The first ten amendments to the Constitution, better known as the Bill of Rights, are what allow us to enjoy many of the day to day blessings of our great country. Freedoms easily taken for granted are enshrined in these revisions to the original document. While the Constitution shaped our government; the Bill of Rights shaped our lives.
These amendments include both individual freedoms such as the right to keep and bear arms, free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to worship as we please, as well as restrictions on the power of the federal government.
You might wonder why these basic freedoms had to be added to the Constitution after it was created rather than being front and center in the debates at the convention. The reason is found in the goal of the convention.
Specifically, when the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, the delegates primary goal was to fix the weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation and, thereby, create a system of government that would allow the country to flourish.
Consequently, most of the discussion at the convention focused on the form of government and how it would operate, not on the individual rights of the people. Although the representatives met from May 14 to September 17, no motion to adopt a Bill of Rights for the citizens of the country was introduced until September 12 when George Mason did so.
Mason’s suggestion was quickly dismissed and, looking back, it seems surprising that something as crucial as a bill of rights was not subject to lengthy debate. However, we must keep two things in mind before being too critical of the Founders. First, each state had their own constitution, many of which had a Bill of Rights, and the new federal constitution did not eliminate those rights granted by the states as James Madison articulated in “Federalist No. 46”. Since personal rights already existed at the state level, there was no need for the federal government to guarantee them as well.
Second, the delegates were not full-time politicians who made their living on the government payroll. They were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and farmers. Time away from home cost them money and, quite naturally, after being in hot, steamy Philadelphia for four months, they missed their loved ones and the comforts of home.
There was also concern that by listing only certain rights, it would be implied that those were the only ones guaranteed by the new Constitution and any others were not. In other words, explicitly stating these rights might have reduced our freedoms. Alexander Hamilton made this argument in “Federalist No. 84” when he stated, “the constitution is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a bill of rights”.
SUGGESTED READING A great book on the Bill of Rights is “The Know Your Bill of Rights Book” by Sean Patrick. It came out in 2013 and is an easy to understand explanation of our rights as Americans and I strongly recommend it. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty”.
PLACES TO VISIT Gunston Hall, the former home of George Mason, located about 25 miles south of Washington, DC, is a beautiful place to visit. The main house provides an accurate portrayal of the daily life of well-to-do Virginians in the 18th century and the landscaping is magnificent.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does the Bill of Rights matter to us today? Quite simply, life as we know it in the United States of America would not be the same without the rights stated in our first ten amendments. Try to imagine a country in which we cannot practice our religion or say what we want. Or a place where the government could search your home without cause or deny you due process of law. Oh yes, they matter; they matter a great deal each and every day we live in this great country of ours.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is a West Point alumnus and a Ford Plantation resident. You can reach him at americanacorner@gmail. com. And, read his blog at americanacorner.com.