Learning the Law: Studying the Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights was not always a goal of the framers of the Constitution. The new American government was just barely in its infancy, and the founders were having some heated political arguments about what rights people had, and what power the government could wield. The conclusions reached due to these arguments might today be considered inalienable truths, but during the time of the Bill of Rights, they were anything but.

The fight was primarily between the Federalists, who believed in a large, strong federal government that would hold a lot of power, even over how the states governed themselves. Centralized power was considered extremely important by many because the U.S. had just exited a war, and protecting this new country was of the utmost importance. Federalists believed only a federal government could organize the power necessary to protect its own interests. The group who disagreed with the Federalists were the Anti-Federalists. It's important to remember that during this time most people never left their state, so state's rights were held by Anti-Federalists as even more important than they might be today. A state needed the power to govern itself because, in a large federal government, it was very possible that representatives from other states would never step foot in yours.

The American Revolution was in many ways about maintaining rights as human beings. It was about not being forced to suffer under a tyrannical government, so the founders had to be extra careful not to create a government that could be seen by American citizens as a threat. Why defeat a tyrannical government that had no connection to your home if you're only going to create another one? On the other hand, with 13 states, a strong central government was necessary to keep them all together.

Cue the entrance of George Mason. As funny as it might sound, Mason was the first person to bring up a Bill of Rights, a guaranteed documentation of rights held by every US citizen, and was promptly shut down. The Constitution was difficult enough to get right during the Constitutional Convention, and the question of which rights to protect in the Constitution and which to ignore could, it seemed, stall the entire process. Eventually, the framers signed the Constitution with no Bill of Rights, many believing that if the government was not given the right to do something, like institute a religion, it could not do so.

Now that the Constitution has been signed by the framers, it was time for them to take the plan to the people. Once local governments and individual citizens saw the plan, it was evident that the Federalists had not accounted for the passion people had for their liberty. They needed to see in writing what the government was allowed to do, and an assumption that the government would not overstep was not enough to quell their fears. Without a Bill of Rights, the Constitution might not be ratified. Certain states, like North Carolina and Massachusetts, the absence of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing them protection from their government was the primary reason they did not at first ratify the Constitution.

James Madison, who is considered the father of the Constitution, now has the responsibility of keeping his promise (which he made during his campaign to become a congressman in the first US Congress) to create a Bill of Rights. The states, having seen an opportunity to guarantee their own particular rights, had sent Congress about 200 amendments, and it was up to Madison to read through and consider which to bring to the floor. Doing so, he submits 19 amendments to Congress. These amendments toed the line between strengthening individual liberties, while not weakening the federal government.

Madison very well may have saved the Constitution; which, without the Bill of Rights, may never have been ratified, by choosing the amendments he chooses. By focusing on individual rights and protecting them from the government and even from oppressive majorities, he focuses on the common ground between states, rather than the issues that divide them. In so doing, he ensures the Constitution is ratified, and it becomes the central document of one of the most powerful nations the world has ever known.

Resources

  • 1st Amendment: The US Courts explain the first amendment to the Constitution.
  • 2nd Amendment: See how the second amendment has been debated throughout American history.
  • 3rd Amendment: An often forgotten amendment due to modern wars being fought abroad, the third amendment was incredibly important during framing of the Constitution.
  • 4th Amendment: An overview of the Fourth amendment, and what it means to you.
  • 5th Amendment: This amendment can be confusing, so the National Constitution Center breaks it down for you.
  • 6th Amendment: Another amendment, like the fifth, having to do with the legal system. This guide might help clear things up.
  • 7th Amendment: You have the right to a jury trial in civil disputes. Don't know what that means? Find out here.
  • 8th Amendment: You've probably heard of cruel and unusual punishment, but what exactly does being protected against it mean for your rights?
  • 9th Amendment: The founders had a fear that just because a protection wasn't listed, the government could infringe upon it. The ninth amendment protects you from that. Find out how.
  • 10th Amendment: A Citizen's Guide to the Tenth Amendment

Activities (Great for Parents and Teachers)

This resource page is provided by Dr. Bruce Fagel for your information. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation.