December 15th is Bill of Rights Day, the 229th anniversary of the most successful assertion of individual rights and liberties ever written. The date is as obscure as it should be celebrated. If you watched the news this morning, they were more likely highlighting National Cupcake Day. But it’s also one of the most important dates in American history, because without the Bill of Rights the fledgling United States may not have survived.
Barely a decade after 1776, shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation brought about a political crisis among the states, culminating in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The new Constitution was ratified the following year, but that was not the end of the crisis, as a number of states made ratification contingent on a Bill of Rights being swiftly added to it.
With the fate of the Republic at stake, the two dominant political forces of the time – the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists – waged a public contest of ideas. It ended with the drafting by consensus of the first ten amendments to the new Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, which sealed the deal when Virginia became the 11th state to ratify, on this day in 1791.
The history of the document since then has been a stunning success. In a testament to the power of its ideas, the visionary principles embodied in the Bill of Rights that were considered radical by most of the outside world at the time – freedom of expression and belief, the presumption of innocence, due process and equality under the law – are today lauded as universal human rights.
The expanding reach of these principles in our own country has been no less breathtaking. When the Bill of Rights was ratified its provisions only fully applied to 5% of the people living here. They didn’t apply to slaves, native Americans, women, or white men of less than a certain means or property.
But the amendments themselves do not contain a single exclusionary clause. So as our understanding of freedom grew from the experience of it, along with the wrenching tragedy of a civil war, the Bill of Rights remained a clear beacon illuminating the path forward. Today virtually all Americans expect that these rights and freedoms belong to all equally.
There have been setbacks and reversals along the way. President Roosevelt declared the first Bill of Rights Day in 1941. Two months later he issued the executive order interning all Japanese Americans, one of the darker episodes in our history. Today’s headlines remind us just how perpetually fragile the idea of a free, just, and civil society is. As President Reagan pointedly observed “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream.”
The Bill of Rights:
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.