On December 15th each year, you’re likely to hear politicians and pundits using beautiful prose to “celebrate” Bill of Rights Day.
At best, unfortunately, it’s just one day for most of them to grandstand even as they work to undermine the Constitution and your liberty the rest of the year.
For us, Bill of Rights Day is every single day of the year.
On June 8, 1789, James Madison addressed the House of Representatives and introduced a proposed Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
It has been objected also against a bill of rights, that, by enumerating particular exceptions to the grant of power, it would disparage those rights which were not placed in that enumeration; and it might follow by implication, that those rights which were not singled out, were intended to be assigned into the hands of the General Government, and were consequently insecure. This is one of the most plausible arguments I have ever heard urged against the admission of a bill of rights into this system; but, I conceive, that it may be guarded against. I have attempted it, as gentlemen may see by turning to the last clause of the fourth resolution [the Ninth Amendment].
A record of the debates in the House of Representatives from June 8 to Sept, 24 related to the proposed amendments to the Constitution can be located in the Annals of Congress.*
The original joint resolution proposing the Bill of Rights is on permanent display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. And while most people are familiar with the preamble to the Constitution, they don’t realize that the Bill of Rights also has a preamble:
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
October 2, 1789, President George Washington sent copies of the proposed Bill of Rights to the states for them to consider and debate, and to decide whether or not to adopt the list of restrictions upon the power of the general government.
During the ratification debates, nobody thought that the Bill of Rights was a grant of rights to the people. They didn’t refer to their right to keep and bear arms as a “2nd Amendment right,” or their right to free speech as a “1st Amendment right.”
And no one thought those rights would cease to exist without the approval of the Bill of Rights. In fact, it was widely understood that our rights preceded government all along.
Theophilus Parsons may have summed it up best during debates over the Constitution in the Massachusetts Ratifying Convention when he said, “No power was given to Congress to infringe on any one of the natural rights of the people.”
Today, many people get this wrong. Without ever reading the preamble to the Bill of Rights, it’s unlikely they’ll ever understand its original purpose.
In his book The Original Constitution, Rob Natelson explains:
“Thus, some of the proposed amendments were “declaratory…clauses” (that is, rules of construction) designed to “prevent misconstruction” of the Constitution by explaining how the instrument should be interpreted. The rest were “restrictive clauses” to prevent “abuse” of federal powers by creating external limitations curtailing those powers.” [emphasis added]
The people of the several states debated and eventually approved 10 of the 12 proposals sent to them for consideration.
Amending the Constitution with its ratification on Dec. 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights tells the federal government a number of things that it is not allowed to do, including, but not limited to, the following:
- Make no law abridging freedom of speech, press, religion, or assembly.
- Do not infringe on the right to keep and bear arms.
- Do not “quarter” soldiers in peacetime.
- Do not conduct unreasonable searches and seizures, and don’t issue warrants without probable cause.
- Do not force people to testify against themselves.
- Do not deny a speedy trial to a person accused of a crime.
- Do not deny trial by jury to an accused person..
- Do not impose excessive bail.
- Don’t assume that this is an exhaustive list of rights. Just because some are listed doesn’t mean the people don’t have others.
- Don’t exercise any power not delegated in this Constitution.
In the end, the Bill of Rights was always about limiting government power, not expanding it.
As Samuel Adams once put it, “A power without any restraint is tyranny.”
*The Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, on the following dates in 1789:
- June 8 (pages 440-68)
- July 21 (pages 685-91)
- July 28 (page 699)
- August 13 (pages 730-44)
- August 14, (pages 745-57)
- August 15 (pages 757-78)
- August 17 (pages 778-85)
- August 18 (pages 785-92)
- August 19 (page 795)
- August 20 (page 795)
- August 21 (pages 795-802)
- August 22 (pages 803-08)
- August 24 (pages 808-09)
- September 19 (page 938)
- September 21 (page 939)
- September 24 (page 948)
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