If you could sit down and write what the basic rights all human beings should have, what would you come up with? In essence, this is what the Bill of Rights contains. Learn more about how, why and when it was created. This is the fourth of five articles in a series.
The Power of Fear
Question: Why was the Bill of Rights created?
Answer: To assuage colonial fears.
On September 12, 1787, shortly after the finishing touches had been put on the new United States Constitution, George Mason, a delegate from Virginia, pointed out a serious omission--the absence of a bill of rights. He felt a bill of rights would appease the people who feared a too-powerful central government, and believed such a bill could be drafted in a few hours based on various state constitutions, the most notable being his own Virginia Declaration of Rights. His motion was not seconded and the Constitution went forth without a bill of rights.
The Constitution was signed by delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies, Rhode Island refusing to sign it without a Bill of Rights. When the Constitution went to individual states for ratification, most ratified it on certain conditions. These conditions were finally embodied in the Bill of Rights written after the Constitution had been ratified. James Madison introduced the proposed Bill of Rights in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. Congress approved 12 amendments for ratification on September 25, 1789, and sent them to the states for ratification. Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, and 10 of the 12 proposed amendments officially became a part of the U.S. Constitution.
For a more in-depth study on why the Bill of Rights was created, check out Pauline Maier's introduction to The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States.
Why Is It Important Today?
Question: Why is the Bill of Rights significant?
Answer: Without it, the Constitution probably would not have been ratified.
Opposition to the Constitution was strong throughout the colonies for fear of granting too much power to the national government. The Bill of Rights assuaged many of those fears. In addition, the new Constitution worked. It had provided a way for amending itself, and the process succeeded without violence or upheaval.
Question: Why is the Bill of Rights important today?
Answer: It enumerates Americans' most cherished rights.
History has shown that governments, if given the chance, will not hesitate to take away citizens' rights, often citing they are doing it "for the common good." History has also shown the propensity of government to expand control if left unchecked. By enumerating certain rights, without excluding unlisted rights (see amendments 9 and 10), Mason, Madison, Jefferson, and others sought to limit government and protect natural rights that they believed were granted by God.
Right to Choose Your Religion
Question: Why was Religious Freedom Granted in the Bill of Rights?
Answer: This is a trick question.
According to the Declaration of Independence, governments do not grant religious freedom. God does. The Bill of Rights constitutionalizes the Declaration, which asserts that when governments seek to take away inalienable rights such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," citizens have a right to overthrow that government. The first amendment to the Constitution does not grant freedom of religion, or speech, or press, or of assembly; it prohibits Congress from enacting laws to suppress these freedoms.
It is no coincidence that the first right protected in the first amendment is the freedom of religion. The founding fathers understood the importance of God in the development of a righteous and powerful nation. They also understood the dangers of forcing citizens to believe in a particular manner.
The Protection of Property Rights
The importance of the Bill of Rights to this country's citizens begins with the right to worship according to one's conscience and citizens' rights to speak, petition, and assemble freely. The Bill continues by protecting property rights and the rights of the accused. Amendments 2, 3, 4, and 5 deal either directly or indirectly with individual property rights. Amendments 3-8 deal with the rights of the accused. The Bill of Rights ends by strictly limiting the power of the federal government in Amendments 9 and 10. (For a complete list and summary of all ten amendments, go to the Bill of Rights Summary, linked here.)
The founding fathers wrote the Constitution to govern human nature. They understood the natural inclination of rulers to want more power. As the federal government grows larger by the day, it's imperative that citizens of the United States demand their elected officials return to the Constitution for guidance and hold them accountable to it.