Ahhh, the holidays. The tinsel, the parties, the fun with friends and family. We celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and others, but there’s one historically-significant day that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle: Bill of Rights Day.
This week, on December 15, we marked the 224th anniversary of the Bill of Rights (we told you it can get lost in the shuffle). And while we’re proud of our freedom as a nation, we should stop and think about how these freedoms came to be. Remember, the everyday freedoms we enjoy today were once (literally) revolutionary ideas.
So what inspired the Founders? Why was all of this so important to our fledgling nation?
Let’s take a walk back through history.
Okay……. maybe not that far back.
1777 – Articles of Confederation
Before the Bill of Rights or Constitution existed, the United States adopted a document that established a central government based on “a firm league of friendship” rather than a powerful national government (remember, we are fleeing from monarchy at this point, not trying to recreate it). This document was known as the Articles of Confederation. Even so, 36-year-old Virginia delegate James Madison was convinced the Articles weren’t strong enough and believed they needed to be replaced.
Of course, each delegate had their own vision for how American government should function, and what its relationship with their newfound citizenry should be. Several put forth their ideas. Two of the most well-known, the Hamilton Plan and the Virginia Plan, highlighted disagreements between large and small states over the proper form of representation – monarchy or democracy? Proportional Congress by state size or by number of states? After a raucous debate, it was determined that none of these plans were good enough on their own, and there would be need to be a compromise and so….
The Great Compromise was born!
What was the Great Compromise? So glad you asked…
To appease all sides of the debate, the delegates drew up a draft constitution, which incorporated a little of each plan.
The Great Compromise, or Sherman’s Compromise, created the system of government that we know today. The Upper Chamber, the Senate, would have equal representation for each state. And the Lower Chamber, the House, would have proportionate representation depending on state population sizes.
The Bill of Rights pushed Constitution over the finish line. In January of 1788, only five states had approved the Constitution—and nine were needed for ratification. In February, the Federalists agreed to the Bill of Rights. And soon after, several other states voted to approve the Constitution. By July, the Confederation Congress had approval from nine states and they began the work of putting the ratified constitution into action.
1787- Constitutional Convention
From May to September 1787, 55 out of the 70 delegates met in Philadelphia to discuss exactly how the government was going to operate and how the land was going to be governed. This would be the first time in history that a government was craftily formed, absent from chance or war (no pressure). George Washington was elected to preside over the Convention. The meeting had officially been called to revise the existing Articles of Confederation which were clearly not strong or clear enough to govern the new nation.
1787- Bill of Rights
Initially, the founders did not include a Bill of Rights because they believed protection of the individuals should be left up to the states rather than the federal government. However, after months of debate and efforts made largely by James Madison, members insisted that a bill of rights was necessary to safeguard individual freedoms. In December 1971, the Bill of Rights officially became part of the Constitution and are still used to govern our country centuries later.
Each one of these amendments is an important part of the great American experiment in democracy, anchored by our principles of equality and freedom. We think this is important stuff, so we put together a pop quiz that you can share with friends and family as you gather together this holiday season (don’t worry, there’s a cheat sheet).
Bill of Rights Pop Quiz
- Freedom of ________, speech, ________, and ________
- Right to keep and bear ________ for the purpose of a well-regulated ________
- No forcible quartering of ________ during ________
- Freedom from unreasonable ________ and ________
- Right to a grand ________ for capital crimes and due ________. Protection from double ________, self-incrimination and public ________ of private ________ without just compensation.
- Right to ________ and public ________ by jury and a competent ________
- Right to trial by ________ for monetary cases above ________
- Protection against excessive ________ or fines and cruel and unusual ________
- Rights not ________ are retained by the ________
- Rights not given to the federal government or prohibited the state governments by the ________, are reserved to the ________