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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