Bill of Rights Ratified 217 Years Ago

On December 15, 1791, the legislatures of three-fourths of the states of the newly formed United States ratified what is now known as the Bill of Rights. When first proposed, the Bill of Rights contained 12 amendments. The first two of them, dealing with proportional representation in Congress and compensation of its members, were not ratified. The Bill of Rights as ratified protected the fundamental rights of the citizens of the new country. The First Amendment guaranteed freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of peaceful assembly and petition. Other amendments guaranteed the rights of the people to form a “well-regulated militia,” to keep and bear arms, the rights to private property, fair treatment for accused criminals, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from self-incrimination, a speedy and impartial jury trial, and representation by counsel.

The first official Bill of Rights Day was December 15, 1941 declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Proclamation 2524 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Most Americans largely ignore the historical significance of the anniversary of the Bill of Rights and many American politicians neglect the spirit of the Bill of Rights on a day-to-day basis. Consider the Patriot Act and other laws passed to wage the War on Terror. Think about wiretap abuses and expanded search and seizure by the police in the War on Drugs, the broad use of eminent domain, the government’s ability to exercise civil asset forfeiture, the limitations on jury trials in criminal cases and other recent developments. These kinds of expansive governmental actions are arguably what the drafters of the Bill of Rights intended to curb. Bill of Rights Day is an opportunity to reverse the increasing intrusion on the individual rights of American citizens.

For additional reading in the BLS library on the history of the Bill of Rights, see SARA the library catalog for James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski (Call # KF4749 .L23 2006) with chapters including: Madison introduces the Bill of Rights — Congress proposes the Bill of Rights — Ratification of the Bill of Rights.

The BLS Library also has in its collection The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance by Nat Hentoff (Call # JC599.U5 H46 2003) with chapters that include: Why Should We Care? It’s Only the Constitution (USA PATRIOT Act, John Ashcroft, Operation TIPS); How We Began to Lose Our Liberties; A Society Under Surveillance; The FBI Eyeing What You Read (USA PATRIOT Act, gag order, George Orwell).