Yesterday, December 15, was Bill of Rights Day. Though it’s not an official holiday, perhaps it ought to be. It was on December 15, 1791, that the young United States of America formally adopted the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Few events in American history were more critical to securing the principles behind the nation’s founding. Even if you’re not an American, you can still appreciate their unique importance in the history of liberty.
Without the Bill of Rights, the Constitution itself would probably not have been accepted. The ten amendments ultimately adopted guarantee freedoms of religion, speech, the press, peaceful assembly and petition; the rights of the people to keep and bear arms, and to hold private property; rights to fair treatment for people accused of crimes, protection from unreasonable search and seizure and self-incrimination; and rights to a speedy and impartial jury trial and representation by counsel.
The Ninth Amendment declares that rights enumerated in the Constitution “shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Tenth Amendment affirms our system of “federalism.” It states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.” In other words, if a question arises about what the federal government can or can’t do, the automatic default is not a green light for Washington.
The Bill of Rights is fundamental and foundational, and about as bedrock as it gets. In fewer than 500 words, many of our most cherished liberties are expressed as rights to be jealously protected. It’s a roster of instructions to government to keep out of where it doesn’t belong.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced a draft Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. People lined up in one camp or the other—the Federalists or the Antifederalists. The former favored the Constitution and, in most cases, without any amendments. The latter either opposed it altogether or conditioned their approval on adoption of stronger protections for individual liberties.
Even without the Bill of Rights, the Constitution represented a huge advance for civilization. But during the ratification debate, enough citizens were wary of any centralization of power that they wanted to go further. I think they instinctively understood something that Thomas Jefferson once so aptly expressed, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
In this modern and supposedly enlightened age, not many people among the world’s billions can honestly say they enjoy many of these rights to their fullest—or at all. Even in America we must work hard to educate fellow citizens about the liberties the Bill of Rights is meant to protect. Thanks in large part to what they learned in government schools, too many Americans today would sacrifice one or more liberties for the temporary and dubious security of a government program or mandate.
A recent poll found that more than half of the American public believe that the First Amendment (which guarantees freedoms of speech and worship) “is outdated and ought to be rewritten.” The Second Amendment is under daily assault. The so-called “progressives” who want to pack the Supreme Court seem to care as little for the Bill of Rights as they do for judicial independence.
The late and famous trial attorney, F. Lee Bailey, asked (and answered) a telling question a few years ago: “Can any of you seriously say the Bill of Rights could get through Congress today? It wouldn’t even get out of committee.” Sadly, that may be even more true today than it was when he said it.
Benjamin Franklin warned that the Constitution gave us a republic but only if subsequent generations could keep it. His generation understood better than ours that the concentration and growth of power in the State is historically (and by far) the greatest danger to liberty. He would be flabbergasted, for instance, if he knew that a future President would call for spending trillions in the face of massive deficits and debts and for the evil purpose of bribing voters with their own money.
Time and experience have shown us that the best words any man can write are guaranteed neither universal nor eternal acceptance. Each new generation must be reminded of principles or even the best of them can be lost. Americans should be proud of the Bill of Rights. And they ought to relearn why its principles are so remarkable.