Two hundred years ago last week, the American people -- all 3 million of them -- admired a new Christmas present.
On Dec. 15, Virginia ratified the U.S. Constitution's first 10 amendments -- the Bill of Rights. It was the last state needed to approve the new freedom charter. Three-quarters of the states were now in agreement on the landmark rules. And that made them officially the law of the land.
When the first U.S. Congress met in 1789, the delegates had immediately gone to work on a definition of the nation's laws on individual freedom. Several of the states had adopted bills of rights but there was no such federal document yet.
James Madison, the brilliant Virginia political leader and shaper of the U.S. Constitution, was wary of such plans at first, but he was talked into adding constitutional amendments by his close friend and adviser Thomas Jefferson. To Madison almost alone, the Bill of Rights is usually credited. It was he who took on the arduous job of harmonizing factions and leading the U.S. Congress to endorse new rules on freedoms.
Only a few of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1789 served on the Bill of Rights committee. Among them were Maryland's Charles Carroll and William Paterson of New Jersey. The congressmen talked to each other, to influential outsiders and the man in the street in determining their votes.
Wild were the suggestions at first. From New England came a suggestion that "Jews, Turks and infidels be excluded by religious test from participating in government."
That was in direct contrast to the spirit of the Constitution and to what eventually became its first amendment:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
At least seven Marylanders in Congress or in touch with it made contributions to the drafting and adoption of the Bill of Rights. The most vocal, according to the documentary records, was U.S. Representative Michael Jenifer Stone of Port Tobacco, particularly in shaping the apportionment of congressmen to the population. He took a lively role in discussions and warned that the Bill of Rights should not be used to "reshape the Constitution."
The second most prominent state participant, the record indicates, could have been U.S. Representative Joshua Seney of Queen Anne's County, who helped in the effort to liberalize the apportionment rule in the House and told the Congress that Maryland already had a law providing for petitions and the "redress of grievances."
Otho Holland Williams, naval officer of the port of Baltimore; George Gale, of Somerset County; Samuel Chase, the well-known Annapolis lawyer; William Smith, a Baltimore merchant, and state Representative Daniel Carroll, a member of Maryland's wealthiest family, were also contributors to the actual amendments or expressed attitudes or were involved in correspondence that influenced the course of action.
When all was said and done, James Madison, in the typically eloquent prose of the late 18th century, saluted what he and time and friends had created: "The people who are the authors of this blessing must also be its guardians. Their eyes must be ever ready to mark, their voices to pronounce, and their arms to repel or repair, aggressions on the authority of their Constitution."