Bill of Rights Day 2014

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Jon Roland

Dec 14, 2014, 11:56:43 PM12/14/14

Bill of Rights Day 2014

How the Bill of Rights came to be

The original Constitution proposed by the Philadelphia Convention on September 17, 1787, did not contain a bill of rights. The omission was not an oversight. Most of the Framers, led by James Madison, argued:
  1. A bill of rights was unnecessary, because no powers had been delegated that might infringe on them.
  2. Declared rights are mere "parchment barriers" that can only be protected by constitutional structures that divide power among contending forces.
  3. Listing all rights was impossible, and it would be dangerous to provide a partial list because any omissions could be interpreted as those rights not existing, under the rule of expressio unius est exclusio alterius.
But many of the Framers, led by George Mason, the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, opposed ratification of the Constitution without a bill of rights. To win their support, proponents of ratification agreed to adopt a bill of rights and other amendments immediately after adopting the Constitution, and almost every state ratifying convention proposed a list of amendments, most of them about rights. After the Constitution was ratified June 21, 1788, and Madison was elected to the House of Representatives from Virginia, he gathered all the proposed amendments and some others and tried to boil most of them down into a short list he thought could be ratified, which he proposed to Congress, which proceeded to further condense them into ten rights amendments and two others concerning compensation of members of Congress and representation in the U.S. House.

Madison originally proposed to avoid the expressio unius est exclusio alterius problem with a catch-all amendment that declared protection of "unenumerated" rights, which were to be found in legal history and right reason according to the principles of natural law. Congress divided his proposal into two amendments that became the Ninth and Tenth amendments.
Those ten rights amendments were ratified by December 15, 1791, and came to be called the Bill of Rights, even though that is not their official title in the Constitution of the time.

Utility of Bill of Rights soon proven

As the anti-federalists feared, it did not take long for clever lawyers to find excuses in the imprecise language of the Constitution to expand federal power beyond what the Framers originally intended. The provisions of the Bill of Rights have become the main battleground for cases over rights. Time and again it has only been the more specific language of the first eight of the Bill of Rights that has stood in the way of having rights infringed.

As Madison and some others feared, the Ninth and Tenth Amendments have, in their lack of specificity, proven to offer little protection for rights. Even judges who proclaim themselves "originalists" are loath to find any rights in the Ninth Amendment by researching the historical background, and the Tenth Amendment has proven to be no barrier to interpreting the Commerce and Necessary and Proper clauses to give the federal government almost unlimited power to do whatever it wants.

But the other articles of the Bill of Rights are under attack, in practice if not in court. Every one of them have been violated, and it has only been the somewhat more specific language they contain that has prevented complete loss of their protections. They have provided "a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair", in the words of George Washington on the last day of the Constitutional Convention. Having that standard has enabled defenders of freedom to unite their efforts to push back, in a way they would lack in the absence of those somewhat specific words.

But if we are to prevail we must do more than conduct a fighting retreat. We must rediscover those rights referenced in the Ninth Amendment, and cut back on the expansions of power that threaten to make the Tenth Amendment meaningless.

Why we celebrate Bill of Rights Day

Although defenders of liberty must celebrate the Bill of Rights, including the Ninth and Tenth amendments, every day, December 15 of each year provides an anniversary to give it common focus. We have created a website to facilitate this:

You are also invited to study the following documents:

Constitution Society     
2900 W Anderson Ln C-200-322 
Austin, TX 78757 512/299-5001
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