The Bill of Rights' great guarantee

Robert J. Friedman

December 13, 1991|By Robert J. Friedman

ON DEC. 15, 1791, Virginia becamed the 11th state to ratify the Bill of Rights, thus making the amendments part of the Constitution of the United States. This event 200 years ago effectively completed the formation of our federal government, which has been a model for representative democracies ever since.

The Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution as a blueprint for the rule of the majority, but added the Bill of Rights to protect individuals and minorities -- to, in the words of James Madison, "control the majority from those acts (against minorities) to which they might otherwise be inclined."

Toward the end of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, said of the nearly completed document that he "wished the plan had been prefaced with a bill of rights . . . It would give great quiet to the people and, with the aid of the states' declarations, a bill might be prepared in a few hours."

This was no idle boast, as Mason was the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. But fearing such an addition would scuttle the entire Constitution they had so painstakingly wrought, delegates from every state voted Mason's proposal down.

However, when the proposed Constitution was taken back to the states for ratification, a lack of guaranteed rights was among the strongest arguments against it. Supporters of the Constitution, called Federalists, thought a Bill of Rights unnecessary, because all rights not granted the federal government were reserved to the states and the people.

The Antifederalists, many of whom were rural libertarians who thought the proposed central government would be too powerful, at first tried to defeat the Constitution. When it became clear that the tide was turning against them, however, they insisted on making their feelings about individual rights known. Massachusetts, Virginia and New York had hard-fought battles over ratification and, eventually, seven states submitted recommendations for rights amendments along with their ratification documents.

James Madison, who during the ratification process had stood against a bill of rights, eventually saw the wisdom of it. On June 8, 1789, after corresponding with Thomas Jefferson on the subject, Madison submitted his bill of rights to the first House of Representatives. On August 22, the House accepted his 17 original amendments with some modifications. These were further modified, revised and edited to 12 amendments and passed by the Senate on September 25, 1789.

In accepting the Constitution, the states opted for a democratic federal system of government where the majority made decisions for the nation as a whole. In insisting on a Bill of Rights, the citizens chose to protect themselves in certain clear-cut ways from possible oppression by the majority.

The Bill of Rights is one of the most significant parts of our Constitution of limited government. In the 200th year of their existence, the amendments are as alive as ever. To be truly free, Americans cannot afford to take them for granted -- or worse yet, to ignore potential threats to the freedoms they guarantee.

Robert J. Friedman is a Baltimore musician and writer.

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