The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning

The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning

The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning

The Bill of Rights: Its Origin and Meaning

Excerpt

The American people have been blessed with a Bill of Rights at least since 1791, when the ratification of the first ten amendments to the Constitution was completed. There is reason to say "at least" since then, for when a great outcry went up that the Constitution framed in 1787 contained no Bill of Rights, the reply was made that the entire document was a charter of rights and liberties. Both in the character of the original Constitution and in its specific details, that was true to a much greater extent than alarmed citizens realized. Yet as a charter of freedom it was woefully deficient. By oversight and underestimate, great gaps were left in the protective armor against governmental oppression and the tyranny of popular majorities. Responding to a nationwide demand, the first Congress of the United States undertook to supply what was missing. It seemed to have done so with the submission to the states, in 1789, of twelve amendments, all of which were promptly ratified except two of trivial importance relating to the composition and pay of Congress.

The name "Bill of Rights" was at once applied to these ten amendments, but in a truly national sense it was a misnomer. The restraints contained in them were imposed solely upon the federal government: the states were untouched by these prohibitory mandates. That seemed of little moment at the time, since most of the states had their own bills of rights and citizens of those states had varying degrees of double protection.

Seventy years passed. The Civil War came, dividing the nation by its onset and cementing it by force in its outcome. As one result . . .

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