December 15 is the 219th birthday of the Bill of Rights, but don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t remember. Even back in 1791, when the first 10 amendments were added to the Constitution, no one threw a party.
It’s not as if the first Americans were reluctant to celebrate. From the beginning, Independence Day was marked with the “guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations” that John Adams prescribed in a letter to his wife Abigail in 1776. And when the Constitution was ratified 12 years later, in 1788, the American people were well aware that it was an epochal event and celebrated with parades, complete with festive floats.
But passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791 was an afterthought, and at the time many Americans were unaware of the great gift they had given to later generations.
The Bill of Rights: 17 amendments?
Adoption of the Bill of Rights was part and parcel of the politics surrounding adoption of the Constitution itself. Many of the men who wrote the Constitution, including James Madison, didn’t think a Bill of Rights was necessary. The American people had nothing to fear, they argued, from a government whose powers were limited and specified by the Constitution. Besides, they said, attempting to protect rights by listing them ran the risk of leaving some important ones out, opening the door to abuse.
But the American people disagreed.
Although they saw the need for the stronger national government created by the Constitution, their demand for additional amendments during the ratification campaign showed just how uneasy they were with the expansion of central power.
Madison and other supporters of the Constitution promised amendments to protect the rights of the states and safeguard individual liberties if the Constitution were ratified. When the first Congress met in 1789, Madison kept his promise, introducing 17 amendments in the House, which were pared to 12 by the Senate and sent to the states for ratification. The ten that the states approved became the Bill of Rights.
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It’s tempting to end the story there, noting that those 10 amendments embodied a catalog of what Americans thought were essential rights, rights that they had earlier specified in their state constitutions and now insisted on including in the new federal Constitution.
The history of the 1st ammendment
But no one at the time even called the 10 amendments a Bill of Rights. Of the 12 that had been proposed, the first two didn’t look like they belonged in a Bill of Rights. (One set rules for expanding representation in Congress as the country grew, and the other dealt with congressional salaries.) Only because those two were not ratified did the third proposed amendment become the first, so that the great catalog of rights begins with the now-familiar declaration: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
As iconic as those words and the other freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights have become today, in 1791 Americans continued to look to the declarations of rights in their state constitutions to safeguard their liberties. The significance of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution – which even the Supreme Court never referred to as the Bill of Rights until after the Civil War – was only dimly understood. It would take the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 to turn them into the national embodiment of the liberties we hold most dear.
That transformation was brought about by the struggles of subsequent generations of Americans, laying claim to ideals of liberty that were only words on paper until their actions, as James Madison understood, breathed life into them.
If the significance of the Bill of Rights has become more apparent to us than it was to the founding generation, there’s a lesson to be learned: the Constitution’s meaning has evolved over time on the basis of a durable founding vision. And we shortchange ourselves of a rich and inspiring history, if we look back only to a single founding moment.
So if you choose to celebrate the Bill of Rights on December 15, lift a glass not only to the extraordinary Madison, but to the ordinary Americans of his day who transformed the Constitution they were told they needed into the one they wanted. And to the later generations of Americans, who turned 10 amendments into the clarion declaration of freedom we celebrate today.