Saturday, December 15, 2007

Happy Birthday

Today's Writer's Almanac reminds us that today is the 216th anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights.  With the social pendulum having swung as far as it has, it is worthwhile to reread the Bill of Rights and remember there are values that define us a nation that transcend fear.

It was on this day in 1791 that the Bill of Rights was adopted by the United States, thanks in part to a man who hasn't gotten a lot of credit, George Mason. He was a lifelong friend of George Washington's who wasn't interested in politics, but when Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, George Mason reluctantly took over his friend's seat on the Virginia legislature. And then Mason was assigned by chance to the committee to write the new state constitution.

Mason had read the philosopher John Locke, and he liked Locke's idea that all people are born with certain rights, and that government's purpose should be to protect those rights. George Mason believed that the best way to protect those rights would be to list them in the constitution itself. And so he put together Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," the first government document in history that specified the absolute rights of individuals. Mason's ideas about rights and freedom influenced a 25-year-old legislator named James Madison, who passed them along to his friend Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson would go on to use Mason's ideas in his own draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Mason was asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention after the war, but he disagreed with the other delegates on numerous issues, especially slavery, which he thought should be outlawed in the new constitution. He fought for the inclusion of a list of rights, like the "Declaration of Rights" in the Virginia Constitution, but his idea for a bill of rights failed by a wide margin.

And so, when it came time to sign to the new U.S. Constitution, George Mason was one of the only men there who refused. He said, "I would sooner chop off [my] right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands." His decision ruined his friendship with George Washington. The two men never called on each other again. But he hoped that his protest would encourage an eventual passage of a bill of rights, and it did. His former protege, James Madison, introduced the Bill of Rights into the first session of Congress in 1789, and Madison used Virginia's Declaration of Rights as the model.

Even with the Bill of Rights, the U.S. Constitution didn't provide full citizenship to blacks or women, among others, and it has had to be amended again and again over the years. But when we think of what it means to have a free country, most of our ideas about the meaning of freedom come from those first 10 amendments, adopted on this day in 1791, which include the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a fair trial. George Mason died in 1792, a year after those freedoms and rights became law.

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