Writing It All Down: The Effort to Make Government Work

EDWARD C. PAPENFUSE

December 14, 1991|By EDWARD C. PAPENFUSE

ANNAPOLIS. — Annapolis -- Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. As of that date Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson determined that the required two thirds of the states had given their assent to 10 of the 12 amendments proposed by Congress in 1789.

It was an event that did not then, as now, awaken much interest. Maryland had given its unanimous approval two years before on December 19, 1789, and had turned its attention to other matters. Some states like Massachusetts would not even bother to ratify until reminded in the 1930s. By 1791 all the heated debate over the necessity of amendments guaranteeing the rights of states and individuals in their relations with the new federal government had moved on to making it all work within the carefully crafted framework that the founding and amending fathers had created.

As early as 1776 most of the hard work of defining rights and responsibilities had been undertaken by each of the states. Most thinking and articulate people actively responded to the challenge of ''An American'' writing in the Annapolis Maryland Gazette in 1776:

''There never was a time in which it was more necessary for you to inquire into the conduct of your Representatives. . . . If you discover a want of judgment and fortitude, if their conduct is weak, timid and irresolute, dismiss them. . . . If only an error in judgment can be imputed to them, correct it by your advice and instructions.

The Maryland Constitutional Convention replied in an intermittent frenzy of constitution making that lasted from August until November, 1776. Like eight other state conventions, Maryland began with a resounding Declaration of Rights, increasing the 18 proposed by Virginia the previous June, to a final 42.

Among them was one which held ''all persons invested with the legislative or executive powers of government . . . accountable for their conduct, wherefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government; the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression, is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.''

Not all states adopted such a far-reaching proposition which today survives only in our Maryland Constitution and as copied into that of New Hampshire and Tennessee, but it should serve to touch the conscience of a nation whose concern for the form and substance of government today appears to have lapsed into a coma of unparalleled apathy and ignorance. Today we seem to lack faith in the processes by which we are governed.

One way in which this trend might be reversed is through a project a colleague and I have developed over the past few months, which attempts to bring teachers and students into contact with original documents through the Maryland State Archives: Documents for the Classroom project. By using inexpensive facsimiles of original materials we hope to rekindle interest in the process of our history while enhancing reading comprehension and improving analytical skills.

To date we have developed 15 packets ranging in content from '' the ''Daily Life in the New World'' to documenting the postwar careers of black Civil War Soldiers in ''The Aftermath of Glory,'' ''The Baltimore Strike and Riot of 1877,'' and the integration of the University of Maryland law school in 1936.

Each document packet in its own way has a ''Bill of Rights'' theme, but the one most explicitly related to understanding how both our state and the national Bill of Rights came to be is ''Writing it All Down: The Art of Constitution Making for the State and the Nation, 1776-1833.''

Here, after struggling with the nearly illegible text of a closed session of the Maryland Constitutional Convention, and comparing it to the only known copy of the first draft of Maryland's Declaration of Rights, students discover Maryland's first attempt at abolishing slavery and condemning the slave trade.

Here the class encounters the first printed agenda for a National Bill of Rights authored by the 12-man minority of the Maryland ratifying convention in 1788, an agenda adopted in large measure by Patrick Henry first, and then finally by a reluctant James Madison in 1789.

Here they read a front-page article from the Maryland Journal in 1788. When read in unison or in parts by the class as a whole, it becomes a persuasively eloquent, often poignantly prophetic plea for equal justice and freedom for blacks.

Here they find the full text of the 1826 ''Act for the relief of the Jews'' and probe the long and often tortuous process by which political rights were expanded to encompass all citizens regardless of religious preference.

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