The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview
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SINCE 1791

JEFFERSONMUST have had some feeling of personal satisfaction when he was able to announce officially the ratification of the first ten amendments. He favored the Bill of Rights, since it fitted in with his idea expressed during the Revolution that "the spirit of the times may alter, will alter . . . [and thus] the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill."1 Adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was a step which convinced many men that the Republic was not, after all, headed down hill.

A summary of the course of American civil liberty since 1791 to determine whether we have gone forward would call for many volumes. Much of the fabric of the original Constitution has been stretched out of shape, or made to appear ill-fitting, and the Bill of Rights has been put to tests which Jefferson could not have foreseen. But we can imagine, for example, that the reasons for a Fifth Amendment would appear as sound to Madison, Jefferson, or Mason today--despite the advent of wire-tapping techniques and make-your-own- rules legislative investigating committees--as the reasons presented in 1776 or 1789. The rise of corporations, the income tax, and geographical considerations, to mention a few items, have caused many phrases in the original Constitution to be turned "inside out." But the dignity of the human personality remains the same, whether the right involved be that of blocking the door to a redcoat soldier or holding a private telephone

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Peden, ed. ( Chapel Hill, 1955), 161.


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