Constitution, History, Holidays

Bill of Rights 190 Years Old

Click to see original imageIt passed by without much fanfare, but Dec, 15 was the 190th anniversary of the date the Bill of Rights became part of the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution, it’s been said, sets up the government of the United States and serves as its foundation and framework. Under it, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments) serves as a “protecting mantle,” a charter of human freedom, and a perpetual guarantee of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The origin of some of the rights can be traced all the way back to the Magna Carta, signed in 1215. This was the first statement of the rights of the English.

Parliament passed the British Bill of Rights in 1689, the prime purpose being to limit the authority the king.

When the colonies in north America revolted, some of them put lists of rights in their constitutions. But when the U.S. Constitution was debated and signed in 1787, most delegates took the rights for granted.

There were exceptions. George Mason, for example. Mason, who had drawn up the Virginia Constitution and Bill of Rights in 1776, felt so strongly the need for a federal guarantee of individual rights that he did not sign the Constitution and joined with Patrick Henry in opposing ratification in the Virginia convention in 1788.

Actually, several colonies, at ratification conventions, argued the need for a bill of rights.

It is said that in 1787, Thomas Jefferson, then American minister to Paris, was startled, upon receiving a copy of the Constitution, to see that it contained no document guaranteeing rights. “A bill of rights,” he said, “is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”

James Madison, who had helped guide the Constitution to adoption, and Mason were highly influential in framing or proposing amendments which formed the basis of the Bill of Rights.

The First Congress under the Constitution, meeting in 1789 in New York, submitted for ratification a Bill of Rights consisting of 12 amendments to “clarify certain individual and state rights” not named in the Constitution.

Ten of the 12 amendments were ratified by the colonies. The two which were not ratified by the necessary number of states related to apportionment of representatives and compensation of members.

Today, 190 years after the Bill of Rights became effective, U.S citizens could benefit well from rereading the amendments the document comprises. Here is a nutshell summary of the rights:

Amendment 1. Freedom of speech, press, religion, and the right to petition.

2. Right to keep and bear arms.

3. Conditions for quarters for soldiers.

4. Right of search and seizure regulated.

5. Provisions concerning prosecution. Trial and punishment – private property not to be taken for public use without compensation.

6. Right to speedy trial, witnesses, etc.

7. Right or trial by jury.

8. Excessive bail or fines and cruel punishment prohibited.

9. Rule of construction of Constitution.

10. Rights of states under Constitution.

In a 1941 statement on the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the late Thomas E Dewey of New York summed up the feelings of many Americans on the document;

“It was a sign of the health of the young republic that, in spite of the great ideals enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, the Bill of Rights was adopted further to clarify the rights of the individual and the states.

“This was evidence that the young republic was a moving force for freedom. So long as a govemment remains responsive to its people and pursues a course designed to promote the healthy growth of individual character, that government is a bulwark of civilization against the inroads of totalitarianism. More than that, it is an aggressive force for freedom everywhere.”