(originally published in The Detroit News)
In the cacophony of the recession, the plight of the American automobile industry, perpetual state budget woes and the upcoming presidential inauguration, one could easily be excused for forgetting about today's momentous anniversary. Two hundred and seventeen years ago, the United States ratified the Bill of Rights. It continues to play an indispensable role in our constitutional order, and we should take a moment to celebrate its vibrant role in American life.
Although a Bill of Rights had been a key feature of protecting the rights of Englishmen, the Founding Fathers omitted it when they drafted the Constitution in 1787. This oversight generated heated opposition throughout the colonies as the people debated whether to adopt the new Constitution.
Fearful that a newly formed federal government would oppress the people and trample on the states, the Anti-Federalists clamored for the addition of a Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson, writing to James Madison from Paris, wrote that he opposed the adoption of the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. He explained that "a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no government should refuse, or rest on inference."
Although the new Constitution was ratified over the objections of the Anti-Federalists, most ratifiers understood that the addition of a Bill of Rights would be of the highest priority to the newly established federal government. Madison fulfilled that promise by drafting a dozen amendments to the Constitution -- the first 10 of which were adopted quickly and dubbed the Bill of Rights.
The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to guarantee our unalienable rights from infringement by the federal (and with the adoption of the 14th Amendment) and state governments.
The First Amendment protects the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and association; and bars the establishment of religion. The Second Amendment ensures that the right of the people to keep and bear arms, while the Third Amendment prohibits the quartering of troops in peacetime.
The Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches and seizures; the Fifth Amendment prohibits placing a criminal defendant in double jeopardy, self-incrimination and the deprivation of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The same amendment requires that any taking of private property by the government be only for "public use" and with "just compensation."
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy and public trial, the right to confront witnesses, and the right to counsel. The Seventh Amendment guarantees a jury trial, while the Eighth prohibits cruel and unusual punishments.
The Ninth Amendment guarantees those rights not otherwise expressly protected in the first eight amendments, while the Tenth reserves all "powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it by the States ... to the States respectively, or to the People."
The Constitution expressly protects the unalienable rights of individuals from government oppression. These protections are integrated into the Constitution, the Supreme Court noted, because the Founders "foresaw that troublous times would arise, when rulers and people would become restive under restraint, and seek by sharp and decisive measures to accomplish ends deemed just and proper; and that principles of constitutional liberty would be in peril, unless established by irreparable law. The history of the world had taught them that what was done in the past might be attempted in the future."
The Founders' wisdom is as powerful today as it was in 1791. Billions of people continue to suffer the infringement of their God-given rights because they have no meaningful Bill of Rights to protect them.
As the Declaration of Independence explained, America was founded on the self-evident first principle that all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; and the Bill of Rights is intended to protect them. In the course of human history, very few people have had the benefit of a Bill of Rights.
Unfortunately, recent studies reveal that our students, public and policy-makers are woefully ignorant of our Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. We are fools to think we can keep our rights when we are ignorant of them. Let us use today's anniversary to renew our commitment to the Bill of Rights in education and policymaking. Then we will be worthy of the legacy of freedom the Founders bequeathed to us.
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