Saturday, December 15, 2007

December 15, 1791:

Bill of Rights Ratified

The first ten amendments to the US Constitution -- actually the third through the 12th of the proposed amendments -- are the work of James Madison, later the Fourth President of the United States, at the time a Congressman, more than anyone else. One of his historical sobriquets is "Father of the Bill of Rights." Madison had, of course, antecedents to draw from, such as the English Bill of Rights and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, but the impetus to add the amendments, and the form they took, are his -- even if he acted reluctantly.

Devin Bent of the James Madison Center wrote: "At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison had not believed that a bill of rights was required for the new government. However, during the ratification process, several states had called for a bill of rights, and Madison felt it was his obligation, his duty, to propose one. Madison also clearly felt a need to control the amendment process by taking leadership of the effort. New York, when it ratified the Constitution, had called for another constitutional convention, which was now clearly provided for in the Constitution. By drafting a Bill of Rights, Madison headed off that possibility. He stated quite openly:

" 'I should be unwilling to see a door opened for a re-consideration of the whole structure of the government, for a re-consideration of the principles and the substance of the powers given; because I doubt, if such a door was opened, if we should be very likely to stop at that point which would be safe to the government itself...'

"It is clear that Madison truly thought that a bill of rights was not necessary except to mollify those who thought it was required, to preclude another constitutional convention and to encourage the final two states to ratify the Constitution. In later years, his letters revealed no great pride of authorship. In a letter of 1821 he referred to 'those safe, if not necessary, and those politic, if not obligatory, amendments.' In his speech to Congress the best he could say of a bill of rights was that it was 'neither improper nor absolutely useless.' This is, certainly, faint praise."

December 15 is also an anniversary in the history of presidents and the turkeys they've "pardoned." President Truman is thought to be the first president to have done so, but it turns out the truth of the matter is more murky than that.

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