Today in 1791: Bill of Rights ratified. Free to Speak! Worship! Bear Arms! Value and Protect!
On December 15, 1791 the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the Bill of Rights—were ratified. The brainchild of James Madison, who would go on to serve as the 4th president of the United States, the Bill of Rights is an example of the depth of foresight the founding fathers had. Having just escaped from the overreaching authority of the British monarchy, the founders wanted a society wherein people would be free from government bullying, and the Bill of Rights are intended to serve as that protection.
The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. In the late 18th century, freedom of religion was considered a revolutionary concept. In societies all over the world, the norm was for the government to regulate people’s religious beliefs. Even the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, for all of their rhetoric about freedom of conscience, largely continued to subscribe to the notion that the government had a responsibility to punish “heretics”.
The wording of this amendment is significant in that it shows that a person’s right to believe according to his conscience and speak according to his conscience is an inalienable right—Congress doesn’t confer this right on people; rather Congress simply pledges never to violate this fundamental right. At the heart of the Bill of Rights is the belief that people are, by nature, meant to be free. They don’t belong to the government. Governments don’t confer freedom—they are simply responsible for making sure that nothing interferes with people being able to exercise their basic human rights.
The first amendment is under attack in many places today. Some prefer the term “freedom of worship”, which refers to religious people do in their own private ceremonies. The first amendment protects much more than people’s right to conduct church services, though. It protects freedom of religion—living according to your conscience while in the marketplace of ideas.
Practically every dictatorship throughout history has denied the basic rights outlined in the first amendment to its citizens. Whatever problems America has, the first amendment serves as a glimmer of hope because as long as we have a free press, we have the ability to hold the government accountable when it abuses its power. Exposing government corruption is the first step to eliminating it.
The second amendment, which protects people’s rights to bear arms, is arguably one of the most controversial today. Well-meaning people on both sides of the gun rights debate raise valid points. However, much of the rhetoric about restricting citizens’ rights to own guns overlooks the founders’ original point. The founders were realistic, perhaps even a little cynical, about government, believing that the natural course of all governments, even the best ones, was to eventually abuse its power. In the event that the government becomes oppressive, an unarmed populace is at the mercy of the government. An armed populace, though, can stand up for itself—as the 13 colonies did.
The Bill of Rights deals extensively with the rights of people accused of crimes. According to the Constitution, a person’s home may not be searched, nor his property confiscated, unless a warrant has been issued, and these may only be issued if there is a “probable cause.” A person will not be required to stand trial for a criminal accusation unless he has been indicted by a grand jury. An accused person’s right to due process is protected. The 5th amendment protects a person from having to testify against himself. The 6th amendment guarantees that a person accused of a crime will have the right to confront her accusers. An accused person’s right to an attorney is protected. An accused or convicted person’s right to be free from “cruel and unusual punishment” is protected.
Fundamental to the Bill of Rights are a few basic presuppositions that are, in theory, the basis of America’s legal system. The founders understood that convicting an innocent person is as wrong as acquitting a guilty person. Therefore, people are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the standard of guilt is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. A person may only forfeit his constitutional rights if is he is convicted—not merely accused—of a crime.
In practice, our justice system doesn’t always provide “justice for all”; some people experience a tragic trampling of their rights. When this happens, it is not the Constitution that is at fault; it usually the fault of a court ignoring the Constitution. Practically all of the societal ills plaguing America’s judicial system today can be traced back to the Constitution not being followed in some way.
The founders themselves realized the Constitution is a fallible document that may, at times, need to be modified and they therefore created a system by which the constitution could be further amended. Since 1791, there have only been an additional 17 amendments added to the Constitution. Because this document is the foundation of our laws, the founders didn’t want it to be able to be rashly or irresponsibly altered. Some of those 17 have been monumental, correcting oversights of the founders. In 1791, women and racial minorities didn’t enjoy the freedoms the Bill of Rights is intended to protect. Through the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, slavery was abolished and former slaves were granted voting rights and full rights as citizens. Through the 19th amendment, women were granted the right to vote.
The importance of citizens today knowing what their rights are, where their rights come from, and making sure those rights are not violated, can’t be overstated. Apathy among American citizens regarding their own rights is a far greater internal threat than any external threat posed by terrorists. Just because our rights are “inalienable”, this doesn’t mean we won’t have to fight tooth and nail to keep them.