The General Assembly has declared Wednesday, Dec. 15, to be “Bill of Rights Day” commemorating the 1791 ratification of the document that “recognizes, affirms and protects fundamental human and civil rights for which persons of all races have struggled for thousands of years.” The Constitution written at the 1787 Philadelphia convention did not include a Bill of Rights, as it was largely confined to creation of the three government branches. When a delegate moved to include a Bill of Rights, not a single state voted in favor.
James Madison called a Bill of Rights a mere “parchment barrier,” having seen the Virginia bill of rights “violated in every instance where it has been opposed to a popular current.” Alexander Hamilton pronounced the Bill as both unnecessary and dangerous.
Yet Madison and the Federalists soon realized they had committed a colossal tactical blunder that threatened ratification. North Carolina refused to ratify until a Bill of Rights was added. Thomas Jefferson complained to Madison that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
The Constitution was approved when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify in June 1788. The various state ratifying conventions recommended future adoption of over 100 distinct rights.
The first federal elections were slated for January 1798, and were a referendum on the Federalists. Anti-federalist Patrick Henry ensured that Madison was not appointed to the new Senate, “Henry-mandered” Madison’s congressional district to include heavily populated anti-federalist havens, and hand-picked James Monroe to run against him. Madison now saw the practical advantage of endorsing a bill of rights.
Replying to Jefferson in October 1788, Madison claimed to have “always been in favor of a Bill of Rights,” but had never “thought the omission a material defect.” Madison ultimately reasoned that including a specific set of rights could serve an educative role by establishing “fundamental maxims of free government” that would “counteract the impulses of interest and passion” that animate passing political fads.
Madison defeated Monroe by nearly 10 percentage points, and the Federalists won over 80 percent of the congressional seats. The First Congress had little interest in cataloging rights, intent instead on organizing the new government. Yet Madison persuaded Congress that the Bill would unify the country and dampen the growing calls for a second convention, where the miracle of Philadelphia might be dismantled.
Madison winnowed down the 100 or so rights recommended by the state conventions. The job—which Madison famously labeled a “nauseous project”—resulted in 12 amendments being sent to the states in September 1789. Ratification of the 10 we know now as the “Bill of Rights” occurred on Dec. 15, 1791. Twenty-sex specific rights are guaranteed. The phrase most used is “people.”
There will always be debate over what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights mean in specific contexts; even by the First Congress Madison and Hamilton disagreed over whether Congress could constitutionally act in certain areas. But the debate is rapidly becoming uninformed given the pathetic state of citizen understanding of our founding principles. A 2006 poll found that more Americans could name the three “American Idol” judges than could identify three First Amendment rights. Another study shockingly found that more than one-third of students at America’s leading colleges could not identify the Constitution as the document that establishes separation of powers. Forty-eight percent believed the American Revolution ended at the Battle of Gettysburg. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported that none of the country’s top 55 colleges require students to take a course in American history to graduate. Nor do USC, Clemson, or the College of Charleston.
Madison wrote that the Republican government we Americans chose “presupposes” civic virtue in a “higher degree than any other” form. Plummeting public understanding of our essential freedoms erodes Madison’s hope that the Bill of Rights would act as a citizen’s creed of “fundamental maxims” that could turn back the tyranny of oppressive majorities. We must all endeavor to ensure our traditions are not lost to ignorance or its accomplice, apathy. As Madison emphasized, “the people who are the authors of this blessing, must also be its guardians.”