from The Water's Edge

TWE Remembers: The Birth of the Bill of Rights

December 15, 2010

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The Bill of Rights celebrates its birthday today.  On December 15, 1791, Virginia became the eleventh state to approve the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, thereby satisfying the constitutional requirement that amendments garner support of three-quarters of the states before going into effect.

Four historical footnotes.  First, New Jersey holds the honor of being the first state to approve the Bill of Rights.  So props to the Garden State.  Second, Connecticut, Georgia, and Massachusetts were the only three of the original thirteen colonies not to ratify the Bill of Rights at the time.  All three did so in 1939 as a way to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the passage of the Bill of Rights by Congress.  Third,  it is a historical accident that the Bill of Rights consists of ten amendments. The original package of amendments that Congress submitted to the states for consideration consisted of twelve amendments.  Fourth, one of the two amendments that failed to make it into the Bill of Rights eventually became the 27th Amendment when it was finally adopted in 1992, more than two centuries after it was first submitted to Congress for consideration.

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What does any of this have to do with American foreign policy?  Not much, at least not in any direct sense.  But anyone who blogs should celebrate the birthday of the Bill of Rights.  It does after all guarantee the freedom of speech.

The Bill of Rights is also worth remembering today because it was born out of a compromise.  James MadisonAlexander Hamilton, and their supporters at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 didn’t see a need for a list of enumerated individual rights.  They thought that the political structure they were creating would be sufficient to protect the people’s rights.  Many so-called Antifederalists disagreed. They wanted to hold a new constitutional convention to fix the problem.  Worried that a new convention would entirely undo their handiwork, the Constitution’s supporters agreed that the government’s first task would be to amend the Constitution to include the protection of specific individual rights.  That persuaded prominent Antifederalists such as Sam Adams—yes, his name now adorns the label of a popular brand of beer—to drop their opposition to the Constitution.

The founding generation’s willingness to give something to get something is worth remembering at a time when the incoming Speaker of the House refuses to use the word "compromise." As others have pointed out, compromise is not alien to the American political spirit.  It is the American political spirit.

I’m not the only one to note today’s significance.  The Washington Post notes the anniversary.  The Cato Institute laments the many ways the government has infringed on individual rights.  The National Archives encourages Twitter followers to tweet the Bill of Rights. Fox News offers up a Muslim American’s view of the Bill of Rights.  And the DCist reminds us that while the vote that repealed Prohibition was cast on December 5—by Utah of all states—the 21st Amendment was technically not operative until December 15.  I will raise a glass of Malbec to that news tonight!

(Photo: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)

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