CHARLOTTE: On September 2, 1789, the new U.S. Congress sent the Bill of Rights for American citizens to the state legislatures for approval. Now, some 229 years later, as we debate the SCOTUS Chaos to approve a new Supreme Court justice, it seems appropriate to look at some interesting facts surrounding that important document.
Year 1215 and The Magna Charter
Almost every high school student hates memorizing dates, but one that is especially significant to us all is 1215, more than 800 years ago, when King John of England was forced to sign the Magna Carta (Great Charter) at Runnymede. The importance of that event extends to the United States today, where more than half of the articles in our own Bill of Rights are either directly or indirectly influenced by the Magna Carta.
The English also had a “Bill of Rights” among which the 1689 act of parliament issued a number of guarantees that were later adopted in the first 10 U.S. amendments to the Constitution.
Virginia Declaration of Rights
One of our lesser known founding fathers, a Virginia planter and politician who gives his name to George Mason University, notably authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights which became the basis of the U.S. document.
Mason was part of a committee that drafted the Virginia declaration in 1776 which contains the familiar words:
“(All) men are by nature free and independent and have certain inherent rights… namely the enjoyment of life and liberty.”
The Declaration of Independence
In 1787, as the Constitutional Convention was coming to a close, Mason argued that there needed to be an additional bill of inalienable rights. State delegates voted the proposition down, and in protest, Mason refused to sign the Constitution. Later that year, a better-known patriot, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a version that became the “Declaration of Independence.”
Though Mason did not formally make the motion for the Bill of Rights, he did second it. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts issued the initial proposal. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams also endorsed it.
In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson opined,
“I do not like…the omission of a bill of rights. Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.”
Though Madison agreed in principle regarding a bill of rights, he initially believed there was no need to create one. In correspondence to Jefferson in October 1788, Madison wrote, “My own opinion has always been in favor of a bill of rights…At the same time, I have never thought (its) omission a material defect.”
Elected a congressman the following year, Madison had a change of heart, and it was he who formally introduced the amendments comprising the Bill of Rights.
Meanwhile, John Adams was in Great Britain during the period when the Constitution was being written. After reading the document, he responded to the bill of rights question with the statement,
“A Declaration of Rights I wish to see with all my heart, though I am sensible of the difficulty in framing one, in which all the States can agree.”
Perhaps the most obscure part of this founding fathers trivia, however, reverts to Elbridge Gerry. He served as governor of Massachusetts at a time when the state legislature redrew the state’s congressional districts.
Even today, that political process is known as “gerrymandering.”
James Madison’s original bill consisted of 19 amendments. The House of Representatives approved 17 of them in August, 1789. When the Senate had its opportunity to vote, they trimmed the document to 12 amendments for the states to review.
In the end, amendment numbers 3 through 12, adopted on December 15, 1791, became known as the “Bill of Rights.”
Congress passes the right to a pay raise in the Bill of Rights?
For the record, the second proposed amendment dealt with restricting Congress’ ability to give itself a pay raise (or cut). Believe it or not, that idea remained dormant for more than 200 years.
In 1982, Gregory Watson, a student at the University of Texas, discovered while researching a term paper that the Congressional Pay Amendment was still “technically pending before state legislatures.”
In an extensive letter-writing campaign, Watson urged states to ratify the amendment, which they eventually did on May 20, 1992. As such, Watson’s efforts led to the 27th and most recent amendment to the Constitution.
Of note, Watson received a “C” on his paper.
Rights are slippery things easily lost
President George Washington and Congress had 14 official copies of the Bill of Rights drawn up; one for the federal government, 11 for the states and two for Rhode Island and North Carolina who had yet to ratify the document.
For whatever reasons, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Georgia all lost their copies.
In 1945, the Library of Congress received a gift of one of the long-lost original copies. Authorities, unable to determine whether it belonged to Pennsylvania or New York determined the best thing would be to share it.
Forty-nine years before that, the New York Public Library obtained yet another copy.
For the moment, until 2020, the NYPL and Pennsylvania are sharing the document. After that, New York will keep it 60% of the time and the Keystone State the rest.
In the spring of 1865, Raleigh, NC, Union troops were in control. At some time during the occupation by Gen. William Sherman, a Union soldier allegedly stole North Carolina’s copy from the state capitol.
After changing hands numerous times over the decades, the FBI eventually recovered it in 2007 and returned it to its rightful location in Raleigh.
The Third Amendment, SCOTUS Chaos and Judge Brett Kavanaugh
Finally, amid all the controversy over Bret Kavanaugh, we should note that the Third Amendment is the least litigated of the Bill of Rights.
Though once a considerable threat to privacy and ownership, the amendment deals with the ability of the Federal government to quarter soldiers inside your house without consent.
Since the Supreme Court has never based a single decision upon this amendment, the American Bar Association has termed it the “runt piglet” of the Constitution.
Perhaps we should consider another amendment dealing with the “runt piglets” in Congress today.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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