It is important that the study of the Constitution should be an essential part not only of the education of the American youth, but of all Americans, and especially those who have become naturalized citizens of this great nation.
While all of us cannot be trained in the technicalities of the law, we should all have some idea of our fundamental institutions. We need to know their relationship to our daily life, the reasons for their existence, and the benefits we derive from them, as well as the importance to ourselves of their perpetuation. The Constitution is not self-perpetuated by any means; if it is to survive it will be because it has the support of the people–not passive, but active public support. This means making an adequate sacrifice to maintain that which is of the greatest benefit to the greatest number.
The Constitution has its roots in the great and heroic past of the English-speaking race. Today, under that Constitution which was adopted through the blood and sweat of the pioneers of our country, the safeguard of personal liberty is ever-present. Under our great Bill of Rights, our governmental power is divided into three parts. The first is the power granted to the central government; the second that reserved to the States, and the third and by far the most important, although at times the fact may not be generally recognized, the power reserved to the people under the many inhibitions of both State and Federal legislation.
In the turmoil which now seems to have engulfed the entire world, the citizens of the United States should well remember the last part particularly–it is the people, those who go to make up the great cross-section of this country, who must guard the ramparts from the ever-increasing dangers of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. Our Constitution is the final safeguard of every right that is enjoyed by any American citizen. As long as it is observed those rights will be secure, but should it fall into disrespect or disrepute the way of orderly, organized government as we have known it for the past one hundred and fifty years will be at an end.
When the federal constitution was submitted on September 28, 1787, by Congress to the Legislatures of the several States for ratification there was very strong opposition in all the States to its adoption. The Democrats, under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, feared that the provisions of the instrument would unduly abridge State’s rights and result in a government too highly centralized for their views. Nine States needed to ratify before the Constitution took effect. It was not until June 21, 1788, that the ninth state, New Hampshire, gave its approval. The States, which had not ratified up to that time, were Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.
Virginia and New York gave their assent in 1788. When President Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789, on the steps of the Federal Hall in New York, neither North Carolina nor Rhode Island had ratified and, therefore, were not one of the United States. These two reluctant States did, however, come into line. North Carolina was ratified on November 21, 1789, and Rhode Island on May 29, 1790.
It will be seen by this long delay how strong was the feeling against the Constitution. Undoubtedly it would never have been ratified had it not been for the assurance given by Congress and by the leaders who favored the Constitution, especially Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, that the Bill of Rights would be adopted as soon as the Constitution was ratified. This pledge was carried out and the first ten amendments to the Constitution, forming the Bill of Rights, were proposed to the Legislatures of the States on September 25, 1789, and were thereafter ratified.
It will be seen how much importance our founding fathers attached to the Bill of Rights. Without undertaking to enumerate all the rights secured to the people by these ten amendments, there may be mentioned the rights of religious freedom, of freedom of speech and of the press, the right to assemble and to petition, the right to due process of law, and the right to trial by jury.
Assuredly there has never been a time in the history of the world when it was more necessary to lay emphasis on these great fundamental rights. While all intelligent persons realize that in times of great emergency the people must voluntarily consent to some suspension of these rights, nevertheless it should always be borne in mind that such suspension is merely temporary and for a specific occasion. Our Government is founded upon the right of its citizens to all reasonable freedom of every kind. It is this great right that is protected by the first ten Amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights was a pacer in the democratic movement in America and as such is entitled to all the prestige of leadership. Yet it really took a century after its enactment for American women to procure the Nineteenth Amendment to the federal Constitution which compelled reluctant states to grant them the basic right of the free–the right to vote. Non-Christian men and freethinkers of their sex more readily wrested from state legislatures the guarantee of their civil rights. But it was not until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment that race ceased to be, by law, a barrier to the enjoyment of civil liberties for all American men. The celebration in this year, 1941, of the original Bill of Rights should therefore be coupled with the celebration of its enlarged guarantees.
But even the original Bill of Rights would have been a dead letter if dauntless men and women, risking death, had not taught the public to listen without rioting to opinions which it abhorred. That educational. the process enabled the letter of the law to live in practice, or application, for the American way of life. In celebrating the original Bill of Rights now, we should
celebrate with it the courage and skill of the men and the women who made tolerance a fact as well as a principle of law. The open forum, so characteristic of American democracy, owes its inception and its continuation to persons of both sexes who insisted that law and practice were parts of the same thing.
That rights carry duties has become the third aspect of democratic evaluations, nurtured on free debates. It is increasingly understood in America that liberty could become a license; that rights if viewed as extreme personal privileges could reduce society to anarchy. There is today, in connection with rights, the wide prevalence of the philosophy that rights are granted to individuals in order that they may develop their talents for competent voluntary cooperation in the thought and action essential to the strength of society, to the general welfare, and to the very endurance of civil liberties themselves.
Theoretically, the tolerance provided for by rights might induce such lethargy of minds and morals on the part of the many that the willful few could gain social control and set up a totalitarian system of government. But history has produced effective revolts amid persecution–to become in turn tyrannies.
A history of civilization could be written around the derivation of the privileges that constitute our Bill of Rights. The emphasis would be not on rulers and governments, but on the struggle, mankind has waged for centuries to obtain recognition of the rights of individual men. These rights are guarantees necessary to any people who wish to live in the free atmosphere of liberty. They are the foundation of any government that exists by the free will of the governed and not by the military force of self-appointed rulers.
The history of our own Bill of Rights is fired with the determination of the American people to preserve their liberties as individuals living in a free state. Significantly, these first ten Amendments in our Constitution were drawn from earlier declarations of rights which a number of the original thirteen States had formulated for themselves before they joined the Union. They not only served as models for our Federal Constitution but became basic patterns for new democracies all over the world.
The Bill of Rights has for us a peculiar significance today when we are trying to make clear to ourselves those few profound principles which shape our nation in the form of what we call democracy. The essence of democracy is not to be found in any statement of liberties or in any body of laws protecting rights, or even in any form of government. It is to be found only in provision for change and development. Any form fixed and forever may become the grave of democracy. But any form which remains forever provisional, which. allows amendment and change, which grows as the will of the people grow toward freedom, is the safeguard of liberty.
In our Bill of Rights, there is this safeguard. The Bill of Rights began with a protest, our protest against our own newly made Constitution because there was not expressed clearly enough in it this possibility for change as we changed. Freedom is a living expanding thing. A child develops from helplessness into the complete freedom of the individual. So our nation when it began could not comprehend in one age the full meaning of freedom for all time ahead. But those first Americans knew that above all there must be room for change, and the group of amendments which we call the Bill of Rights was that room.
We Americans ought, therefore, to guard as the very soul of our nation this Bill of Rights, not only for. what it already says but far more for what it may let other amendments say in the future. We ought to see to it as our primary duty that there is never an end put to this Bill of Rights. The Constitution must remain unfinished, ready for new articles, sensitive to our own change and growth toward a better democracy; more complete freedom for all Americans alike.
Ginsburg, Benjamin, Theodore J. Lowi, and Margaret Weir. We The People: An Introduction to American Politics. 6th edition. W.W. Norton & Company 2003.