Md. liked pay amendment when it came up in 1789

May 08, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- If Maryland had once had its way, America's First Amendment rights to free speech, a free press and freedom of religion would be known today as "Third Amendment" rights.

Nearly 203 years ago, Marylanders approved 12 amendments to the newly ratified U.S. Constitution, the last 10 of which ultimately became the new nation's Bill of Rights.

But neither of the first two amendments proposed by the first U.S. Congress, then sitting in New York, made it -- not until yesterday, that is, when Michigan rather belatedly ratified the second one, which would prohibit Congress from giving itself midterm pay raises.

Marylanders thought that was a good idea back in December 1789.

"Now you know when we say it takes a while for the rest of the world to catch up with Maryland, we're not kidding," joked state Del. D. Bruce Poole of Washington County, the Democratic leader of the House.

The debate over a bill of rights was already heated by the spring of 1788, when Marylanders convened in their State House to decide whether to ratify a new Constitution.

The question was whether the new Constitution went far enough in protecting individual liberties. By the time the Maryland Ratification Convention convened in April 1788, the issue of whether to amend the yet-to-be-approved Constitution had also sprung up in Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and former Maryland governor, then in his late 40s, strongly urged adoption of 22 amendments, over half of them taken verbatim from Maryland's Declaration of Rights, which had been approved 12 years earlier. None of the Maryland amendments involved congressional pay.

But amid fears that debate on a bill of rights could jeopardize ratification of the Constitution itself, the matter was temporarily dropped.

"It was a dicey question: how to satisfy demand [for a bill of rights] without jeopardizing the Constitution," said Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson Foundation professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Paca's ideas were printed up in a "broadside" widely circulated in Maryland and Virginia, and some of them were adopted by Patrick Henry and offered at Virginia's Ratification Convention in June 1788.

"You can argue very strongly that Maryland really provided the impetus for a carefully defined and well-articulated bill of rights," said Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist.

Virginia also left it to the new Congress -- and to one of the state's own, James Madison -- to refine the amendments and submit them back to the states for ratification.

On March 4, 1789, the new Congress proposed 12 amendments.

Just before Christmas, Maryland became the first state to ratify all 12, with the House of Delegates taking action in the same State House room where the state archives now has an exhibit of many of the documents that were at issue 203 years ago.

"It shows the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, that James Madison was able to anticipate the problems that would develop in a democracy 200 years down the line," said state Sen. Howard A. Denis, a Montgomery County Republican. He suggested that if the same constitutional amendment were put before Maryland's General Assembly today, it would still pass.

But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said biennial congressional elections are the only check and balance needed. He noted that veteran Maryland Rep. Beverly B. Byron, a 6th District Democrat, was defeated in this year's primary largely because she had voted herself a pay raise.

Senator Miller, using more contemporary political terminology, also speculated that approval of the 12 amendments by the Maryland convention was probably part of a "package" deal -- that those who supported some amendments traded their support with those who supported others.

"I don't know if there would be sentiment for such an amendment at this time," he said.

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