On this day, 226 years ago, Virginia became the 10th of 14 states to approve the first ten amendments to the constitution, which gave the Bill of Rights the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it legal. The Heritage Foundation provides an excellent history of the struggle to get those first 10 amendments to our constitution adopted by the states and offers a fine explanation of why the Bill of Rights continues to be among the most important documents in our Nation's history.
There is one final question to be answered: Even if Madison believed that a bill of rights could be framed–as ours surely was–with the intent of preventing the implication of powers not granted to the government by the Constitution, what benefit could be gained by it? Was it not Madison who argued most forcefully that we cannot trust in parchment barriers? The answer is that Madison indeed thought ambition would counteract ambition, to "oblige the government to control itself this was the idea of checks and balances. But it does not explain how the Founders proposed to safeguard individual liberty from tyranny of the majority, rather than tyranny of the rulers over the ruled. The safeguard of individual liberty, Madison reasoned, must lie with the people themselves. It is the people who must be responsible for defending their liberties. And a bill of rights, Madison and his colleagues finally concluded, might support public understanding and knowledge of individual liberty that would assist citizens in the task of defending their liberties.
A bill of rights, they saw, could serve the noble purpose of public education and edification. As Madison confided to Jefferson, "The political truths declared in that solemn manner acquire by degrees the character of fundamental maxims of free Government, and as they become incorporated with the national sentiment, counteract the impulses of interest and passion."
From this view, our first 10 amendments are still important today, in their text and substance, beyond their legal effect. They still call upon us to study them for the sake of knowing our liberties and defending them from all encroachments. Although these amendments may be nothing more than "parchment barriers," they can still provide a bulwark against encroachments on our rights. For as Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84, the security of liberty, "whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all…must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights."
While the Constitution now has 27 amendments, the first ten articles that make up the Bill of Rights are the iconic pledge that all Americans have the right to:
- Freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly
- Keeping and bearing arms
- Freedom from unreasonable search or seizure
- Due process
- Speedy trial
- Trial by a jury
- Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
We should all talk to our kids today about the importance of the Bill of Rights and the ongoing struggle to protect the freedom of all Americans.