Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Teaching the Bill of Rights

The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute's next semi-annual educational seminar will be on the subject of “The Bill of Rights: Charter of Freedom. The Seminar includes presentations by Tony Williams, Williamsburg Author and Teacher, and David J. Bobb, Director of the Allan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies (Hillsdale College), on the topics of English Traditions, Colonial Charters, and State Constitutions; Madison-Jefferson Correspondence about a Bill of Rights; and Madison's June 8, 1789 Speech & Prudential Statesmanship.  The seminar is primarily for Virginia middle and high school U.S. Government, U.S. History and Social Studies teachers, and will be held Friday morning, February 15th from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Prospect Hill near Charlottesville.  A complementary luncheon is included.  There is no cost for teachers to attend.  For an invitation contact jody@wjmi.org.

The President of the Texas State Bar Association recently wrote, “We hear a lot of talk these days about the U.S. Constitution and how important it is to protecting our liberties. But surveys continue to show a disturbing trend of many Americans not understanding the Constitution and its relevance to our lives today….

For starters, just imagine life without the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees some of our most precious liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, and press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and private property rights. The Constitution created the framework for a strong but limited national government and established the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens.

...we also should take this time to renew our focus on civics education in our schools and society. Today’s young people soon will be voting, sitting on juries and running for political office, and they must have the civics knowledge to make informed decisions and be engaged citizens. Research has shown that individuals who receive a solid civics education are more likely to be involved in their communities through activities such as volunteering and voting.

In today’s economy, the need for math, reading, writing and science knowledge is obvious, but civics education is an essential part of a comprehensive education. It is also essential to develop informed, effective and responsible citizens. Our future depends on individuals who understand their history and government, have a sense of what it means to be an American, and know their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” said retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime civics education advocate.  “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.” (Texas Bar Page, 09/11/12). 

The mission of the Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute is “To instill within educators and students of the rising generation a greater understanding of and appreciation for the Founding Fathers and the Founding Documents of the United States of America.”  We encourage all Americans to actively support their local Civics, Government and Social Studies teachers in this great task.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Brief History of the Bill of Rights

“The original Constitution, as proposed in 1787 in Philadelphia and as ratified by the states, contained very few individual rights guarantees, as the framers were primarily focused on establishing the machinery for an effective federal government.  A proposal by delegate Charles Pinckney to include several rights guarantees (including "liberty of the press" and a ban on quartering soldiers in private homes) was submitted to the Committee on Detail on August 20, 1787, but the Committee did not adopt any of Pinckney's recommendations.  The matter came up before the Convention on September 12, 1787 and, following a brief debate, proposals to include a Bill or Rights in the Constitution were rejected.  As adopted, the Constitution included only a few specific rights guarantees: protection against states impairing the obligation of contracts (Art. I, Section 10), provisions that prohibit both the federal and state governments from enforcing ex post facto laws (laws that allow punishment for an action that was not criminal at the time it was undertaken) and provisions barring bills of attainder (legislative determinations of guilt and punishment) (Art. I, Sections 9 and 10).  The framers, and notably James Madison, its principal architect, believed that the Constitution protected liberty primarily through its division of powers that made it difficult for oppressive majorities to form and capture power to be used against minorities.  Delegates also probably feared that a debate over liberty guarantees might prolong or even threaten the fiercely-debated compromises that had been made over the long hot summer of 1787.

In the ratification debate, Anti-Federalists opposed to the Constitution, complained that the new system threatened liberties, and suggested that if the delegates had truly cared about protecting individual rights, they would have included provisions that accomplished that.  With ratification in serious doubt, Federalists announced a willingness to take up the matter of a series of amendments, to be called the Bill of Rights, soon after ratification and the First Congress comes into session.  The concession was undoubtedly necessary to secure the Constitution's hard-fought ratification.  Thomas Jefferson, who did not attend the Constitutional Convention, in a December 1787 letter to Madison called the omission of a Bill of Rights a major mistake: "A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth."

James Madison was skeptical of the value of a listing of rights, calling it a "parchment barrier."  (Madison's preference at the Convention to safeguard liberties was by giving Congress an unlimited veto over state laws and creating a joint executive-judicial council of revision that could veto federal laws.)  Despite his skepticism, by the fall of 1788, Madison believed that a declaration of rights should be added to the Constitution. Its value, in Madison's view, was in part educational, in part as a vehicle that might be used to rally people against a future oppressive government, and finally--in an argument borrowed from Thomas Jefferson--Madison argued that a declaration of rights would help install the judiciary as "guardians" of individual rights against the other branches.  When the First Congress met in 1789, James Madison, a congressman from Virginia, took upon himself the task of drafting a proposed Bill of Rights.  He considered his efforts "a nauseous project." His original set of proposed amendments included some that were either rejected or substantially modified by Congress, and one (dealing with apportionment of the House) that was not ratified by the required three-fourths of the state legislatures.  Some of the rejections were very significant, such as the decision not to adopt Madison's proposal to extend free speech protections to the states, and others somewhat less important (such as the dropping of Madison's language that required unanimous jury verdicts for convictions in all federal cases).

Some members of Congress argued that a listing of rights of the people was a silly exercise, in that all the listed rights inherently belonged to citizens, and nothing in the Constitution gave the Congress the power to take them away.  It was even suggested that the Bill of Rights might reduce liberty by giving force to the argument that all rights not specifically listed could be infringed upon.  In part to counter this concern, the Ninth Amendment was included providing that "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people"....

Most of the protections of the Bill of Rights eventually would be extended to state infringements as well federal infringements though the "doctrine of incorporation" beginning in the early to mid-1900s.  The doctrine rests on interpreting the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as prohibiting states from infringing on the most fundamental liberties of its citizens.

In the end, we owe opponents of the Constitution a debt of gratitude, for without their complaints, there would be no Bill of Rights.  Thomas Jefferson wrote, "There has just been opposition enough "to force adoption of a Bill of Rights, but not to drain the federal government of its essential "energy"….”
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Friday, January 4, 2013

Remember Morristown!


On this day, January 4th, in the year 1780, a major snow storm hit General Washington and his troops encamped at Morristown, New Jersey.  The weather from January through March was extremely cold with snow accumulating to 12 feet high in places. It is well that we remember the sufferings of the Revolutionary soldiers at that time. A brief account follows:

“Washington again decided upon Morristown for his winter encampment and on November 30th (1779), informed General Nathanael Greene of his decision. The various units marched to Morristown arriving between the first week of December and the end of the month. An area southwest of Morristown, called Jockey Hollow, was selected. It is estimated that 600 acres of forest were cut down to build more than 1,000 1og huts. It became known as "log-house city". Each hut was built to specifications required by General Washington measuring about 14 by 15 feet. The height at the eaves was 6 feet 6 inches. They were built of notched logs, with clay used as chink to seal the huts from the cold, and with a door at one end and a fireplace at the other. …Each hut held 12 men. The officers' huts were somewhat larger, with one to four officers, depending on rank to occupy each….

General Washington set up Headquarters at the Ford Mansion, some five miles from Jockey Hollow. Across what is now Morris Street, some 75 yards from Ford Mansion, the Commander-in-Chief's Guards constructed twelve huts of the same design as the main army and one officer's hut for Major Caleb Gibbs and Captain William Colfax. Gibbs, in personal correspondence, referred to his hut as "Gibb's Manor".

By 1780, the Continental Army had been at war six long years. It was in deplorable condition. Congress had exhausted all their resources, including the promised assistance from France. The Continental paper dollar had depreciated to 3,000 to 1! Even those supporting independence would not accept "Continentals", hence what money available to the army was worthless. The expression "Not worth a Continental" originated at this time.

George Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette on March 18th, 1780 from the Ford Mansion. "... The oldest people now living in this Country do not remember so hard a winter as the one we are now emerging from. In a word the severity of the frost exceeded anything of the kind that had ever been experienced in this climate before. "

When the Army arrived at Jockey Hollow, there was already a foot of snow on the ground. Doctor James Thacher, whose journal is one of the best sources of first person descriptions of events during the war, wrote: "The weather for several days has been remarkably cold and stormy. On the 3rd instance, we experienced one of the most tremendous snowstorms ever remembered; no man could endure its violence many minutes without danger to his life. ... When the storm subsided, the snow was from four to six feet deep, obscuring the very traces of the roads by covering fences that lined them. "

…General Johann de Kalb wrote: "...so cold that the ink freezes on my pen, while I am sitting close to the fire. The roads are piled with snow until, at some places they are elevated twelve feet above their ordinary level." 

Private Joseph Plumb Martin's memoirs, writing in the rollicking style of a soldier, reported: "We are absolutely, literally starved. I do solemnly declare that I did not put a single morsel of victuals into my mouth for four days and as many nights, except for a little black birch bark which I gnawed off a stick of wood. I saw several men roast their old shoes and eat them, and I was afterward informed by one of the officer's waiters, that some of the officers killed a favorite little dog that belonged to one of them." He then wrote that he wore "what laughingly could be called a uniform, and possessed a blanket thin enough to have straws shoot through it without discom­moding the threads "

…All roads were impassable and would stay that way until the snow melted. Not a single cart or wagon load of supplies could move.” The Continental Army was in danger of utter starvation.
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May we never forget the sacrifices of these early patriots for our precious liberty. 

http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/coldwinter.html