifying and practical, now that the weaknesses of the Articles had manifested themselves in various crises, like tax collection, small domestic insurrections, and disrespect from foreign powers. They met in closed sessions, scrapped the Articles of Confederation, and created an entirely new structure, ingeniously formulated, and unlike any nation previously known in history.

First page of the Articles of Confederation which were debated by the Second Continental Congress in 1776-77 and came into force March 1, 1781

George Washington presides over the signing of the Constitution during the convention which took place in Philadelphia from May 25 to September 17, 1787

In order to implement the new plan of government, the states elected representatives to attend ratification conventions in each state to review and approve the document. The new Constitution created a tripartite central government, with a bicameral legislature, a President, and a Supreme Court. The Founders hated and vilified the idea of democracy and thus built a republic anchored in a combination of men who served two year terms and staggered six year terms, chosen by the states. Satisfied the new structure of government could handle any contingency by the men of virtue and probity, elected by the people. They hoped that the compromises they had made, insured the solution to any potential strife.

George Washington (1732-1799) was among those not satisfied with the arrangement under the Articles of Confederation

In most of the ratification conventions, resistance to acceptance of the new plan of union found expression in the arguments of men known as the “anti-federalists.” The debates between the contending parties in the State of Virginia perhaps best exemplified the resistance to the new Constitution. On the pro-ratification side stood George Washington and James Madison. Leading the opposition were Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Judge Tyler. The central complaint of the opponents to the Constitution was the absence of guarantees of protection of the ancient rights of the citizens, from potential tyranny of the central government. The “Federalists” won ratification after promising the addition of a bill of rights, to be added soon after approval of the document. The “Bill of Rights” was ratified December 15, 1791 and took the form of ten amendments designed to guarantee the most basic rights inherited from the English Common Law and the Magna Carta.

Patrick Henry (1736-1799)
Delegate to 1st and 2nd Continental Congress, 1st and 6th post-colonial Governor of Virginia, and a vocal opponent of the Constitution who pushed for a bill of rights after its ratification

George Mason (1725-1792)
Principal author of The Virginia Declaration of Rights which served as a basis for the United States Bill of Rights and one of three delegates who refused to sign the Constitution

The first amendment prohibited Congress from establishing a particular denomination of the Church as the State Church, in contrast to what the English government had done with the Anglican Church, and had maintained in several of the colonies before independence. Nor could they prohibit the worship of particular churches. This amendment also guaranteed freedom of speech and the press, and the right to assemble and petition for a “redress of grievances.”

The second amendment recognized the right to organize militias and protected the right of the people to keep and bear arms.

In order to protect the powers of the states, the tenth amendment reasserted that the central government possessed only the powers actually mentioned in the Constitution as their responsibility, and all others were reserved to the states.

First page of an original copy of the Bill of Rights, including the twelve articles of amendment proposed in 1789, ten of which (articles 3-12), became part of the United States Constitution in 1791. What is here labeled as the Third Amendment is actually what we now know as the First Amendment, what is labeled as the Fourth is now known as the Second, and so on.

Since the days of the Founders, other amendments to the Constitution have been added, and the original ten have undergone reinterpretation, especially in modern times. The theory that the Constitution is a “living, breathing document” that changes in meaning with the whims and opinions of each American generation, is the majority view in the law schools today, with only a few exceptions. The interpretive rubric that the words as they were originally intended ought to continue as the basis of the interpretation of the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is known as “original intent,” and is under attack in every case the Supreme Court and inferior courts choose to hear. Attempts to resurrect the true meaning of the Bill of Rights brings charges of racism, anti-democracy, and fascism against the few “conservative” jurists within the judicial system. Perhaps the Founders were correct when they declared that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would only succeed among a “moral and religious people” led by honest and patriotic leaders.

Share this!