Friday, July 3, 2015

Today you should thank James Madison for the Bill of Rights

So.  The Bill of Rights.

He's here to protect your personal liberty (millennials, this is Bill the Cat and he was very relevant at one point.  This sight gag is hilarious to your elders).

It's not that the idea of a listing of citizens' rights hadn't been a part of government documentation before.  The states had included similar language in their own constitutions.  But when we got close to wrapping up our own Constitution, James Madison himself - the guy who brought the Constitution draft to the meeting that became the Constitutional Convention, didn't see the point.

Madison thought that we had that stuff sorted and that the Constitution already covered what the government considered a right.  But...  not so much.  Figuring out what was important, what people would fight over, etc... was seen as a hindrance in just getting our feet under us, and so it became the work of the first Congresses to sort it out.

The Anti-Federalists really did want that Bill of Rights, and made their case loudly and often as it would help protect individual liberty.  You'll notice the Bill of Rights gets brought up a lot still today when it comes to how we relate to how our Government is allowed to deal with us (although people tend to cite their favorite Amendment while ignoring others, and interpret the Amendments to suit their own needs as often as they do their religious text of choice).

Having done everyone's work and worrying for them, this is Madison at age 32.

When the first Congress went into session, the Bill of Rights was the hot topic, and even James Madison eventually decided this was a good idea, if for no other reason that to belay the likelihood NOT having such a thing would lead to another go at an all-new Constitution, and we'd never get on with it as a Country.  This is one of those places where you realize people are talking past one another, or are in "violent agreement" - seemingly arguing but actually wanting the same thing for different reasons.  Madison agreed that we should have those Amendments so long as they were there to define personal liberty, and - apparently the only one willing to do any heavy lifting - Madison also drafted the Bill of Rights, but as inserts right into the body of the Constitution.

And, welcome to government work kids, because now it went to committee.  And to the House and the Senate and back to Committee, all the while with our favorite workaholic, Madison, shepherding the process along.

Then, of course, you have to go out to the State legislatures for ratification... and...  ugh.

There were actually 12 originally proposed articles, and we got ten.  One of the failed articles listed the population to representative ratio, and I think if we'd stuck with that, we'd have something like 850 people in the House of Representatives.  In short, you'd need a bigger boat.

The second article was passed in 1992.  Something about pay for reps not being passed unless the legislators are there.  Which... not quite as stirring as "freedom of speech".

I think most people haven't bothered to read the Bill of Rights since high school (God bless ya, my law school friends.  I know you had a Con-Law class at some point), and so I think most people see the language of the First Amendment as the bulk of all 10 of the Amendments.  There's a LOT in there.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Woof.  Seems like that could have been 4-6 amendments on its own, and a few words on each topic have meant we've had a society that hasn't gotten all that despotic over the years.  If public education can be said to have guaranteed anything, it's that high school kids all heard the message that the Government is not allowed to tell them to shut up, and they can't tell the press to shut up, either.  And no one in office can tell you how to worship, although, man, if that isn't the endgame of a whole lot of people running for office.

I'm not going to do a write-up of all 10 Amendments.  I haven't been to law school, and it's questionable how strong my actual reading skills are.  But I will say this -

It's worked out really damn well.  Not as great as it could have, but history is history and modern times are modern times.  For all our faults, we've been able to rely on these Amendments to ensure the liberty first of the folks who wanted it for themselves and not have to worry about tyranny as white, rich, men.  And, later, returning again and again to these guarantees of liberty, we've been able to find reason to extend that same liberty to others.  When the liberty was not guaranteed, we've seen fit to amend again and again, allowing women the vote and, hey, we finally got rid of slavery.  Eventually.

When we have added an amendment that was not about the guarantee of freedom (or about some procedure for choosing representation), it's the only amendment that we had to repeal.  Yes, that was the ill-conceived 18th Amendment that told America that it could no longer get it's drink on.  Which... oh my God, you'd have to be drunk just to think that was a good idea, and we wasted a whole 21st Amendment repealing the 18th.

So when I hear anyone talk about adding amendments based on personal prejudices, intended to guarantee that they're going to permanently remove the potential rights of this or that class of people, it tells me a few things.

  • They don't entirely understand the curve of history, or the purpose of the Bill of Rights/ Amendments.
  • They actually do know and understand that their stance is unconstitutional, and they know the clock is ticking unless they can muster a whole lot of other people to similarly openly wear their prejudice on their sleeve.
  • They're more invested in maintaining second class status for a portion of the population than ensuring the basic tenets of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, and that's unAmerican™ as it gets.
  • They are not fun at parties.

So far, we've done okay, and while the Supreme Court sometimes interprets all of these rights in ways I do not agree with, I agree with the basic idea of 9 justices of varying backgrounds hashing it out.

Had Madison not done work that he, basically, seemed super reluctant to do in the first place, we'd - all of us bloggers - be sitting in gulags somewhere.  I know I'd have been beheaded about five times over, so thanks Jimmy Mads!  One day they'll get around to having a real memorial for you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

OK, now I found and read it. Again, good job! It would be nice if a much higher percentage of our population had an understanding of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Much like the Bible, they seem to pick and choose the verses that seemingly support their point of view, ignoring the context and the rest of the content.