The Founding Fathers ratified the United States Constitution on June 21, 1788. In so doing, our forebears bestowed on generations yet unborn, a governing system unique in all history. A system of diffuse authority, checks and balances, and authority delegated but Never relinquished, by a sovereign electorate.
Today the American system is often described as “democracy”. That description is in error.
Ambrose Bierce once described Democracy as four wolves and a lamb, voting on what to eat for lunch. The founders gave us a Constitutional Republic.
The genius of such a Republic is demonstrated in a system which protects the rights of All citizens, including that individual. The proverbial lamb. The specifics are enumerated in our bill of rights, twelve amendments adopted by the first Congress on September 25, 1789 and sent to the states, for ratification.
Even at the Constitutional Convention, delegates expressed concerns about the larger, more populous states holding sway at the expense of the smaller states. The “Connecticut Compromise” solved that problem, creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states themselves in the upper house (Senate).
The 62nd Congress proposed a Constitutional amendment in 1912, negating the intent of the founders and proposing that Senators be chosen by popular election. The measure was adopted the following year, the 17th amendment having been ratified by ¾ of the states. Since that time, it’s difficult to understand what the United States Senate even is, an institution neither democratic nor republican, but I digress.
Five states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, ratified the document in quick succession. Some states objected to the new Constitution, especially Massachusetts, which wanted more protection for basic political rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and of the press. These wanted the document to specify, that those powers left un-delegated to the Federal government, were reserved to the states.
A compromise was reached in February, 1788 whereby Massachusetts and other states would ratify the document with the assurance that such amendments would immediately be put up for consideration.
With these assurances, Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a two-vote margin followed by Maryland, and South Carolina. New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21. The new Constitutional Government would take effect on March 4 of the following year.
Amendments 2-12 were adopted on December 15, 1791 to become a document we now know, as the “Bill of Rights”.
A story is often told of Benjamin Franklin, exiting the Constitutional Convention. Approached by citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created, Dr. Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Today we stand on the brink of a runoff election, threatening to tip the balance of the United States Senate away from the Republic of the founders, and toward the proverbial “democracy” of four wolves and a lamb.
What reason we have to believe the Bill of Rights will survive such a transition remains a question, in search of an answer.
The Bill of Rights – Full Text. Hat tip, billofrightsinstitute.org
Amendment I Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment III No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment IV The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
Fun Fact: It’s interesting to note the priorities of that first Congress, as expressed in their original 1st and 2nd amendments. As proposed to the 1st Congress, the original 1st amendment dictated apportionment of representation. It was ratified by only 11 states, and technically remained pending. Had the states ratified that original first amendment, we would now have a Congress of at least 6,345 members, instead of the 535 we currently have.
The original 2nd amendment was an article related to Congressional compensation, that no future Congress could change their own salaries. The measure would in fact, pass, becoming the 27th amendment in 1992. Following a ratification period of 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days.