Saturday, September 25, 2010
Congress Approves the Bill of Rights on September 25, 1789
Origin of the Bill of Rights
Rights were critical to the Founders of the United States. Virtually all of them embraced Imago Dei (the Judeo-Christian principle that Man is created in the image of God) as well as the natural law theories of John Locke. Deeply influenced by English traditions of limited government and popular rights (traditions echoed in documents such as Magna Carta and the 1689 English Bill of Rights), the Founders believed that the people derive their fundamental rights from the Creator, whereas government derives its authority from the governed.
These values were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and in the various state constitutions and bills of rights. One of the most notable expressions of these rights at the state level was penned by George Mason. The author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Mason was a staunch advocate of limited government and individual liberty.
When the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to address the failures of the Articles of Confederation, there was great reluctance to give too much power to the national government and thus compromise the liberties of the American people and of the various states. George Mason was among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and he ultimately refused to sign the document for lack of a bill of rights. Returning to Virginia to join anti-Federalists (opponents of the Constitution) like Patrick Henry, Mason exerted his influence against this new form of government.
As a means of insuring ratification of the Constitution, James Madison agreed to introduce a bill of rights, once the new Constitution went into effect. When Madison was elected to the First Congress, he moved to honor his agreement. Writing to a friend, the Virginia patriot said the amendments are "limited to points which are important in the eyes of many and can be objectionable in those of none. The structure & stamina of Govt. are as little touched as possible.”
Congress Passes Twelve Amendments
On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress sent twelve amendments to the state legislatures for ratification. The first two amendments, dealing with numbers of constituents and congressional pay, initially failed to get the requisite number of states to agree to them. Consequently, amendments three (3) through twelve (12) were ratified, becoming the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The amendment concerning the number of constituents remains dead and will likely never again see the light of day. The original second amendment, however, was resurrected nearly 200 years later. It dealt with congressional pay was finally ratified on May 7, 1992, long after Madison and his colleagues were dead.
The Bill of Rights
Upon ratification by the requisite number of states, the Bill of Rights went into effect in 1791. The first ten amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America are as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
For more information, visit the Library of Congress exhibit page on the Bill of Rights.