Why Do We Have A Bill Of Rights? By Daniel Sheridan

The Founding Fathers met in the summer of 1787 to create a new form of government for these United States. George Washington and James Madison called the convention a miracle. They were amazed that people with diverse backgrounds were able to come up with a document the sole purpose of which is to protect the people through an ingenious system of checks and balances.

Yet, as great as the document was, there were a few in the Convention who couldn’t bring themselves to sign it. These men were Governor Randolph of Virginia, and George Mason, another Virginian. Mason was the famous author of the Virginia Bill of Rights. Their complaint was that the document didn’t contain a bill of rights.

Once the Constitution was complete it was sent to the States for ratification. The States debated the issue. Some of the debates were hotly contested, especially in New York and Virginia.

One of the main arguments of those who opposed ratification was that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights, just as Mason and Randolph had said. Patrick Henry took the lead on this point. He said history has proved that a government will assume just about any power unless it was told “hands off!” in no uncertain terms. Henry said:

“I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

This is a good argument because the facts of Henry’s statement were indisputable. However, Alexander Hamilton argued against a bill of rights. He argued that bills of rights traditionally were written to restrain Monarchs, and since America is a Republic, a bill of rights is unnecessary. But his most impressive argument was in Federalist # 84:

 “I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do? Why, for instance, should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions may be imposed?”

Both parties ultimately got their way. The Constitution was ratified and no time was wasted satisfying those who demanded a Bill of Rights. James Madison got the ball rolling at the very first meeting of the Congress. The “Father of the Constitution” now became the assembler of the Bill of Rights.

The States submitted 189 suggestions, Madison boiled them down to 17, and Congress approved 12. The 12 were submitted to the States in September of 1789, they ratified 10 of them. The Bill of Rights went into effect in December of 1791.

The preamble to the Bill of Rights sums up the spirit and goal of the Bill of Rights:

“The Conventions of a number of the States having, at the time of adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution…”

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