The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791

By Robert Allen Rutland | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
PERSONAL FREEDOM IN THE NEW REPUBLIC

ALTHOUGH most of the new states had set down rights which the people of those commonwealths regarded as immutable in a bill of rights, the instrument designed to maintain the new nation as a perpetual union failed to guarantee personal freedom. The Articles of Confederation, that "Grand Corner Stone" to those who had helped lay it, did not include a single article which assured to citizens freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, or any of the other rights proclaimed in the state bills of rights or constitutions.1 The omission is explained by the conception of powers of the general government held by Americans in 1777, when the Articles were framed. Since each state was to retain its "sovereignty, freedom, and independence," it followed that all guarantees of freedom for the individual citizen would necessarily come from the state, not the Confederation.

The obligations of a state toward its citizens in the protection of personal liberties had been called to the attention of the Continental Congress in February, 1777--months before Congress had approved the Articles of Confederation. In a debate which arose over the practice of arresting deserters from the Continental army, Thomas Burke of North Carolina sounded a warning which was indicative of prevailing thought. Burke argued that congressional authority could not be exerted on citizens of the states because the precedent might "render Ineffectuall all the Bariers Provided in the states for the Secur-

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1
A section of Article V, which held that "Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Congress" could hardly be classed as a guarantee affecting the average citizen.

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